As the Democratic primary races for citywide offices and open seats on the City Council top the headlines, on the Republican side are key elections that have gone relatively unnoticed, but could hold huge consequences to the future of the borough’s small, but powerful, GOP.
Across Queens, there are nine races for the state committee, a key position that often decides who gets the county organization’s backing for statewide races.
Among the district leaders being challenged on the Sept. 10 ballot are Queens GOP Chairman Phil Ragusa, who is fighting for his position in the Bayside-based 26th Assembly District against Salvatore Bacarella. Ragusa’s fellow district leader and ally Judith Stupp, who was the borough’s Republican Board of Election commissioner, is being challenged by Anne Marie Devlin.
Stupp lost her position at the BOE last year when Queens GOP officials failed to file the correct reappointment papers. That allowed the GOP’s small City Council delegation to appoint a replacement and Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), the more senior of the two Queens GOP council members and a critic of Ragusa, appointed Michael Michel, a Republican loyal to Ulrich and Ragusa-foe former Councilman Tom Ognibene.
The party’s division goes back several years and climaxed in 2011 when Ognibene held a separate meeting in Richmond Hill from one held in Whitestone called by Ragusa. At Ognibene’s meeting, he was elected chairman of the party and Ragusa was re-elected chairman at his meeting. Both filed paperwork with the state, but Ognibene’s leadership vote was rejected and Ragusa held on to the chairmanship.
The division geographically divides Queens in half, with Ragusa holding sway in the north and his foes controlling much of southern Queens. One GOP operative said the dividing line was roughly along the Long Island Expressway.
Kevin Ryan, general secretary of the Northeast Queens Republican Club, who is managing Bacarella’s campaign, said a Ragusa defeat may mean the end of his chairmanship as members of the county committee, who typically take their cues from state committee members, may decide to back a new leader.
“The county leadership’s failure is so complete and the scandals so widespread, that the only way for the Queens GOP to carry on is to elect new leadership and bring all Queens Republicans together,” he said. “Sal and Anne Marie will be a vital part of the force that makes being a Queens Republican something to be proud of again.”
In another key race, Bart Haggerty, state committeeman in the Forest Hills-based 28th District, former Ulrich staffer and brother of John Haggerty, a GOP official who was convicted of stealing money from Mike Bloomberg’s campaign, is being challenged by Juan Reyes Sr., whose son ran unsuccessfully against Ulrich in the GOP primary for state Senate last year.
Reyes’ wife, Catherine, is facing off against Amanda Kohut for the female position in the same district. Kohut was a staffer for former Rep. Bob Turner.
There are challenges in the two positions in the Maspeth-based 30th District. Tony Nunziato, who ran for the seat in 2010 and is a district leader there, is being challenged by Daniel Creighton. Nunziato is a backer of Ognibene’s bid for the leadership. The female district leader, Rosemarie Iacovone, a Ragusa supporter, is being challenged by Margaret Ognibene, wife of the former councilman.
There are races for both positions in the 35th Assembly District in Corona between Fernando Bernal and Melvin Morgan for the male committee position and Ivy Mingott is facing off against Ruby Muhammad for the female district leader position. The district was the site of a battle in the county party’s civil war last year when the Republican candidate for the seat, Mingott’s son Eric — a supporter of Ognibene — was knocked off the ballot, allegedly at the hands of Ragusa allies. The legislative seat is held by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona).
In the St. Albans-based 29th District, GOP Council candidate Scherie Murray, who is running against incumbent Donovan Richards (D-Rosedale), is running for district leader against Maureen Petitphare. Murray said it was her desire to see new ideas and new leaders that led to her campaign.
“We’ve had leadership, but it’s been poor leadership,” she said. “I think it’s time to diversify government and do away with the old boys club. I really feel it is time to revitalize the party.”
In 2011, the 29th District was one of three Southeast Queens districts that did not have any GOP state committee members. Due to the small number of registered Republican voters, it is often difficult for Republicans to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot there.
“The party here was dead,” Murray said. “We really needed new faces, new leadership with new ideas. The state committeewoman position is a wonderful opportunity to be a liaison between the party and the people.”
The battle between the party factions are also evident in this year’s mayoral primary as Ragusa is backing supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, while the Ognibene wing, including Ulrich, is supporting former MTA chief Joe Lhota.
Queens has the largest Republican Party in all five boroughs and despite being Democratic-leaning, has voted Republican in every mayoral elections since 1989.
“You can’t get elected mayor in New York City as a Republican without winning Queens,” said one GOP operative. “That makes the party and it’s leadership very, very important.”