The Rockaway Irregular
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky
The recent change in leadership at the county level in the Queens GOP recognizes the past leadership failures of the former Queens GOP County Chair. State Senator Serphin Maltese held the reins of Republican power as County Chair of the Queens GOP for roughly a decade during which he seemed to focus on only one thing: getting himself re-elected. As a result he presided over a shrinking political base and an increasingly ineffective and irrelevant Republican organization. But in the last election, to everyone's surprise, he was nearly undone by an upstart Democrat who ran without the support of his own party. The Queens Democratic organization stood aside and did not actively support their challenger, a decision which many believe reflected a longstanding arrangement between Maltese and Democratic leaders - don't challenge me and I won't go after you.
The thinking was that Maltese, to protect his own election chances, actively discouraged candidates and effective local organizations around the county. Indeed, members of the local GOP club here in Rockaway were astonished to discover the level of disinterest and even outright opposition they encountered from Maltese when they first started up in 2004. More recently, when I ran for State Assembly against Democratic incumbent Audrey Pheffer, with the Rockaway Republicans' endorsement, GOP county leader Maltese not only provided me the least support he could get away with (a few petition signatures and some good wishes), he all but campaigned for my opponent on the stump, praising her in speeches he delivered at the same gatherings where I was campaigning against her. I was flabbergasted.
As a result of the cumulative effects of such actions and Maltese's sudden political vulnerability thanks to his recent near defeat (inspiring serious interest in his seat by stronger, organization-backed Democrats, including our own City Councilman Joe Addabbo), Maltese suddenly saw the handwriting on the wall and abandoned ship. Whether under pressure from other Republican leaders, his own backers, or his own genuine concern about the anger his do-nothing leadership style had generated, Maltese abruptly decided to resign at a meeting of the GOP County Executive Board this past February 1st, clearing the way for new blood. But, typically for Maltese, it was done with an appearance of backroom deals and procedural irregularities.
Although County by-laws called for the County's Executive Vice Chair or First Vice Chair to fill the vacant spot until new elections could be held or, barring that, for a special meeting within 60 days of the resignation to elect an interim Chair, the Executive Board bypassed both designated successors and skipped the special meeting, selecting one of Maltese's lieutenants, long time party stalwart Phil Ragusa. According to Rockaway Republicans President Tom Lynch, the County organization's First Vice Chair, Woodside Republican Ed Coyne, would have gladly accepted the interim role had it been offered.
Maltese's Queens GOP opponents, who have twice tried to unseat him (failing in their last effort in 2005 due to alleged irregularities in the voting process), were furious. Bart Haggerty of the Forest Park Republican Club and his brother John, an Albany operative, quickly sued the county organization to reverse the "election" of Ragusa. The concern, of course, is that the newly designated Chair will merely be a proxy for Maltese who would continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes. Early indications suggest this may not be the case, however.
Ragusa quickly moved to reach out to the disaffected GOP grassroots in the borough by going to club meetings around the county. Early in April, Ragusa sent his new Vice Chair, Vince Tabone, with a number of others to the Rockaway Republicans' meeting at the newly restored Belle Harbor Yacht Club where Tabone and his companions made a strong case and promised a new way of doing business at the county level, including support for local clubs, a new openness, a focus on fundraising and party building, and the establishment of a website to bring the enfeebled Queens GOP into the 21st Century.
One early move by Ragusa is especially promising. In March he appointed Queens Republican activist and political consultant Robert Hornak to serve as county candidate development coordinator, signaling an intention to recruit and develop candidates throughout the borough. If this is any indication it may herald the end of the "secret" backroom deal that many suspect existed between the old Maltese-led Queens GOP and Queens Democrats. If there's now to be a serious emphasis placed on running real candidates in races across the borough, then there's a chance the old state of affairs, in which credible Republicans hardly ever ran against Democrats is effectively over. This remains to be seen, of course, but at least Hornak, a serious political operative genuinely interested in running candidates, is also a long time friend of the Rockaway Republicans and can be expected to have an interest in, and be supportive of, our local concerns and candidates.
The Haggerty brothers haven't withdrawn their lawsuit either and the matter is still wending its way through the courts. But such court challenges in Queens don't have a good track record for the challengers. Queens judges, who owe their positions to local political leaders, have tended to support the status quo. Whether that will manifest this time remains to be seen but, win or lose their lawsuit, the Haggerty's aren't going away. Phil Ragusa will have to stand for election this coming September, whether as interim incumbent or non-incumbent.
Queens Republicans and especially local GOPers here in Rockaway will have to make up their own minds which way to vote when September rolls around. True, Ragusa remains surrounded by some of the old Maltese people, but they seem aware of the anger and disaffection Maltese's practices have bred. With Hornak, a former outsider now invited into the tent, and renewed focus on outreach, openness, fundraising, issues, candidate recruitment and support, there's every chance the new team, which counts its descent from the old, has changed. But, if not, there's a very strong insurgent waiting in the wings. Bart Haggerty is young, bright and a scion of a well-established Republican family while his older brother, John, has strong Albany ties.
Bart is scheduled to come out to the next Rockaway Republicans meeting on May 16 to speak. It's going to be a race between a newly revived inner sanctum of the Queens old guard vs. the Young Turks whose relentless calls for reform helped deprive Maltese of county dominance. Change is finally in the wind. The albatross weighing Queens County Republicans down for a decade is finally gone and it's up to the rank and file to choose a new direction and leadership. Either way, the Queens County GOP, sorely in need of revitalization, should benefit, as should the Rockaway Republicans, who've struggled for years against Maltese's efforts to marginalize them. Voters in Queens ought to benefit as well since we may finally start to see some competitive elections again.