The Republican insurgents, for their part, insist this is bigger than patronage. The message being sent by the mayor, they say, is that he doesn’t want around him people who think like Republicans, or who support the principles of governance which they uphold. His positions on things like higher taxes and fines, smoking in public places, government spending and the gay marriage question, among others, all seem to confirm the sense that this mayor may really be a kind of political cross-dresser.
Moreover, the administration’s hiring practices certainly add to a perception that he’s just more comfortable with Democrats than Republicans. After three-plus years of feeling like odd party out because of this, many local Republican groups in the boroughs, particularly in Queens, have been moved to cry out in political pain. Hence the surprise challenge and apparent strength of Tom Ognibene, who recently secured the Queens County Republican executive committee endorsement in a lopsided vote.
All of a sudden the mayor has to pay attention to a base he previously had counted safely in his pocket. Ognibene, of course, is an experienced city politician with a deep reservoir of goodwill among Queens Republicans (who just happen to make up the largest voting bloc of registered Republicans in the city). Since Ognibene first showed his colors at the Rockaway group’s January 11 Downstate Grassroots Republican Summit, the mayor’s folks have been scrambling to offset the challenge and have already brought Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island Republicans into their fold. Meanwhile, the Rockaway Republicans suddenly have become the object of much wooing by Ognibene backers in the Queens organization – though before this they had been largely ignored.
At a recent Rockaway club meeting, members were split on whom to support. Though Ognibene had a clear edge, they agreed to defer endorsing anyone until they had a chance to hear the mayor’s side of the story. What’s at stake here? The newly formed Rockaway Republicans suddenly find themselves on the verge of full acceptance by and absorption into the party’s mainstream organization in Queens, a goal they have long sought. But the cost of achieving it may be higher than they imagined, since the mainstream organization has now split itself off from other Republican bastions in the city by turning against a resource-rich Republican incumbent.
Although Queens has the largest registered Republican base of all the boroughs, it’s still only one organization among five. If it acts as a spoiler and delivers City Hall to a Democratic challenger, it could set the Republican cause in New York City back by years (as Barry Goldwater’s defeat did the national party in the 1960’s). And that could hurt city governance in the eyes of those who hold Republican principles dear.
On the other hand, if the Ognibene challenge succeeds in knocking Mayor Bloomberg off the Republican line (as John Lindsay in 1969 was driven into the Liberal Party’s arms) and Bloomberg still wins, the Queens organization will have made itself irrelevant for the near term and the Rockaway Republicans could very well share that fate.
Against this is the very strong argument that Mayor Mike hasn’t governed as a Republican anyway and hasn’t shown any interest in cultivating, developing or supporting grassroots Republican organizations, particularly in the outer boroughs, until now. So why would he be different if he wins a second term? Worse, since he’ll have less need of Republican support, being unable to run for a third term, he may feel even freer to turn his administration into the Democratic Party’s home-away-from-home.
The Queens organization, for its part, sees itself without good choices: Support Mayor Mike and get more of the same (no access, no grassroots support, and little or no governance according to the Republican principles they believe in), or oppose him and get a Democrat or a disgruntled second-term Republican mayor with a desire to repay his perceived political enemies. An Ognibene win in the primaries is clearly imaginable, but it’s a much greater stretch to think he can win the general election in liberal New York City.