2005-03-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

At The Crossroads
by Stuart W. Mirsky


As the race for mayor heats up in this election year, the new political kids on the block in the outer boros, the recently formed Rockaway Republicans here in south Queens, find themselves at an important junction in their journey towards significance. Having recently reached out to other local Republican groups around the city to initiate and host a well-attended January 11th summit of activists and local leaders, to jump-start reform of the New York GOP in the downstate area, they have suddenly run headlong into a rising Queens County insurgency aimed directly at Republican mayoral incumbent Mike Bloomberg.

Mayor Mike, of course, started his political life as a registered Democrat but switched parties in time to leap over other Democrats, in the race for the top spot at City Hall in 2001, by claiming the Republican nomination while the rest of them slugged it out in a crowded Democratic field. Bringing his years of experience as a successful businessman, as well as oodles of cash, to the fray, the mayor wooed Republican leaders in this city and went on to run successfully against another former Democrat, Herman Badillo, in the Republican primary to win the GOP nod. Mr. Badillo had previously aligned himself with the Giuliani administration in hopes of being Rudy’s heir apparent. But that was not to be as the relatively small number of activist Republicans who vote in Republican primaries pulled the lever for Mike Bloomberg in numbers sufficient to give him the Republican line in the general election that followed.

Like Mayor Giuliani before him, Mayor Mike subsequently went on to govern the city effectively, despite a plethora of fiscal problems awaiting him as he walked in the door. Like his predecessor, too, the current mayor also brought a socially liberal philosophy to the table. Not as confrontational as Rudy Giuliani, however, Mayor Bloomberg unruffled many of the feathers that Giuliani had seemed to take delight in ruffling during his tenure. But our current mayor has at least one other trait in common with his illustrious predecessor.

Like former Mayor Giuliani, Mayor Mike has shown little interest in his adopted party’s political grassroots and has followed a policy, since winning City Hall, of studiously ignoring the clubs and local leaders that constitute the party whose banner he carries. But where Giuliani at least provided some access and attention to local Republicans at the community level, Mayor Mike has seemed hard pressed to bring himself to do even that.

And therein lies the source of the current insurgency against him, led by Queens County Republican elder statesman, and former City Council Minority Leader, Tom Ognibene.

The mayor and his people see Ognibene’s challenge as one driven by patronage, or rather its lack, since the mayor has given precious few jobs to Republican party loyalists. Indeed, the mayor and his spokesmen seem offended at the very thought of such venality.

The mayor, his people tell us, is only interested in getting the best people for the jobs he has to dispense, not in giving out political favors. But having stocked his administration largely with Democrats, he also seems to be telling the Republicans, whose banner he nominally carries, that they’re a second and third string bunch at best, with insufficient talent in their ranks to compete with their Democratic brethren. Needless to say, this is a message that doesn’t sit well with the party the Mayor adopted for his own.

The Republican insurgents, for their part, insist this is bigger than patronage. The message being sent by the mayor, they say, is that he doesn’t want people who think like Republicans, or who support the principles of governance that they uphold, around him. His positions on things like higher taxes, smoking in public places, government spending and the gay marriage question, among others, all seem to confirm this sense that the mayor may really be a cross-dressing Democrat. Moreover, the administration’s hiring practices certainly add to a perception that he’s just more comfortable with Democrats than Republicans. After three plus years of feeling like odd party out because of this, many local Republican groups in the boros, particularly in Queens, have been moved to cry out in political pain. Hence the surprise challenge and apparent strength of Tom Ognibene who recently secured the Queens County Republican executive committee endorsement.

Suddenly, the mayor has to pay attention to a base he had heretofore counted as safely in his pocket. Ognibene, himself, is an experienced city politician with a deep reservoir of goodwill among Queens Republicans (who just happen to make up the largest voting bloc of registered Republicans in the city). The mayor’s folks have been scrambling to offset the Ognibene challenge since he first showed his colors at the Rockaway group’s January 31st Downstate Grassroots Republican Summit and have already made quite a bit of headway as the Bronx and Manhattan organizations move into his camp, with Staten Island now expected to follow suit. Meanwhile, the Rockaway Republicans have been the object of much wooing by Ognibene backers in the Queens organization where before they had been largely ignored.

At a recent Rockaway club meeting, members were split on whom to support. Though Ognibene had a clear edge, the group agreed to defer endorsing anyone until they had a chance to hear the mayor’s side of the story. What’s at stake here?

The Rockaway Republicans suddenly find themselves on the verge of full acceptance of their club and of absorption into the party’s mainstream organization in Queens, a goal they have long sought. But the cost of achieving it may be higher than they imagined since the mainstream organization has now split itself off from other Republican bastions in the city by turning against a resource rich Republican incumbent.

Although Queens has the largest registered Republican base of all the boros, it’s still only one organization among five. If it acts as a spoiler and delivers City Hall to a Democratic challenger, it could set the Republican cause in New York City back by years (as Goldwater’s defeat did the national party in the sixties). And that could hurt city governance in the eyes of those who hold Republican principles dear.

On the other hand, if the Ognibene challenge succeeds in knocking Mayor Bloomberg off the Republican line, as John Lindsay was once driven into the Liberal Party’s arms, and Bloomberg still wins, the Queens organization will have made itself irrelevant for the near term and the Rockaway Republicans could very well share that fate.

Against this is the very strong argument that Mayor Mike hasn’t governed as a Republican anyway and hasn’t shown any interest in cultivating, developing or supporting grassroots Republican organizations, particularly in the outer boros, until now. So why would he be different if he wins a second term? Worse, since he’ll have less need of Republican support, being unable to run for a third term, he may feel freer than ever to turn his administration into the Democratic Party’s home-away-from-home.

The Queens organization, for its part, sees itself without good choices: Support Mayor Mike and get more of the same (no access, no grassroots support, and little or no governance according to the Republican principles they believe in), or oppose him and get a Democrat or a disgruntled second term Republican mayor with a desire to repay his perceived political enemies. An Ognibene win in the primaries is clearly imaginable but it’s a much greater stretch to think he can win in the general election in blue state New York City.

Given these choices the Queens County organization has chosen to stand on principle, since it hasn’t much else in the way of political outcomes to hope for. But the Rockaway Republicans are in a slightly different boat.

With substantial numbers of supporters of both the mayor and his chief GOP challenger in their ranks, they could still go either way. 

The question for them, then, is whether belated acceptance by an organization, that previously made believe they weren’t there, is worth severing all ties to a mayor who, at his best, seems barely aware there are any Republicans in the city at all. rockirreg@ aol. com.

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