2005-09-02 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Win, Lose Or Draw
by Stuart W. Mirsky


The other day, Tom Lynch, President of the recently formed Rockaway Republicans, rang up the Wave to ask about ad space. “How much?” he wanted to know, carefully counting the dollars his group had managed to put aside for this purpose.

“You’ve already placed an ad,” said the voice on the other end of the phone, [an advertising representative],”so why place another?”

“No we haven’t,” answered Tom, rather taken aback. “We just voted on placing the ad the other night so how could we have placed one already?”

“Well somebody did!” insisted the Wave’s representative.

“Not us,” said Tom. “Maybe our opponents?”

“You have opponents?” asked the Wave’s person incredulously. “You mean the Republicans are actually fighting among themselves out here . . . like the Democrats?”

Sure enough, this year has seen a sea change in local GOP politics, not only in Rockaway but across Queens and in the city and state more generally. At the state level there’s a scramble to find a gubernatorial candidate to replace outgoing Republican governor George Pataki, who’s governed so much like a Democrat his own Republican base seemed bent on repudiating him if he hadn’t decided to bow out with what little grace he could still salvage.

In New York City, a Democrat-turned-Republican mayor has captured the city’s Republican apparatus and squeezed out two grassroots Republican challengers, using his vast personal resources to run his own private political machine while helping to fill nearly empty Republican coffers, making previously depressed GOP leaders into happy Bloomberg campers. In Rockaway, too, part of the 23rd AD, we have a bit of ferment going on with a race for the Republican district leadership that has Rockaway playing the role of the 600 pound gorilla who must be wooed and won for either side to win the primary election on September 13.

The incumbent district leaders, Terry Ariola of Howard Beach and Ed O’Hare of Broad Channel, aren’t used to being challenged like this, having operated for years without any pressure to perform. That’s why they’ve routinely ignored Rockaway’s local Republicans and why they’ve failed to run candidates against local Democrats. It’s also reflected in the fact that they have virtually no presence here on the peninsula and have routinely appointed non-residents from their own communities to fill seats slated for Rockaway on the Queens County Republican Committee. The resultant outside control of Rockaway has denied Rockaway’s registered Republicans the voting clout to make their voices heard in Queens GOP councils.

But suddenly, the incumbent leaders have a challenge on their hands in the persons of Eric Ulrich and Rosemary Duffy, both of Ozone Park. Ulrich and Duffy reached out, early on, to Lynch’s group and pledged to change things. They promised to maintain a presence in Rockaway, just like real political leaders routinely do on the Democratic side. And they’ve pledged to make sure Rockawayites are actually selected to represent Rockaway on the GOP County Committee. They’ve also committed themselves to making sure the GOP fields candidates to run against local Democrats in the future, a promise which, if kept, could put paid to the old monopolistic system in which Democrats never get challenged out here . . . except by other Democrats.

For some reason that’s still unclear to Lynch and his colleagues, the existing district leaders consistently refused to agree to any of these points though they were repeatedly approached on these issues over the past year.

The incumbents apparently wanted to keep control of who sat on County Committee in Rockaway for themselves by continuing to place their own relatives, neighbors and friends in those positions. But even worse, they outright opposed the formation of an independent Rockaway-based Republican club, even when there was no other Republican organization to be found in Rockaway . . . or in their own part of the 23rd AD!

Recently, the existing leaders have seemingly modified their position on the Rockaway Republicans by publicly stating that they do not oppose the chartering of the Rockaway club. But the die had already been cast and the Rockaway Republicans had long since signed onto the insurgent candidacies of Ulrich and Duffy. “Too little, too late,” was how Tom Lynch put it, referring to the incumbent leaders’ apparent change of heart on the Rockaway Republicans chartering request.

So this political year in Rockaway promises to be different. A real race with real issues defines the dynamic at the local level, even as the furor over who really represents the Republican Party in New York rages on across the city and state. Whoever wins the mayoralty in November, and all odds seem to point to nominal Republican Mike Bloomberg as city Democrats defect to him in droves, and whoever gets the GOP nod for governor and other statewide offices in ‘06, Rockaway suddenly finds itself in a real political fracas all its own. The existing leadership, which ignored Rockaway as a community for years, is suddenly competing with local Republicans for control of their peninsula. Both sides are spending money on ads in the local papers, just like the Democrats do. And both sides are vying to put Rockawayites on the ballot for County Committee positions, as the incumbents, in an abrupt about-face from past practices, seek to burnish their Rockaway bona fides. In fact, on August 30th the incumbents even held a meeting here in Rockaway on the very same day the local group, the Rockaway Republicans, held one of their own, further blurring identities and issues.

Will Rockaway’s registered Republicans be convinced by this sudden spate of 11th-hour activity by the incumbents aimed, apparently, at demonstrating an interest in the peninsula? Will local Republicans cast their votes for Johnny-come-lately leaders who only started paying attention to them when things began to get hot, over two relatively unknown challengers?

There’s no way to tell, though there are surely some registered Republicans on the peninsula who will feel a loyalty to the incumbents, if only because of the power of patronage which allows the existing leaders to appoint poll watchers. These are paying positions, worth $225 a day plus a one-time annual training allowance of $25. This year, with two election days on the calendar, the primary on September 13th and the general election on November 3rd, each position is worth $475 to those who retain the goodwill of the incumbent leaders. So these, at least, may be expected to continue to support leaders who have barely shown an interest in Rockaway until now. But the big question is whether this will matter to the bulk of registered Republicans in the area. And what does this do to the local political dynamics out here?

As the Wave’s person noted, we suddenly have an intra-party fight within the GOP in Rockaway, something Republican leaders at all levels in New York have traditionally sought to avoid. But why avoid it? What’s so bad about a little competition, even within a political party? At the state level, the Pataki machine has suppressed competition for years and look where that’s got them. As Conservative Party stalwart George Marlin, writing in the August 24th New York Post, aptly put it “ . . . Republican stables are empty.” This is what comes of suppressing competition in the ranks. You lose your “bench” along with any semblance of political vitality. Parties that seek to avoid controversy and genuine political contests end up withering and dying for lack of interest. New people don’t come in, ideas don’t get developed and explored, and existing leaders aren’t challenged to do better.

Whichever way the local contest goes on September 13, Republicans out here will certainly want to patch things up the day after, and close ranks to rebuild. But until then, a little conflict’s a good thing. The Democrats have been squabbling among themselves for years and still manage to stay on top of their game here in Rockaway. In fact, their frequent primary fights can be taken as a sign of political health. It means they have lots of folks raring to go, ready to tease out new ideas, and lots of new blood flowing into their body politic.

The Rockaway Republicans were founded with the same goal, to breathe life back into the corpse the GOP had become out here.

Win, lose or draw, they’ll at least have done that.

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