2007-09-28 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

A Journey Of A Thousand Miles …
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

There's an old Chinese proverb: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The recent win in the race for the leadership of the Republican Party in the 23rd AD by Rockaway Republicans-supported Jane Deacy and Eric Ulrich looks like such a step. The Rockaway Republicans, since their founding in 2004, had been concerned about the passivity and disinterest of then-existing GOP district leaders based across the bay since the mid-nineties, a leadership that arose when former Republican City Councilman Al Stabile defeated his chief Rockaway backer, male Republican district leader Tom Swift of Belle Harbor.

The fact that Stabile had relied on Rockaway support from Swift when he initially won his City Council seat cut no obvious ice with the Councilman in his quest to relocate Republican leadership in his own neck of the woods. Using his strong base of Little League volunteers in the Howard Beach/ Ozone Park area, Stabile out-organized Swift and the old Gateway Republican Club, to shift the GOP center of gravity across the bay. By '04, when Belle Harborite Tom Lynch, George Greco of Neponsit and others decided to establish a new Republican group in our area, leadership of the 23rd AD had been firmly ensconced on the other side of Jamaica Bay for nearly a decade.

Those leaders were directly descended from the old Stabile machine, though they had long since broken with him, because the former City Councilman had a remarkable penchant for alienating his supporters. Just as the old Gateway Republican Club found itself "odd man out" with Stabile very soon after his initial election win, it wasn't long before the folks Stabile had installed across the bay were no longer on speaking terms with him, either. But they continued to run the show, thanks to the strong Republican registration in their community and the relative weakness of Republicans elsewhere in the district. In Ozone Park, registered Republicans were far fewer than in Howard Beach and in Rockaway, with large pockets of Republican voters throughout the peninsula, there was no real cohesion. Rockaway Republicans did not generally identify themselves as such and certainly didn't vote as a community. As a result, the core Republican group in Howard Beach tended to dominate local party politics.

Compounding this, the leadership Stabile bequeathed to the GOP in the 23rd evolved a strategy, either intentionally or by default, which seemed premised on keeping Republicans in other communities weak and divided. Lynch, one of the moving forces behind the new Rockaway Republicans Club, discovered early on that the leadership in Howard Beach wasn't keen on having a new, active Republican organization on his side of the bay. Having cut off the old Gateway Club, which finally expired in 2002, the 23rd AD leadership did nothing to help Lynch in his efforts to form a replacement club and indeed, may actually have worked in various ways to impede his efforts, as he struggled in that first year to get his new club off the ground.

The old leadership was also in a state of continuous open warfare with a smaller Republican group in the adjacent Ozone Park area to their north. Keeping Rockaway weak and in disarray, and the Ozone Park group marginalized, the old leadership's solid power base in the central area of Howard Beach seemed impregnable, much as Stabile may have originally envisioned it. But the recent contest for leadership in the 23rd finally put an end to that.

Eric Ulrich, who had run unsuccessfully against the leadership in Howard Beach before, ultimately won this time because of the alliance he forged with the Rockaway Republicans, even though that alignment wasn't a foregone conclusion. Once the Rockaway Republicans won some credibility, they gained belated recognition and offers of alliance from the old Howard Beach leadership. But it was the old leadership's continued antipathy for Ulrich which ultimately pushed Ozone Park and Rockaway together and, once Ulrich had secured a credible Rockaway Republican, local activist Jane Deacy, as his running mate, he had the viable ticket.

The subsequent decision of the old leadership to step aside in favor of handpicked successors probably reflected their realization that this time they had a horse race on their hands. Still, in the end, Ulrich and Deacy's win depended on the Rockaway Republicans' ability to do what they had previously failed to do for him: Turn out their members and fellow Republicans in droves. So despite the absence of real incumbents in the race, Ulrich and Deacy ran an "insurgent" campaign. But it was an "insurgency" not of candidates but of communities, specifically of those Republican communities who had been systematically excluded from participation in local party decision-making before.

Now, of course, it's history and Ulrich and Deacy are the new GOP leaders of the 23rd, having won because of the deep-seated dissatisfaction of many local Republicans which prompted them to vote for change. The old leaders hung onto their positions in the past because of a lack of local political engagement by Republicans in the 23rd and seemed to want to keep things that way. But Ulrich and Deacy pledged to change that by building a real live Republican party again, by finding and running candidates and by paying attention to local issues. Time, of course, will tell if they actually deliver - and they don't have a lot of it. The state committee positions they won are two-year gigs, so by 2009 they'll have to run again.

There's no doubt others will be waiting in the wings, not least those from across the bay where the old leader- ship and their supporters remain. The new leadership will not only have to make good on the promises they made to local Republicans, they must heal existing wounds, some of which may still be pretty raw. Of course, reaching out to their counterparts in Howard Beach won't guarantee that they'll be challenge-free in 2009. But it will certainly demonstrate their seriousness as local political players and convince many, especially Rockawayites who turned out for them in record numbers, that they got their money's worth; most importantly, it will also breathe new life into Republican Party dynamics in this district.

Competitive races and increased political activity can't help but get the juices flowing again in the 23rd. Now that local Republicans have seen that they can turn things around internally, maybe they'll want to make themselves felt on a grander scale, as well. Certainly a newly revived party apparatus will inspire respect in voters of whatever stripe throughout our area. This change at the top of the local Republican hierarchy should shake things up as never before - as long as Ulrich and Deacy are serious about providing the kind of leadership and vision they campaigned on. rockirreg@aol.com

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