2005-06-24 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

And, They
by Stuart W. Mirsky

This year’s political season is shaping up as an unusually interesting one. Citywide, incumbent mayor, and nominal Republican, Mike Bloomberg seems to be growing in strength each day in the face of a weak field of Democratic wannabes. Democrats in the city seem under-awed by their current crop of prospective mayoral candidates, no doubt because they realize they already have a Democrat in City Hall... even if he calls himself a Republican.

The incumbent mayor used to be a Democrat, of course, and only converted in the last election cycle in order to leapfrog over a crowded Democratic field and get a clear shot at the mayoralty. Though he went on to win as a Republican, his policies have been pure “Democrat” since he walked in the door, including higher taxes and spending, increased government involvement in every corner of our lives, support for controversial social policies like gay marriage, and avoidance of putting Republicans into key roles in his administration. As some have also noted, this “Republican” mayor has even been lukewarm in his support for the Republican administration in Washington.

Though his policies have managed to flush out two Republican challengers in this cycle, including former Queens City Councilman and Republican elder statesman Tom Ognibene, who is seeking to trigger a primary by pitching to old line Republican principles, that challenge has yet to catch fire. Bloomberg, awash in personal wealth, is using his cash to buy support and “volunteers” to shut out the looming Ognibene threat on his right.

Meanwhile, here at home we finally have a real race for leadership inside the Republican Party itself. The incumbent Republican district leaders, Terry Ariola of Howard Beach and Ed O’Hare of Broad Channel, are being challenged by insurgents from Ozone Park for control of the 23rd AD (in which Rockaway is situated). Although no one from Rockaway is in the race this year (though at least one of the leadership positions once belonged, almost routinely, to Rockaway), both sides are desperately appealing to Republican voters on the peninsula.

Ozone Park, the largest community in the 23rd AD on the mainland and from which both challengers hail, is only marginally bigger than district leader Terry Ariola’s Howard Beach. Assuming the challengers, Eric Ulrich and Rosemary Duffy, can carry their community and Ms. Ariola and Ed O’Hare take theirs, the result is likely to be pretty evenly balanced. So it’s in Rockaway, which has no dog of its own in this fight, that the winning margin will be found.

The newly formed Rockaway Republicans, who have been seeking to restart a real Republican presence out here since last year, when they initially joined forces to help re-elect President Bush, were met with little but indifference, and even some outright hostility, by existing leadership when they first began. But this all changed after the November elections, when their effect on voter turnout began to be noticed. Our part of Queens actually produced one of the highest electoral tallies for Bush in all of New York City and the Rockaway Republicans, who held two large events for the president during the campaign, sailed a boat up and down the Hudson for him with banner flying, fielded a team of volunteers for the national convention, undertook petition signing and letter writing campaigns in their communities, placed ads and hosted a precedent-shattering summit of local Republican groups thereafter, can take some of the credit.

In August of ‘04, the Rockaway Republicans formally requested that they be granted a charter as an official Republican club, just as their predecessor organization, the old Gateway Republicans, had been. But surprisingly this turned out to be a sticking point. The Queens County leader, State Senator Serphin Maltese, declined to make a decision and indicated that the existing district leadership in the persons of Ariola and O’Hare were opposing this request. Outreach by some members of the Rockaway Republicans to these two leaders did not definitively resolve the matter and the Rockawayites’ disappointment and anger festered until insurgents in Ozone Park, led at the time by old line Republican activist and then club president Arlene Fiamano, made a bid to challenge the Howard Beach-Broad Channel leadership axis. Eric Ulrich and Rosemary Duffy, local Republicans out of Fiamano’s Ozone Park club (a chartered club, by the way), reached out directly to the Rockaway Republicans to seek their support.

Rockaway Republican leaders responded by sending registered letters to all four candidates for the district leadership posts, requesting them to indicate where they stood on the chartering request. Although Ulrich and Duffy responded positively in writing within days, the incumbent leaders, Ariola and O’Hare, did not. Ariola did indicate in several phone conversations that she is not opposed to the chartering of the new Rockaway club but she has so far refused to put it in writing.

At a recent meeting between Eric Ulrich and Joanne Ariola, daughter of the current female district leader, the younger Ariola pressed Ulrich to end his quest for a leadership position in the 23rd. Joanne, who started out as chief-of-staff to former City Councilman Al Stabile and later ran unsuccessfully for City Council and State Assembly herself, used to be the district leader, too, but had to give that up when she took a job in the Bloomberg administration. Her mother took her place. Still, the younger Ariola has maintained a behind-the-scenes role in district politics. At the meeting with Ulrich, held on the eve of the petitioning process, Joanne pointed out that Ulrich could enhance his political future if he gave up his challenge now. But Ulrich wasn’t biting and promised to make a race of it no matter what.

Ulrich, of course, has been exceedingly active in courting the Rockaway Republicans, even though they’ve declined to formally endorse anyone in this race. He’s banking on his strong and vocal support for their chartering to convince registered Republicans on the peninsula to vote his ticket. So far the Ariolas and O’Hare have made no move to see and raise him in this. But given their history of indifference to the Rockaway Republicans’ efforts, continued indications of their ongoing hostility to the club’s charter request, and the overall weakness of the Republican Party in the 23rd AD after years of their stewardship, it’s hard to see why they would expect any serious support from Rockaway now.

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