The Rockaway Irregular
The south Queens insurgent political group known as the Rockaway Republicans celebrated their one year anniversary on March 22nd the other night, with pizzas, drinks, kosher donuts and guests from other parts of the city. This is a big deal because a year ago it wasn’t clear there would even be a Republican club in that part of Queens again. The old Republican club there had faded into oblivion in 2002, after years of shrinkage and disinterest and no one was nominating and running candidates in opposition to the Democrats anymore. Walking into a voting booth for a local election in Rockaway had begun to feel like it must have to voters in the old Soviet Union . . . a surrealistic experience of seeing the same name across the entire ballot, row upon row, as though you were stuck in an electoral nightmare.
Democracy cries out for competition and the demise of Rockaway’s once venerable Gateway Republican Club was a death knell for that. Not that things had been much better in the years before. From the mid-nineties on, the Gateway Club had become virtually irrelevant. After endorsing and supporting Republican Al Stabile of Howard Beach for City Council, and working themselves raw to help elect him, Rockaway’s old Gateway Republican Club had a falling out with their new Councilman and Stabile engineered a shift in the political center of gravity.
In the old days, Rockaway, with some 6,000 registered Republicans at last count, used to carry some weight in Queens Republican councils. The male district leader for our Assembly District came from here and former Belle Harbor resident Thomas Swift was the last of these. In the mid-nineties, Tom was outmaneuvered by the mainland leadership he had helped bring to power and lost the position he’d held for years. With Swift’s death soon after, the Gateway Club fell on hard times. Others tried to take up the gauntlet but the newly installed leadership across Jamaica Bay systematically isolated the older Gateway organization. With isolation came lost visibility, prestige, influence, and members. When the club finally closed its doors in ‘02, it had shrunk to such an extent that it could no longer justify holding meetings. But this erosion of a Republican rank-and-file in Rockaway heralded something more serious as well.
The Republican party organization in New York State is structured around committees. There are county committees, as well as a state committee in Albany. Each county is divided into Assembly Districts, or ADs, which send representatives (Assembly persons) to the State Assembly. Each AD is further broken down into Election Districts or EDs. The 23rd AD consists of four communities: Ozone Park in the north, Howard Beach just south of it, Broad Channel on an island in Jamaica Bay, and Rockaway with its many different communities (from Breezy Point in the west all the way to Far Rockaway in the east).
Ozone Park has 21 EDs, Howard Beach 19, Broad Channel two, and Rockaway 47. Each ED has two county committeemen (or women) elected by the registered Republican voters in that ED. These get to vote for a County Committee chairperson in their district who represents all the ED committee people at the AD level.
In addition, each AD has two district leaders or state committeemen (the position Tom Swift held), who are directly elected by all party members in the AD. Together with the county committee chairperson, they sit on the County Executive Committee which sets policy for the Republican Party in Queens. The district level leaders and the ED level County Committeemen together elect the county’s State Committee Chair who also serves as County leader. In Queens that’s State Senator Serphin Maltese.
If you double the number of EDs, you get the number of county committee people (and votes) each community commands. So Ozone Park has 42 votes in the Queens County Committee, Howard Beach 38, Broad Channel 4, and Rockaway 94, for a total of 178 votes throughout the 23rd. Rockaway EDs thus represent roughly 53% of the 23rd AD’s votes on county committee. But with the removal of Tom Swift from the leadership of the 23rd AD and the demise of Tom’s old Gateway club, the ED slots in Rockaway began to be filled by non-residents.
Tom Lynch, the current president of the newly formed Rockaway Republicans Club, recently did a review of the county committeemen and found that only five of 94 county committee slots in Rockaway were actually filled by Rockaway residents. In Ozone Park, with 42 county committeemen, only 11 or 26% were Ozone Park residents. The rest, apparently, are from Howard Beach. Lynch believes all of Howard Beach’s 38 county committee people come from there, too. Thus, approximately 162 or 91% of the county committee people in the 23rd AD are from Howard Beach though that community represents only 21% of the EDs.
When Lynch and a few colleagues sought to restart a Republican club in Rockaway a little over a year ago, they hit a brick wall of apparent indifference from the Queens leadership. They couldn’t figure out why. Here they were offering the Queens Republican organization a roster of new members, including eager party activists and many Democratic converts, on a silver platter and they were seemingly being told to get lost. It was mystifying. Now, a year later, they’ve begun to understand.
After having pounded the drums for President Bush throughout 2004, having reached out to fellow Republicans around the city, and having hosted a groundbreaking downstate party summit on January 11th, 2005, they’re celebrating their survival and growth from five lonely pro-Bush guys in a colleague’s garage to 170 like-minded Rockaway Republicans and counting. Republican elder statesmen, Tom Ognibene, endorsed by Queens County Republicans to challenge Mayor Bloomberg, and Brooklyn Republican insurgent Steve Shaw, also vying for the Republican mayoral nomination, both showed up at the Rockaway Republicans’ celebration to congratulate them on a year of living dangerously . . . and surviving.
Also stopping by were Brooklyn Young Republicans President Luke Vander Linden and Dennis Saffran, a past City Council candidate from Bayside, Queens.
To the surprise of the Rockawayites one of their current district leaders, Ed O’Hare from Broad Channel, also came by, as did former Congressional candidate Gerry Cronin, himself a club member. They also got a visit from Eric Ulrich and Rosemary Duffy, both of Ozone Park, who are challenging O’Hare and his fellow district leader, Terri Ariola of Howard Beach, for their positions. Foremost on the minds of many of the Rockawayites was whether the existing leaders or their challengers are going to help reverse the historic injustice that was done back in the nineties, when representation and participation in county Republican politics was wrested from the Rockaways and local control passed from the largest community in the 23rd AD to one of the smallest. O’Hare and Ulrich both assured the members they supported putting more Rockawayites into Rockaway ED slots and would work with the new club to make it happen.
For their part, the two mayoral challengers attacked the mayor’s education policies and West Side Stadium project with Ognibene calling for a shift of the stadium to Queens to build up the outer boros. Shaw stressed his commitment to rebuilding the New York GOP and to finding ways to address existing operational dysfunctions in city agencies and processes to reduce city costs and make tax reductions possible.
Ognibene called for reducing the overall city workforce by attrition to make tax reductions possible. Both stressed their support for school vouchers. Mayor Bloomberg, who had been invited a month before (his staff had even been offered the opportunity to name their own date and time and to establish the parameters of the meeting) never responded to the invitation to participate. The Rockaway Republicans nevertheless enjoyed their night of celebration, even if the mayor seemingly still hasn’t heard of them. They spent a good deal of the evening talking about those ED slots that had magically evaporated back in the nineties when Tom Swift lost the leadership he’d held for years and the old Gateway Club began its downward spiral into oblivion.
The old club, of course, was an officially chartered Republican organization, whereas the new one isn’t. For some strange reason the Queens County leadership continues to sit on the group’s application for a charter, seven months after having received it. Somebody “up there” apparently still thinks the Rockawayites haven’t earned their charter yet. But enough Republicans around this city have begun to think otherwise. Besides, notes current club president Tom Lynch, “Who needs their charter anyway? The old Gateway Club had one, and look what happened to them.”