2008-12-19 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

And, We Thought We Were Done
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

In the wake of City Councilman Joe Addabbo's recent win over controversial State Senator Serph Maltese (the former Republican Queens County leader who will shortly become a former State Senator as well), we're suddenly faced with an upcoming special election. Sometimes it feels like these elections just never end.

Addabbo's been a likeable City Councilman for the western half of the peninsula in a district that also encompasses Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and points north, but he's left a lot of his constituents in Rockaway feeling dissatisfied. Sure he's showed up at nearly all the big events and spent campaign and Council funds on outreach here just like other local pols. But he gave up a seat on the City Council Parks and Recreation committee, which is highly pertinent to beachfront communities like Rockaway, for the more powerful Civil Service and Labor committee leaving a lot of local folk feeling spurned.

It's been pretty clear for a while now that Joe's heart was elsewhere, even if his councilmanic seat was here and now his impending departure for the State Senate (representing a district that doesn't include Rockaway) leaves a gaping hole in the political firmament, which numerous local luminaries yearn to fill. But, as the swordsman in the Highlander film franchise used to say, "There can be only one." The upcoming special election, which Mayor Bloomberg will soon be obliged to call for some time in February, is going to be a fast one, the kind you'll barely notice if you blink too often. In only a matter of weeks from the time the mayor makes the announcement, we'll be called upon to go to the polls and choose Addabbo's successor. After two-plus years of non-stop electioneering for the presidency, maybe a quick one's not such a bad idea though.

Of course, sitting on the City Council isn't like running the country. What, indeed, does a City Council do, anyway, and why should we care? The Mayor runs the city while the Council approves its annual budget, passes local laws and acts as an operational watchdog. It conducts hearings and inquiries and individual council persons can serve as a conduit to government officials for their constituents while advocating for their communities. Council persons can use their unique access to ferret out information about how things are being done by city agencies and to ensure the people who elected them aren't forgotten when budget time rolls round.

In this upcoming election we're going to get something else, as well. Most local elections occur in the shadow of bigger issues, with incumbents in place and party loyalty front and center. But not this time. In New York State a special election is considered non-partisan, meaning political parties don't control it. Anyone can run if he or she can get enough signatures to get on the ballot, nor are candidates identified by party.

That's good for Democrats who have so many local politicians in their ranks they frequently trip over one another. On the Republican side it helps because some tough luck on the national scene, amplified by an unfriendly national media and an historically unpopular president, have undermined their brand. A few years back Mayor Bloomberg tried to make elections like this, without party identification, the standard. He failed. But that's the way things already are in special elections.

Last I heard there are at least four Democrats already in this race, including two district leaders and a former staffer of the departing incumbent. There's also a Republican. Eric Ulrich is the male district leader of the GOP in the 23rd AD who, only a year ago, surprised folks by leading a reformminded insurgency to an upset win over incumbents who had let the local Republican voice go silent for over a decade. No one gave him and his running mate, Breezy Pointer Jane Deacy, a chance, but when the strength of their challenge became visible their opposition faded away and Ulrich and Deacy won a hard fought race against the incumbents' hand picked successors. They had the full-throated support of the Rockaway Republicans, a local group founded in 2004 to restore political competition to the peninsula.

Now, the youthful Ulrich has thrown his hat into the ring for the soon-to-be vacant Council seat. Still in his early twenties, Ulrich looks even younger, but his looks belie the already hardbitten, experienced pro he is. I know because he helped me in my own abortive and somewhat amateurish run for the State Assembly in 2006. I was surprised to see the extent of his political knowledge and the scope of his high level contacts. Later, in 2007, I watched with admiration as he led the charge to recapture the district leadership of his own party.

Ulrich, who initially planned to become a priest, decided he liked politics more while still in college and turned to his new vocation with the same intellect, single mindedness and zeal that other young up-and-comers bring to business or law. But he didn't lose his sense of service in the process, even while swimming in the deep and often turbulent waters of local politics. He's served as president of the Ozone Park Civics Association and as advocate in a number of high profile community efforts. He's also worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the City Council and the Queens County Board of Elections so he knows the ins and outs of the local political system. And he knows Rockaway.

Though a mainlander, Ulrich reached out to Rockaway Republicans when they were still struggling for recognition and worked tirelessly to ensure they got it. But you don't swim with the sharks without making a few enemies and he's made his share. Still, he has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to move in the big leagues. The question Rockaway voters have to ask themselves in the upcoming special election, though, is not just whether he's up to the rigors of life in the Council's chambers (he's already shown he is) but whether he understands the special needs of this peninsula in a way the departing incumbent, however amiable, never seemed to.

All the evidence so far says he does. With Ulrich in the City Council, we'll have a chance to speak to City Hall like never before. He's young, hard driving, fresh and experienced, while the rest of them are mainly the same old same old — tired retreads who have been elbowing each other aside for decades, trying to get to the front of a perpetually crowded political line.

Like Barack Obama in '08, Ulrich has shown there's a more stylish way to do it. If we don't vote for his kind of change when we finally have the chance, we'll have squandered this unexpected gift of an off-year special election and will deserve more of that same old tired leadership that's kept our community a backwater for years. rockirreg@aol.com.

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