2005-07-08 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart W. Mirsky

The only real challenge to Mayor Bloomberg this year comes from the right. Disaffected conservatives in the Republican Party, who are dismayed at the mayor’s Democratic agenda and governing stance, are seeking to trigger a primary against him. The mayor’s leading Republican challenger is former City Councilman and minority leader Tom Ognibene, a Middle Village lawyer and elder statesman in Queens County politics. Steve Shaw, a Brooklyn based investment banker who actually entered the lists against the mayor even earlier than Ognibene, is the other. But, lacking the mayor’s wealth, both are encountering difficulties as they struggle to make the case that the mayor not only governs like a Democrat but, in fact, is one... despite the GOP cloak in which he’s draped himself.

Both Republican challengers are gamely pursuing registered Republicans around the city as they struggle to garner enough signatures to trigger a primary. But Bloomberg’s seemingly inexhaustible funds may be shutting them out. College student “volunteers,” paid by the Bloomberg campaign, have been combing city streets for petition signatures since day one of the petitioning process, while Ognibene and Shaw grasp for the 7,500 signatures each will need with volunteers of the old-fashioned variety: the unpaid kind.

The rules of the game are stacked against the challengers. Once a signature has been secured for a candidate, that person cannot reconsider or sign for anyone else. The Bloomberg game plan has been to sweep up all the signatures before anyone else can get to them, thus foreclosing the possibility of a primary race that would force the mayor to prove his GOP bona fides. This allows him to run on a platform that’s virtually indistinguishable from the Democrats, thereby finessing the historic New York Democratic bias.

In essence this strategy will enable the mayor to continue to own the Republican Party, of which he is nominally a part but for which he holds no brief, while circumventing a Democratic Party machine he doesn’t control. Registered Democrats in New York City understand what’s happening and don’t hold the mayor’s official party affiliation against him. But by co-opting the two-party process in this way, Mayor Bloomberg is also contributing mightily to the disenfranchisement of New York voters.

Local communities throughout the city have been led almost exclusively by Democrats for years — a single party controlling nearly all local elections and elected offices. Here in Rockaway, where a large base of registered Republicans and fairly conservative Democrats gave one of the largest vote counts in New York City to President Bush in the last election, the Republican Party has been virtually vestigial for years.

Built on a base of local organizations, and the votes those organizations can command in internal party councils, the New York GOP is a function of the vitality, or lack thereof, of its local units. Although Rockaway is entitled to 94 votes in the Queens County GOP organization through county committee seats, representing roughly 53% of the voting power in the 23rd Assembly District (of which Rockaway is a part), only five of these votes currently belong to Rockaway residents. The remaining 89 are in the hands of individuals from outside Rockaway, appointees of local GOP leaders who reside on the other side of the Cross Bay Bridge. Because of their power to appoint vote holders in the absence of locally elected ones, the leadership over on the mainland is actually able to control some 88% of the 23rd AD’s vote-holding positions, leaving Rockaway without a voice of its own in local GOP politics.

Why is this important? Because the Republican Party has ceased running candidates against Democrats in Rockaway or elsewhere in the 23rd AD. Last year, long time incumbent Democratic Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer ran unopposed and this year Democratic City Councilman Joe Addabbo is about to do the same. The only competitive race is on the eastern end of the peninsula in the 31st AD, where the City Council position held by Democrat James Sanders is being contested by the Democratic leadership itself, after a decision to abandon Sanders for replacement candidate David Hooks. In fact, there are no Republicans running in the area as far as the eye can see.  And that seems to be the way some Republican leaders like it.

How is Bloomberg contributing to this? Keen to beat back any competition from within the GOP ranks, the mayor has aligned himself with those who are intent on retaining the non-competitive status quo. Although the leadership in the 23rd is actually facing a challenge this year, for the first time in a long time, the challengers have little chance unless they can get themselves, and a sympathetic slate of local county committee persons, on the primary ballot. But because the insurgents, working on a shoestring, must rely on volunteers to collect the signatures they need, they may not be able to compete with the paid minions the mayor has deployed to sweep up all registered Republican voter signatures for him.

The leaders in the 23rd AD, by hooking up with the mayor, have been able to insert names of their own people into petitions carried by the mayor’s paid troops. Registered Republicans in Rockaway, approached to sign for Bloomberg, find themselves presented with these other names as well. Unschooled in the intricacies of party mechanics, many are easily convinced to sign for the broader slate without realizing the names they’re signing for may not be local people or anyone they’d want representing their interests. Thus, as the mayor’s people are sucking up all available signatures for his candidacy, they’re working to shut out challenges that have nothing to do with the mayoral contest, further entrenching the one-party dominance that has prevailed here for years.

Many voters recognize that a “two-party system” demands competition at the polls, but the mayor’s effort to use the GOP for his own purposes, to turn it into his own privately funded version of the Democratic Party, is having a corrosive effect on the city’s political process. Although the Republican governing philosophy differs from the Democrats in its emphasis on limited government, lower taxes, and a commitment to personal responsibility, the mayor’s resources have served to suppress that message in favor of creating a private political satrapy, beholden to him alone and without any unique political coloration or point of view of its own. In the process, he’s facilitating and sustaining a system that denies local representation and political choice to the communities on which this city is built.

In the name of full disclosure, you should know that, as a member and officer of the recently formed Rockaway Republicans, I’ve allowed my name to be added to that group’s slate of county committee persons to help win back our voice in Queens GOP councils. This puts me on the opposite side of some of those I’m writing about. Folks reading my comments here should keep this in mind in the interests of fairness and consider the merits of both candidate slates before making their choice in the expected primary on September 3rd. That’s what democracy is all about, after all, isn’t it... having a choice at the ballot box? rockirreg@aol.com

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