Friday, May 15, 2009

Quietly, Bloomberg Traded Backing of Ognibene for Queens GOP Support - City Hall News

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Queens Republican Chairman Phil Ragusa may have been one of the most vocal critics of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (Ind.) rent-a-ballot initiative, but long before he publicly came out for the mayor’s re-election, the plainspoken CPA had succumbed to the mayor’s brand of hardball.

At the Manhattan GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner on April 2, which came at the height of Ragusa’s defiance, Bloomberg bought two tables, at $10,000 a piece, and filled them with a couple dozen dissident Queens Republicans, who enjoyed the festivities on the mayor's dime.

Ragusa got the message. Word quietly went out soon after that he would become the third county chair to officially endorse Bloomberg, giving the mayor a lock on the GOP line, even as others were still focusing on Manhattan as the supposed swing vote.

The affable Queens GOP chair kept up his public indecision. But privately, he was negotiating with the Bloomberg campaign to ensure that any deal securing the mayor’s spot on the ballot would also secure the future of his county organization. Word of Ragusa’s acquiescence was what convinced Bronx GOP chair Jay Savino, once a committed hold-out, to come out quickly with his own endorsement of Bloomberg.

Ragusa expressed guarded confidence that he had gotten what he wanted out of the negotiations.

“We’re trying to rebuild our party,” he said. “Hopefully, now he’s going to help us.”

For Ragusa, the stakes could not be higher: the party is down to two elected officials from the borough, longtime State Sen. Frank Padavan and surprise special election winner Council Member Eric Ulrich, both of whom are expected to face strong challenges in their next elections. Even with the mayor’s help, the once-great Queens GOP faces possible extinction.

Or as one Queens Republican put it: “The machine is not as well-oiled as it used to be.”

The Queens Republicans once had a handful of seats, at every level of government, including Al Stabile and Tom Ognibene on the Council, Serphin Maltese in the State Senate, and even Douglas Prescott in the Assembly.

So in the days leading up to his official decision, Ragusa made sure that he would at least get Bloomberg’s help in trying to pump life back into the county party. He also laid out a blueprint for trying to keep as many seats as possible in Republican hands.

According to those involved in the negotiations, Bloomberg agreed to back Ulrich in his bid for re-election, while Ognibene, who was the Conservative candidate in 2005 and was threatening to run against Bloomberg for the GOP line this year, agreed to step aside.

In return, Bloomberg promised to support Ognibene in a run for his old Council seat against Democratic Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who defeated a Republican incumbent, Anthony Como, last year in their rematch for what had been Dennis Gallagher’s seat. This could come as a personal and political snub to Crowley’s cousin, Queens Democratic chair Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens/Bronx), who was seen as supportive of the mayor’s move to extend term limits and seek re-election.

Ognibene, who will announce his candidacy soon, said in an interview that he fully expects Bloomberg to support him.

The move required crowding out Como, who had himself expressed interest in running again for the seat, and was expected to challenge Crowley in a rematch this year. Como is now said to be concentrating on his private law practice and plans to forgo elected politics, according to Republican officials. He did not return messages left at his law office seeking comment.

Ulrich, for his part, has earned a more considerable investment from Bloomberg because of his early endorsement of the mayor, which came several days before Ragusa and the county party made their own decision public.

Some even think that Bloomberg made Ulrich the kingmaker, forcing the Queens GOP to go along with the decision of their prized young talent.

“Even if the Queens County GOP did not endorse the mayor, [Bloomberg would] be endorsing Eric, because Eric was out in front in the beginning with the mayor, and that counts for something with them,” said a Queens Republican. “He put his skin in the game before we did.”

Now, in what is sure to be an intense battle to keep his seat, Ulrich is positioning himself as a Bloomberg-type Republican: pro-union, pro-environment and, most importantly, unfettered by party allegiance.

“I didn’t want to wait for the county to come out and do it, because then obviously it would be seen as me just following what the party does,” Ulrich said. “I’m not into machine politics.”

Despite the contentiousness that preceded the deal, the final arrangement and the security of having the mayor’s billions behind them seem to have soothed Queens Republicans’ anxiety about the future—at least among the officials who have often warred with each other.

“It’s very unusual in Queens County Republican Party politics,” Ognibene said. “Since I’ve been involved, for well over 20 years now, I’ve never seen it with less internal struggle.”