The Rockaway Irregular
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky
In a stunning turnabout, the Republican leaders of the 23rd Assembly District, Terry Ariola of Howard Beach and Ed O'Hare of Broad Channel, have decided to pass on the current race for GOP leadership in this area in favor of Howard Beach residents John Calcagnile and Denise Walsh. Calcagnile is an architect who is reputed to have a close working relationship with the Ariola construction firm. He is also reportedly active in a number of Howard Beach-based civic organizations, as is Walsh. So what happened?
Ariola and O'Hare had seemed adamant about hanging onto their positions until now, despite the fact that they were facing a very strong challenge from Eric Ulrich in Ozone Park, President of the Judge Angelo Graci Republican Club there, and Jane Deacy, a longtime member of the Rockaway Republicans, ex-cop, sometime actress and full-time Breezy Pointy activist. In the last go-round, in 2005, Ulrich and running mate Rosemary Duffy out-polled Ariola and O'Hare in Ozone Park and the Rockaways, but were swamped by the strong showing the incumbents pulled off in their home areas. Howard Beach, especially, is a very strong bastion for Republican registration in the 23rd AD and is a more tightly knit community than Rockaway's many neighborhoods, which are fragmented across a number of geographic and ethnic lines. Still, the insurgents came within a hundred or so votes of scoring an upset in 2005. This time, with Deacy, a popular Rockawayite, on the ticket, Ulrich looked primed to score an upset by sweeping the Rockaways, giving his ticket the needed margin to beat O'Hare and Ariola.
Presumably the incumbents saw the handwriting on the wall. In 2005 Ariola and O'Hare had the support of the Bloomberg mayoral race because the mayor was funding petition carriers throughout the borough to block Tom Ognibene's nascent insurgent candidacy. By lining up with the mayor, they were able to tap into the famous Bloomberg bankroll to amass enough signatures to get them on the ballot with room to spare. (The practice of legal challenges to petition signatures makes it essential to double the number required to survive expected disqualification efforts in the courts.)
This time out, however, lacking grassroots support in key areas of the 23rd, they would have had to pay for their own petition carriers, a costly undertaking, while, at the same time fighting the headwind of local anger coming out of Rockaway over their perceived lack of involvement and leadership in the district. Rockaway Republicans President Tom Lynch has repeatedly called for Ariola and O'Hare to take a more active role in community affairs and to work more closely with grassroots groups like his, making no secret of his dissatisfaction with what he has called their lack of leadership.
Lynch and the current GOP district leaders could never manage to see eye to eye on any of this and, when Ognibene broke for Ulrich, who had assiduously cultivated the Rockaway Republicans since their inception. Ariola seemed genuinely surprised, believing she had done a great deal to reach out to Lynch and his group and that her willingness to back their candidate for Assembly in the last election (me), ought to have bought her sufficient Rockaway Republicans good will. It didn't, not least because her backing was mostly verbal (she provided no financial support and only a small fraction of the needed petition signatures). While I've personally tried to remain neutral in the district leadership struggle, in deference to the fact that both Ulrich and the team of Ariola and O'Hare had officially supported me in my race, Lynch and the other Rockaway Republicans refused to do the same and threw their support to Ulrich as soon as he made his intentions clear.
Although I had heard that the Ariola-O'Hare team was thinking of bowing out a week or so ago, I didn't believe it. I thought they were too keen to hang on to the levers of GOP power in the 23rd (such as they are). Obviously, I got it wrong. Or, perhaps, Walsh and Calcagnile are just the kinds of handpicked successors they can bank on to hold the GOP reins for "their side." If so, then what is afoot may be no more than an election maneuver designed to put a new face on the Howard Beach-based group that's currently running things in the 23rd AD and which has been doing so since former Republican City Councilman Al Stabile, also from Howard Beach, engineered the coup that took the male district leadership away from long-time Rockawayite Tom Swift in the mid-nineties and which may have indirectly contributed to Swift's death shortly afterwards from a heart attack. (Though Swift had a history of heart trouble, he lived for his role in Republican politics and took his loss of the leadership post to Stabile, whom he had vigorously supported for City Council, very badly.)
Where to now? With new blood being pushed forward by the Howard Beach group, it looks like the dynamics of the race are about to change. Concerned about their ability to run strongly throughout the 23rd AD, Ariola and O'Hare seem to think new faces will give them a chance to change the outcome in their favor. But given that this election will be fought in the public arena under the scrutiny of the Board of Elections, contra the backroom tactics which the old guard seems to have employed in keeping the Queens GOP within its orbit when Serf Maltese realized he'd have to step down, the outcome is likely to be out of anyone's direct control. Everything will depend on the ability of both sides to collect enough signatures to get their candidates on the ballot and turn out enough sympathetic voters on Primary Day to win what is an otherwise low profile, off-year race.
There's been some outreach to influential Rockaway Republicans to get them to realign in favor of the new ticket and it's unclear at this point if any headway's been made. But if I were a betting man, I'd have to say that the Rockaway Republicans will hang tough, and leave the dance "with the guy that brung 'em," in this case Ulrich, who's been a loyal friend to their group from the beginning. It helps that his running mate is the extraordinarily well-liked Deacy.
As for me, this lifts a huge burden I'd been wrestling with. Recalling the friendliness of Ariola and her household during my race, and O'Hare's late but welcome support in his home bastion of Broad Channel, I was reluctant to work to unseat either of them in favor of Ulrich who was, in fact, an integral part of my campaign and actually served as my campaign treasurer. Loyalty in politics can be hard to maintain, particularly when those who gave you support line up on opposite sides. But by taking themselves out of the running, I no longer have to hold back in joining my fellow Rockaway Republicans in supporting our long-time friend and ally from Ozone Park, Ulrich. He's young and ambitious and is looking to move on up the political ladder. He knows the best way to do that is by building a strong political base with activist allies at the grassroots.
That's something Ariola and O'Hare had apparently forgotten, or which was of little concern to them in their secure Howard Beach/Broad Channel base. Their interests seemed to be largely in maintaining their hold on the limited perks that came their way from running a local Republican organization that was more illusion than reality. From links to the Bloomberg administration to their highly cordial relations with more powerful, local Democrats, Ariola and O'Hare were happy enough. But Ulrich wants more. Hopefully that will mean a winning strategy not just in the upcoming primary fight in September but in forging a strong GOP in our part of south Queens, going forward.