2005-10-14 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Appointment in Ridgewood
by Stuart W. Mirsky

After a tough race here in the 23rd AD for the Republican district leadership, the incumbents, Terry Ariola and Ed O’Hare, based across the Cross Bay Bridge, carried the day. What did Rockaway get out of it besides coming out on the losing side? A couple of things, actually. The Rockaway Republicans, a start-up GOP group on the peninsula, got valuable experience in the game of local politics, learning how to do petitioning to get their candidates on the ballot. And they began to learn the local political ropes, getting to know the personalities involved in Republican politics in our district, along with many of the players in other parts of the borough. They also won 27 of the 31 County Committee seats they contested, gaining a place at the political table and a modicum of respect. And they learned how to make peace.

Responding to the overtures of the re-elected district leaders of the 23rd, they patched up their differences from the just-ended primary campaign and jumped right into the Queens County GOP reorganization battle, which their seats on County Committee now gave them a voice in. As one of the new GOP county committee people, I had the rare honor of attending the bi-annual reorganization meeting of the Queens Republican Party on September 28th, along with others of our group, in the company of Ariola and O’Hare.

Accompanied by their newly designated District Chair of County Committeemen, Pat Adams (publisher of The Forum), they led the 23rd’s delegation to the Ridgewood section of Queens, on Wednesday, September 28th, for a battle royale over the County level Chairman’s position. (All these lengthy and complex sounding titles can drive you crazy!)

The incumbent Chairman, the Honorable State Senator Serphin Maltese (still another title!), faced a challenge from Forest Park activist and newly re-elected County Committeeman Bart Haggerty. Bart is one of two brothers who have repeatedly sought to win control of the Queens organization from Senator Maltese and his colleagues over the past half decade.

They’re actually neighbors of sorts since the Haggerty’s hail from Forest Park while the senator’s group is based in nearby Glendale and Ridgewood.

The evening’s meeting turned out to be rather longer than billed as we arrived a little before 7:30 p.m. and didn’t get out until after 2:30 a.m. We never expected that kind of marathon and a number of us hadn’t bothered to have dinner beforehand. That was a mistake. The whole thing quickly transmogrified into something of a mess.

The Rockaway delegation, voting on principle, split its support, with half going for Maltese and the other half for Haggerty. But Haggerty never had a chance as the Maltese faction used a number of parliamentary maneuvers, technicalities in the bylaws and a backroom process to disqualify over 200 county committee proxy votes (mostly those favoring Haggerty) and weight the final vote tally in a way that seemed to ensure their man’s victory. The Haggerty brothers looked like Michael Brown after Katrina had blown through, staring in mute astonishment as the Maltese train literally roared over them. The upshot: no change once again in the leadership of the Queens GOP, though State Senator Maltese was heard to say, afterwards, that he was now “through with the Rockaway Republicans,” apparently forgetting that 50% of our delegation had actually voted his way!

Many of us are moved to wonder how his being “through” with anyone differs from when he isn’t, since the newly formed club still hasn’t received its charter, though this was requested more than a year ago.

Only the County Chairman, a position held by Senator Maltese, is authorized to issue one. So the result of the vote on September 28th, is status quo for the Queens GOP and status quo for Rockaway. Why isn’t that a good thing? Because, under the senator’s leadership, Republican officeholders in Queens have fallen to a virtual all time low and Republican candidates in local races have become nearly extinct while the Queens GOP has become increasingly fragmented and adrift. The Haggerty faction up in Forest Park has been isolated for some six years now while the GOP in the Bayside area of northern Queens has pretty much gone its own way, having given up any hope of power sharing with the dominant crew, over which the senator presides, in central Queens.

Senator Maltese actually took control of the Queens GOP in the mid-nineties as part of an Albany orchestrated coup intended to repay former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for supporting Mario Cuomo over George Pataki. But Maltese, who, as a result, holds both a public and a private office, has divided interests since his legislative position has always been tenuous. In order to hang onto his state senatorial seat, he needs peace with Democrats in Queens and this means he needs to convince them not to field strong challengers against him. To get that, of course, he has to avoid doing the same against them. But that is antithetical to his role as Queens County leader. Wearing that hat, Chairman Maltese is supposed to be beating the bushes to find, develop and support strong Republican candidates to challenge Democrats throughout the borough. Conflict of interest anyone?

Those of us who decided to cast our votes for Bart Haggerty did so based on his promise to revitalize the Queens organization by actively running candidates again. Whether he would have or not, of course, now remains untested. But at least he saw the problem and was proposing action to solve it. Others came out for the state senator because he was a known quantity, they hoped he’d look more kindly on Rockaway’s new Republican club, or they just wanted to give him more of a chance. 

Some, of course, may just have been less comfortable with the risks and controversy inherent in challenging the status quo. Whatever the motivations, the senator’s methods on the evening of September 28th made it all moot since the Haggerty brothers never even had a chance. But the very methods used by the Maltese faction reinforced the belief, for me at least, that we really do need a change. 

Undemocratic manipulations inside one of our major parties hardly seem to bode well for the future of democracy. What good is voting your heart or your principles if the voting process can be manipulated so cynically and blatantly?

Now, it’s in the hands of the courts, of course, because the Haggerty’s were unwilling to accept the results of such a flawed process. For my part, I wish them well since I came away from my first experience of internal Queens GOP politics with a decidedly sour taste in my mouth. 

A believer in democracy and the power of the vote, I became involved in trying to revive a Republican organization here in Rockaway because I felt we were all being cheated by the virtual one-party monopoly we’ve been stuck with for so many years. But it’s hard to see how you can change that when monopolistic practices seem to be built into the very system itself and when even the party of opposition is captive to the same cynical game. rockirreg@aol.com     

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