Monday, November 10, 2008

In Queens District, Old-Guard Lawmaker Must Move On by Anne Barnard -

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The Glendale Diner is a favorite of fans of State Senator Serphin R. Maltese, whose office is next door. Mr. Maltese’s election loss ends his 20-year run in Albany.

The Glendale Diner has a mini jukebox in every booth, a sauerbraten-and-red-cabbage special and a bald eagle painted on the front window with the message, “God bless America.” Over the cash register, next to a plaque from the neighborhood Little League, hangs a certificate of appreciation written out to the owner from a local politician who is nothing short of an institution, State Senator Serphin R. Maltese.

When Mr. Maltese, a Republican, lost his seat to Joseph P. Addabbo Jr. on Tuesday after 20 years in office, it meant one thing to Albany: It tipped the State Senate to the Democrats for the first time since 1965, setting the stage for a major realignment in state politics.

But to Mr. Maltese’s fans in this working-class Queens neighborhood, it meant goodbye to a politician as old-school as the diner.

Nearly everyone there on Thursday night could name a reason to be grateful to Mr. Maltese, a master of doling out political goodies both financial and symbolic. For Henry Metzger, 74, a retired veteran eating alone, it was Mr. Maltese’s prowess at securing money for veterans’ groups.

For Joe Macaluso, in the next booth, it was the personal birthday letter he received from the senator. Liz Leser, 24, a waitress, remembered that Mr. Maltese helped start the Halloween parade of costumed children down Myrtle Avenue, the main drag of the neighborhood.

No one mentioned Mr. Maltese’s conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage. In fact, Ms. Leser, Mr. Macaluso, and Cathie Bach, who has been a waitress at the diner for 17 years — almost as long as Mr. Maltese has worked out of his district office next door — all voted for Barack Obama and Mr. Maltese. Explaining her split vote, Ms. Bach summed up the attitude of many Maltese supporters in this majority-Democratic district: “I know him personally.”

[Photo caption: Jean Bieber, at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 123 in Ridgewood, said she loved Mr. Maltese.]

But their votes were overwhelmed, Democrats and Republicans agree, by a tide of people who voted a straight Democratic ticket, including new voters. There were others, like Ms. Bach’s daughter, whose distaste for the Republican Party was stronger than their loyalty to the senator.

He was dogged, too, by his ties to the disgraced former City Councilman Dennis Gallagher — a Maltese protégé who resigned in April after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, admitting that he had sexually abused a woman in his office — and Robert R. Groezinger, a part-time aide who was charged last month with possessing child pornography.

“I tried to tell her to vote for Serf, but she said, ‘I want change; I’m voting Democratic,’ ” Ms. Bach said.

Maureen E. Walthers, editor of the Ridgewood Times Newsweekly, called Mr. Maltese a master of “bringing home the bacon.” He secured money for dozens of schools and groups. He sponsored bills to address bread-and-butter issues like the scattering of menus on lawns and organized graffiti cleanups.

To the delight of his supporters at the Mario Lanza Sons of Italy lodge, he even helped push through a state law making Columbus Day an official holiday. And no community meeting was too small for him; his picture was in the paper so often, Ms. Walthers said jokingly, that she had considered renaming it The Maltese Times.

“If there are three people in a room, he’s one of them,” said the paper’s managing editor, Bill Mitchell. All that translated into votes.

But Eric Gioia, a Democratic City Council member whose district overlaps Mr. Maltese’s, said that “transactional politics” based on bringing state dollars to local groups was no longer enough.

“All they’re doing is giving you back your tax money,” he said. “For too long, people were interested in their neighborhoods and their city, but the barriers to getting involved were too high. You had to buy a ticket to an expensive fund-raiser or you had to know somebody. Now you log onto Facebook or a Web site.”

Now the question for the district, which runs through a swath of Queens from Maspeth to Howard Beach, is what it all means. Was it simply impossible for a Republican to survive the Obama tide, or does this represent a deeper change? Is the old-school politics of bringing home funds insufficient in light of the Internet and a new activism among young voters? Does it usher in a new era of openness, or make it harder to get what the district needs from Albany? Democrats believed that Mr. Maltese was vulnerable and made him a target of heavy campaign spending in part because changing demographics have eroded his base in western Queens, long a bastion of old-line Democratic but socially conservative voters of Irish, Italian and German ancestry who often crossed party lines. In 1990, the district was 83 percent white and 29 percent foreign born; 10 years later it was 63 percent white and 39 percent foreign born, among them many new immigrants from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean

“The idea that Archie Bunker lives in Queens is not true and probably was never true,” Councilman Gioia said. “It is far more open-minded and diverse and progressive than some people would have you believe.”

Tom Ognibene, a former Republican city councilman and longtime Maltese ally, said a two-pronged approach was the way to victory. “I still think you’ve got to shake hands, you’ve got to go to community meetings,” he said. “But you’re not going to reach the new voters with that. You’ve got to expand” by using the Internet and finding new nodes of support. “This was the genius of the Obama campaign.”

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7336 near the diner, where Mr. Maltese helped get financing for the $7,000 elevator seat to take elderly veterans up the stairs, his loss is theirs, too.

“He investigated every traffic light. He passed money around to everybody,” said John Vogt, 47, a member of the post. “That’s done.”

Ms. Walthers, of the newspaper, played down the moment. After all, Mr. Addabbo, too, is a machine politician, the son of a well-liked congressman. He often shows up at the same meetings and parties as Mr. Maltese, she said, and if he does not bring home the same amount of bacon, people will not stand for him. “That’s their mission,” she said.

Next week, a group of 55 veterans is going to visit the Intrepid aircraft carrier museum with Mr. Maltese, Mr. Vogt said. “It’s a little bit sad, because it’s kind of like a farewell.”