2007-02-16 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Serf's Down …Are Queens Republicans Up?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

The news last week was that Queens Republican Chairman State Senator Serphin Maltese resigned in a late night session of the Queens GOP Executive Committee and that longtime party stalwart, Phil Ragusa, was appointed to take his place. Unlike Maltese, Ragusa, an accountant by trade, is not an elected official though he previously held a non-paying post on the party's executive committee. Although affiliated with the old Republican leadership that held sway before Maltese took control in the mid-nineties, Ragusa has long been on good terms with the Maltese organization and is viewed by some in the Queens GOP as Serf's handpicked successor - with all that that entails.

Why did Serf abruptly decide to step down? In the recent elections, the once overwhelmingly popular Republican State Senator nearly lost his bid for another term, squeaking by with a mere 900-vote margin. Surprisingly, this near loss was to a little known Democratic challenger, Albert Baldeo, who lacked the official backing of his own party. If an unknown insurgent could almost take Serf out, the thinking goes, what will happen in two years when he runs again if the Democrats decide to get serious?

For years there have been whispers about a backroom deal between Queens County Republican and Democratic leaders, whispers of a secret non-aggression pact in which the two sides were said to have tacitly agreed not to challenge one another's office holders in so-called "safe" districts. This, of course, benefited the Democrats, who hold most of the seats in Queens, far more than the Republicans (with only two state senate seats) and many Queens Republicans have watched in dismay as GOP influence has shriveled from inattention because of this. In the last election, the Queens Republican Party, under Serf's leadership, failed to field candidates for 14 assembly seats throughout the borough and chiefly distinguished itself by cross-endorsing a slate of Democratic judicial nominees.

In our own 23rd AD we were almost in the same boat - until I decided to take the bull by the horns and run for the Assembly, as many readers here will know. That wasn't an easy decision for me, particularly in light of the fact that the Queens County GOP was less than enthusiastic about my doing it. While they ultimately came round to endorsing me, they offered little help and, on the hustings, County Chair Maltese actually seemed to be campaigning for my opponent as he strove to praise her and associate himself with her record.

But even these efforts to link himself to the Democrats barely proved sufficient and his near-loss suddenly altered the political equation. Republicans now face losing their majority in the State Senate, the last GOP bastion in statewide politics. If Serf falls, the reasoning goes, so may the GOP's majority. Thus, they now have to hang on tightly to every seat they can. Suddenly Serf's embattled chairmanship, which many have labeled a conflict of interest (because it demands he balance his personal interest with that of the party he leads) looks like an albatross the GOP can no longer afford to wear around its neck. And so Serf, who for years dominated Queens Republican politics, had to make a choice. In the end he chose his elected position as we all knew he would. It's a paying gig, after all, and comes with real power as opposed to the faux power associated with chairing a party with hardly any office holders - or candidates.

But even in his leaving Serf drew controversy. Within a week of his surprise announcement, elements in the county GOP who have long been at odds with the Maltese machine filed legal papers alleging wrongdoing. According to John and Bart Haggerty, two brothers based in Forest Park who head the local GOP opposition, the move to appoint Phil Ragusa did not conform to the county organization's own bylaws. These, they note, require the Executive Vice Chair or the First Vice Chair to fill the departing Chairman's shoes and, if neither are available or prepared to do it, then a special meeting must be convened for this purpose. Ragusa, according to Bart Haggerty, held neither of the designated posts and the two individuals who do were not available for the position. Thus, the Haggertys maintain, the appointment of Ragusa is invalid, absent a meeting called for that purpose.

Ragusa's supporters vehemently deny this and plead for time for Ragusa to show his stuff. He's already reaching out to those who aren't in the Maltese inner circle, they say, and is looking at ways to build inclusiveness in order to encourage local club growth and participation. They're annoyed that the Haggertys have hit them with legal papers so swiftly, forcing them to scramble to defend their actions when they would prefer to be taking steps to revive and rebuild a party organization that's seemingly on life support.

But John Haggerty asks what other choice he and his group had? Because there's a narrow legal window, he notes, if they failed to act to secure their rights, the opportunity to force the election he believes the bylaws require would have been lost. Says John: "All we want is the chance to run in an open and fair election. If we lose we can accept that. What we can't accept is being shut out of the process. That's not what democracy's supposed to be about."

The Rockaway Republicans have their own history with all these players, of course. When they started up, they got a cold shoulder from the Maltese organization and had to fight for recognition. In the Haggertys' Forest Park Republicans, on the other hand, they found a friendly reception. In time, and with much sturm und drang, the County organization finally relented, granting the new Rockaway group a state Republican charter in 2006. However, the Rockaway Republican leadership continues to find it odd that the County still hasn't accepted the much older Forest Park group with whom the newer group feels a distinct kinship. Newly designated County Chair Phil Ragusa has yet to reach out to the Rockaway Republicans though it's still early and he certainly has his hands full dealing with the litigation initiated by the Forest Park faction.

At this stage it's not clear how things will work themselves out. If history is any guide, the Queens County organization ought to do well in the courts, as they have in the past, where many of the judges owe their appointments to the existing political apparatus. But if the Haggertys have read the Queens County GOP bylaws right, they could very well surprise all the players and force a special election before Ragusa's interim term expires.

Whether that will translate into the real "win" the Haggertys are after is, of course, another question.

Yet, even if they don't win in court, the stage has been set for a very serious confrontation that may well determine the direction of the Queens Republican Party for years to come. Whether the Haggerty lawsuit carries the day now or not, we're only seven months away from the regular party reorganization at which a new Chair will need to be elected in any case. Then either Ragusa will win a term in his own right or someone new will step forward to replace him, so there isn't much time for him to make his mark. Meanwhile, the Haggerty brothers have fired the first salvo in their bid to claim the top GOP mantle in the County for one of their own. Given the moribund state of Queens GOP politics these past ten years, this sudden struggle for political leadership in the wake of Serf's abdication may be no bad thing - and should certainly prove better, on balance, than the decade-long somnambulance Republicans have suffered under Maltese. rockirreg@aol.com

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