2005-08-05 / Community

Republicans Slug It Out Over Rockaway District Leader Seats

While it’s political business as usual on the Democratic side in Rockaway this year, with the possible exception of an internal challenge to Democratic incumbent City Councilman James Sanders by leaders within his own party, local Republicans are showing more fight than usual. According to Rockaway Republicans President, and Belle Harbor resident, Tom Lynch, his group is running a slate of locals in the Republican primary, set for September 13th, as part of a broader effort to challenge the incumbent Republican leadership in the 23rd AD. Lynch claims that the incumbent leaders, Terry Ariola of Howard Beach and Ed O’Hare of Broad Channel, have failed local residents on the peninsula in a number of ways including their apparent disinterest in running candidates for local offices against Democrats, their policy of filling Republican Party positions in Rockaway with non-residents, and their failure to support local efforts to revive an organized Republican presence on the peninsula.

Although has noted, in private conversations with some club members, that she and her co-leader, O’Hare, are not opposed to the chartering of the newly formed Rockaway Republicans Club, both have consistently refused to state this publicly while their challengers, Eric Ulrich and Rosemary Duffy of Ozone Park, have done so. The Rockaway club’s request for an official Republican charter has been held up, according to the office of State Senator Serph Maltese (R), Queens County leader of the GOP, due to the opposition of incumbent leaders Ariola and O’Hare.

Lynch notes that, in light of the Queens County organization’s statements, he and Rockaway Republicans Club Chairman George Greco of Neponsit, sent a letter to all four candidates back in May, requesting that they state their position for the record on the Rockaway Republicans’ chartering request. Only Ulrich and Duffy responded, Lynch notes, prompting the majority of active Rockaway Republican Club members to line up with the challengers. But Lynch adds that the Rockaway Republicans’ efforts haven’t stopped there.

“When I did a review of who’s representing Rockaway residents in the Queens Republican Party some nine months ago,” says Lynch, “I was astonished to see that, of something like 94 positions, only five were held by people living on the peninsula. The rest were people from across the bay, mostly residents of Howard Beach where one of our current district leaders lives.”

Lynch notes that this is a matter of concern because the Republican presence in Rockaway has atrophied over the past decade while the present leadership has been running things. According to Lynch, “there’s a good reason we never seem to have any Republican candidates out here running against the Democrats. Nobody at the leadership level seems to give a damn. The Republican Party has pretty much been allowed to wither and die in Rockaway, thanks to our present leaders.”

To address the imbalance of non-local Republicans on what is known as “county committee,” Lynch says his group approached the incumbent leadership before this year’s primary season about securing voting positions for local residents. “We got a number of different responses from them,” he says. “At one point they said sure. Then they changed their minds and said forget about it. Then they offered us token representation. Why would they be so adamant about keeping us off county committee? Because county committee votes mean power in the larger organization. And Rockaway has more than 50% of those votes in the 23rd AD. Howard Beach only has something like 25% so they really need our positions on committee to control the 23rd and have influence in the Queens party.” County Committee seats are a function of the number of election districts in each area and Rockaway has the greatest number of these in all the communities of the 23rd AD.

Lynch says his troops went out early during the petition-gathering period (which begins in mid-June and ends in early July) to get his people on the ballot. Because you only have to get the signatures of 5% of registered Republicans in an ED to get on the ballot, the job was not particularly onerous, he told the Wave. But the incumbent leaders had already lined up with Mayor Bloomberg, a former Democrat who turned Republican in 2001, and the mayor bankrolled their petitioning effort. As a result, Lynch notes, Ariola and O’Hare managed to field more candidates than the Rockaway Republicans since the mayor’s paid petition carriers covered the peninsula more broadly than Lynch’s volunteers could. But, notes Lynch, “at least they upped the number of Rockaway residents this time.”

