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What’s Wrong with the New York GOP?

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Despite the unpopularity of the current New York City Mayor, Democrat Bill DeBlasio, in key precincts around his town, the Republican nominee, neophyte Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, seems to have almost no chance of unseating the incumbent. She started late with little name recognition and doesn’t enter the race with substantial funds behind her to offset her low public profile.

Lacking money, name recognition and a strong resume in a town with a 5:1 voter registration advantage in the incumbent’s favor, what can Republicans expect, come November, but another loss and another four years of a mayor who is distinguishing himself as a progressive’s progressive, vying for national stature as the spearhead of the progressive movement that turned America leftward in the Obama years and seems now to have the national Democratic Party in its thrall. In the meantime De Blasio offers New Yorkers a continuation of his policies in support of political correctness which promise cost overruns that will bite the city hard in the backside, come the next economic downturn (they always comes sooner or later), and the potential removal of public monuments deemed “offensive” by various partisan constituencies. The removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, and perhaps even the area’s renaming, looks to be in the cards in a second DeBlasio administration.

But Republicans got a late start this year again and a candidate who seems to lack the heavy hitting gravitas of former nominees. Why now, when the White House, Congress, statehouses and governors’ mansions across the nation are in Republican hands? Why are Republicans so weak in New York?

One answer, of course, is demographics. But that suggests that the Republican Party is captive to its current ethnic makeup which is the death knell for any political party in a polyglot democracy like ours. There is, however, another explanation and this is more troubling because it strikes at the heart of the party’s prospects. Perhaps in places like New York (and especially New York City) the problem lies in the leadership of the Republican Party itself?

Taking pains not to sound like the populist firebrand Steve Bannon, who argues for restoration of a kind of nativism by ousting moderate and more mainstream Republicans, I would suggest that the problem in New York, and especially in the city that bears the same name, lies in the hollowness of its leadership. Unlike national Republican leaders, who have ideas and a track record of winning elections (even if their ideas don’t accord with Bannon’s), local leadership here in New York City seems bereft of ideas and certainly isn’t adept at winning much of anything.

It’s been suggested that one of the problems in this current uneven mayoral contest is that the New York GOP is always late to the starting gate, taking too long to get its candidates and campaigns going and thus losing precious time in reaching voters with a message for change. This is true as far as it goes, but this chronic lateness has a cause: The absence of a bench of strong candidates waiting in the wings to step up and challenge the other party. Why the absence?

The shallow Republican bench in New York City can be directly laid at the feet of a self-interested local leadership that would rather protect itself and preserve its perqs than build a party that can seriously contest elections across the New York political landscape. Hard as it is to fathom, that leadership has demonstrated its preference for apathy at the grassroots level rather than activism and energy. The leadership wants reliable foot soldiers to turn out to carry petitions and hand out literature but it has little interest in bringing these folks into the fold at a more engaged level. That is to be left to the folks on the inside, the ones who gather in executive committee meetings behind closed doors to issue marching orders. Existing leadership has no interest in grassroots networking or movements that can excite and motivate the party’s foot soldiers other than to be sure they will show up at petition carrying time. After that, they can go back to their little lives while the “leaders” play at politics with leaders from the other side of the aisle. Current local GOP leadership, in fact, thrives on the apathy its methods foster at the grassroots , preferring not to see strong political activism anywhere outside of its own tightly controlled county organization, top heavy with functionaries whose sole claim to a role in the party is a willingness to rubber stamp whatever the leadership wants.

That’s how former Queens County chair, State Senator Serf Maltese, who presided over the Queens party for decades, ran his business and, to a lesser extent, it’s how his successor, Phil Ragusa, did things. The most recent former chair, one term Congressman Bob Turner, might have changed things when he was installed in an extra legal move by party leaders in Albany in order to bring peace to feuding local factions in Queens. But Turner fell under the spell of the old guard (the remnants of the Maltese faction) who had befriended him. Seduced and mesmerized by those who had succeeded Maltese, and thinking he had power as county chair to make decisions — when, in fact, he was only there as a puppet — he was ultimately disabused of his belief in his own autonomy when he was unseated in a surprise electoral coup orchestrated by his “friends” in the biannual party reorganization meeting this past September. City Councilman Eric Ulrich, mentored by Maltese and longtime Maltese ally, Tom Ognibene, joined forces with the anti-Maltese faction led by the Haggerty brothers, to put Turner in as their front person two years ago. But the Ulrich gang apparently came to the conclusion that their “fusion” chairman had outlived his usefulness. Without revealing their intentions, which would have given Turner a chance to campaign for a second term, they kept mum until the night of the confab and then sprung the votes they had secretly lined up to oust him.

Turner had tried, in the past year, to shake off the ties that bound him to his handlers, but to no avail and they sent him packing at the first opportunity. In that single act, those who had engineered his ascension as a fusion candidate, ostensibly to end a fratricidal deadlock in Queens, effectively turned back the clock on reform, which many in the Queens GOP grassroots had sought and which some, at least, had believed possible under leadership that could unite all factions. In the event, reform failed because Turner followed the lead of his backers, freezing out the Ragusa faction of the party, which had been contending with the Ulrich-Haggerty faction prior to the Albany arranged compromise. Despite promises to the Ragusa group of inclusion in the new leadership team, that never happened and now, with Turner’s ouster, the Queens GOP apparatus returns to its long time modus operandi: A patronage machine for its small coterie of “leaders” focused on gathering and sharing the crumbs left by the Democrats — enough to feed a small group of Queens insiders but insufficient to grow a real political movement.

When the aim of a party’s leaders is to preserve their own perqs as people of “importance,” rather than advance a set of beliefs or fight to offer voters a better way, you don’t develop a bench that enables ongoing political alternatives and, thus, an early enough start to the next political campaign to make a difference.

That’s why the GOP in NYC has consistently been a “Potemkin” party, a placeholder on the ballot, bought and paid for by one wealthy political aspirant after another without regard to political philosophy or longstanding governing strategies or political track record. And when no wealthy aspirant steps forward to carry the GOP banner (with the de rigueur promise to self-fund), the party has little to offer on its own because of the paucity of established, serious contenders. There’s nothing left but second or third tier hopefuls lacking the visibility or resume to make a successful run — and lacking the cash to rev up enough PR to compensate for the late start.

If Republicans in New York City want to win elections again, rather than depend on temporary Democratic disarray, as they have been doing in the recent past, and on big money interlopers saving their bacon, the party has to be real — with real ideas and real leaders who care about party building more than about protecting their own small fiefs.

It’s about more than voter registration drives. It requires direct channels to the grassroots and a mechanism for building grassroots involvement and participation at all levels including within the sacred precincts of the county executive committee itself. Membership on that committee should rest on more than just being a reliable vote for those in charge. It should involve real tasks and demand real qualifications to perform them. It should reflect the capacity of committee members to contribute to a Republican future in New York rather than just keeping existing leadership safely untouched and in charge.

Forget the damned fund raising dinners. Focus on ideas and why conservative principles provide a better way for governing. Get that message out and bring GOP activists into the organization from all levels. Only then will Republican Party organizations in New York City be competitive again.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, “The Rockaway Irregular,” for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland’s Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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