Ragusa Out, Turner In At Queens GOP?
By ROSS BARKAN
|U.S. Rep. Bob Turner’s upset victory last year may have propelled him to be the frontrunner for the head of the Queens Republican Party.
The Queens Republican Party, more divided than ever after an ugly State Senate primary, may have a new leader sooner rather than later.
Party Chair Phil Ragusa, who backed Juan Reyes in a failed primary challenge against Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), is reaching a “tipping point” for some GOP insiders, according to one operative. Ragusa, Republican chair since 2007, survived an attempted coup from former Councilman Tom Ognibene last year, but his hold on the party could be in jeopardy after Ulrich, an ally of Ognibene’s and a favorite of State Senate Republicans, trounced Reyes in a divisive primary that left some Queens Republicans wondering whether Ragusa had taken a personal feud too far.
U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-Middle Village), left without a district to run for after new Congressional lines were drawn this year, expressed interest to the New York Post last week about leading the Republican Party in the future. Turner, like Ognibene and Ulrich, is from the southern half of Queens and Ragusa is based in the north, but Turner’s upset victory over Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) in a special election last year lent him wide-reaching credibility among New York Republicans.
Turner did not respond to requests for comment as of press time, though the GOP operative who engineered his Congressional victory, Bill O’Reilly, said if Turner were “truly interested, that should be seriously discussed.”
One Queens GOP operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Turner would be a unifying force for the Republican Party and that Ragusa’s time in power may be coming to an end.
“Turner has the gravitas that comes with being in Congress and he’s an independent guy who has shown the ability to work with all kinds of people,” the operative said. “Juan Reyes was a tipping point for a lot of people. Not only was it a silly endeavor from the start, but it was done in such a way, offensively and very heavy-handedly, that it upset a lot of people.
“When you add the fact that it was against a guy like Ulrich, who everybody except for hardcore Ragusa-[Vincent] Tabone loyalists agree is a shining star in the party and a real good chance to win the seat…it went from being petty infighting to really cannibalizing the party,” the operative added.
With Senate Republicans funneling tens of thousands of dollars into Ulrich’s campaign, the young councilman crushed Reyes, a Forest Hills attorney, by 40 points. The Reyes campaign drew condemnation from Republicans, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for mailings that attacked Ulrich for once dining with Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who is openly gay. The mail sought to galvanize social conservatives in the 15th Senate District but only added to the bad press Reyes was receiving. Ulrich is challenging State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) and is only a slight underdog in the race, according to political observers.
Local Republican Party machinery failed Reyes, an indicator that Ragusa’s grip on the party is weakening, said longtime political operative James McClelland, now chief of staff for Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing).
“In a primary, you’d think a candidate that has county backing has the formidable backing,” McClelland said. “They’re the ones that are supposed to rally district leaders and already have mechanisms on the ground.”
Ragusa did not respond to requests for comment but Vincent Tabone, Queens Republican Party executive vice chairman, affirmed that Ragusa still had the support of the party.
“Chairman Ragusa indicated he’s running for re-election and is willing to sit down with Bob Turner in the future to help build the party and bring people together,” Tabone said.
If Ulrich defeats Addabbo, McClelland said Ragusa’s ouster could be a “fait accompli.” As long as Ragusa has the support of his executive committee and district leaders, however, removing him from power will be a challenge for his opponents. He is up for reelection next year. When asked about Ragusa’s prospects, Ulrich was much more guarded about the possibility of a successful coup.
“I’ve stated before and I’ll state it again, we need change in the county leadership,” Ulrich said. “My main focus right now is winning this Senate seat.”
Reach Reporter Ross Barkan at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127 or firstname.lastname@example.org.