“To their credit,” notes Lynch, “they found more Rockaway residents to put on the ballot this year, no doubt due to the pressure we put on them. This year only about 59 of their county committee nominees in Rockaway are from outside the peninsula vs. 89 before. But 59 is still too many. A community should be represented by people from that community, not by carpetbaggers,” Lynch stressed. He added that the Ariola/O’Hare group, in an effort to improve their chances before primary day, seem to have initiated a number of challenges to the candidates fielded by the Rockaway Republicans. Lynch told the Wave that he received a letter about two weeks ago informing him of an Ariola challenge to many of his candidates, all local residents. Challenges are effected by filing complaints about signature irregularities with the Board of Elections, something Bloomberg is doing in the mayoral race against his Republican challenger, Middle Village attorney Tom Ognibene, and other Republicans are doing throughout Queens this year, in a Bloomberg backed effort to win control of the Queens County organization itself.

Lynch emphasized that the Rockaway Republicans declined to play the “challenge game” and did not file any challenges against candidates fielded by the Ariola/O’Hare group. Adds Lynch, “This whole thing is ridiculous. After we put all this effort into getting our candidates on the ballot, following the rules and reaching out to fellow Republicans, our so-called leaders in Howard Beach and Broad Channel want to undermine the democratic process itself by trying to knock our people off again.” 

Among those on the Ariola/O’Hare ballot this year are some local residents including former Gateway Republicans president Kenny Huhn and his wife, who are running against JoAnn Ambrosio, Secretary of the Rockaway Republicans, and her fellow club member Ann Marie Bogart, in the 50th ED (between B. 131st and B. 136th streets). Huhn, who shut down the old Gateway Republican club in December 2002, had long been a critic of the Ariola/O’Hare leadership team and had blamed them in the past for the demise of his group. According to Stuart Mirsky, a Wave columnist and Vice President of the Rockaway Republicans, Terry Ariola reached out to Huhn as part of an effort to actively recruit Rockaway residents this year, in the wake of criticisms of her past failures to fill local positions with local people.

“You have to give her credit,” Mirsky says, speaking of Ariola, “since she did try to reach out to many of us in an effort to pre-empt the argument against her past practices. But it was just too little, too late. Our group had already become tired of being treated like step-children and had decided that the problems we had out here could be laid at the doorstep of the disinterested and lax leadership being provided by Terry and Ed. We felt it was time for a change.”

The result is a real political fight on the Republican side during this year’s primary season as the two contenders, Rockaway’s newest Republican group and the incumbent leadership of the 23rd AD based on the other side of the Cross Bay Bridge, jockey for influence here on the peninsula, and in the Queens GOP more generally. This conflict extends all the way up and down the political ladder since the incumbent GOP district leaders, Ariola and O’Hare, are in the Bloomberg camp while their challengers, Ulrich and Duffy, have the backing of the Ognibene folks. On the other hand, the Queens County organization, which has formally endorsed Ognibene for  mayor, has remained neutral on the district leadership race while the Rockaway Republicans, who are backing the challengers for the district leadership positions, are neutral on the mayoral race.

According to Mirsky: “We have both supporters and opponents of the mayor in our group and didn’t want to split it by forcing a vote of support, one way or the other. In the end people will vote their conscience. Our big interest at this point is to revive the GOP presence in our part of Queens since we believe a democracy requires at least two viable parties. So far we only seem to have one.”

Mirsky adds: If we succeed in getting our county committee people elected, we’ll still only have a minority of the positions in Rockaway because Ariola and O’Hare managed to field more candidates than we did this time out, using the Bloomberg petition carriers to get their people on the ballot in places where we had no one taking petitions around. Registered Republicans who signed for the mayor in many cases just signed all the petitions put in front of them without realizing they were signing for non-residents to represent them or that, by doing so, they were helping to perpetuate a status quo of inaction and inattention to local concerns. But in the end, if we get some of our people onto county committee, we’ll be better off than we were before because this will be by our own effort, bringing us one step closer to restoring an active political opposition in Rockaway.”

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