By David Brand
Not too long ago, the Republican party in Queens was a relative force, notching consistent victories throughout the borough and even picking off a seat in Congress in 2011.
But this year, the Queens County Republican Party — plagued by infighting and beset by changing demographics — failed to field a viable registered Republican for Queens district attorney, a marquee countywide position.
After drafting a placeholder candidate for the June primary, the County GOP gave its nomination to registered Democrat Joe Murray, a defense attorney and former NYPD cop. The move frustrated several local Republican leaders.
“Murray’s election is emblematic of a bigger problem with the Republican party in Queens County. The party is in desperate shape,” said Joe Concannon, a Bellerose resident who leads the Queens Republican Patriots. “He’d be a great Republican candidate, but he’s a Democrat.”
Concannon is feuding with County GOP leadership and questioned why the party couldn’t find a Republican to run for a law enforcement position — “a race in our wheelhouse,” he said. On Nov. 1, he still wasn’t sure he would vote for Murray because of his Democratic registration. “What does this do for our party?” Concannon said.
Murray, for his part, says he voted for President Donald Trump and was “disgusted” by the progressive bent of the Democratic primary for Queens DA.
His message has reached Republicans in conservative pockets of the borough. On Nov. 2, his campaign team passed out fliers at an anti-shelter rally in Glendale. Prominent speakers there took the mic to assail his Democratic opponent, Borough President Melinda Katz. Murray campaign signs have cropped up outside homes and in public spaces in Howard Beach and Northeast Queens and along the Rockaway peninsula — traditionally conservative areas.
But Murray, a tireless campaigner, said the county organization has provided little financial or institutional support. Katz outraised Murray 13-to-one during a recent campaign finance filing period. She raised more money from police unions than Murray has raised overall.
“I am getting a lot of support from members. The word is getting out there in Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Rockaway,” Murray said, but intraparty feuding has eroded GOP influence and cohesiveness, he added. “It’s unfortunate they have this problem. For the party to be so small is unfortunate.”
Queens County GOP Chairperson Joann Ariola disagreed with that assessment. She said the organization has embraced Murray and has ramped up get-out-the-vote efforts over the past two weeks.
“We gave [Murray] the line and no one benefits more from his win than the county organization,” Ariola said. “There are volunteers and district leaders helping him, we’re doing social media, we supported his fundraiser.”
“And I do think he is going to win,” she said.
Ariola said “malcontents” within the party are taking potshots at leadership and hurting the GOP at a time when they should rally around candidates.
“Their sour grapes are showing,” she said
Former Councilmember Sal Albanese, a veteran lawmaker and political observer, has a dimmer view of the current state of the party.
“It’s on its deathbed,” said Albanese, a moderate Democrat who represented District 43 in Southern Brooklyn for 15 years. “It’s in critical condition.”
Like Republicans across the state, the Queens GOP is “not making any headway in attracting new voters,” he added. “They’re white and older and the city is much more diverse than that.”
Nevertheless, several pockets of Queens remain Republican strongholds — even though there are over 600,000 more registered Democrats in the borough. In the February nonpartisan special election for public advocate, Eric Ulrich, a Republican, received the most votes in the borough while more than a dozen Democrats split the constituency.
In 2011, businessman Bob Turner won a special election for the Congressional seat vacated by disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner. State Sen. Frank Padavan represented Senate District 11 for 27 years and Republicans dominated Council District 30 for generations, until Elizabeth Crowley became the first Democrat elected to represent Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale.
Recent Republicans victories have been fleeting, however. Crowley lost her seat to Republican Bob Holden in 2017. But Holden, a registered Democrat — who like Murray got the GOP nomination through the state’s Wilson-Pakula law — promptly joined the Democratic conference after taking office. Another councilmember elected as a Republican, Flushing’s Peter Koo, switched his party affiliation in 2012. Ulrich, from Ozone Park, remains the only Republican elected official in Queens. He did not comment for this story.
The Queens District Attorney election seemed like an opportunity for the beleaguered party: It’s a law enforcement position in a low-turnout, off-year election. Only about 11 percent of registered Democrats bothered to show up for the Democratic primary, despite widespread media coverage of the race to replace the late DA Richard Brown.
Katz is heavily favored to win the DA race, but some Democrats say privately that they worry about a low-turnout election fostering a Republican upset — especially if voters who supported democratic socialist public defender Tiffany Cabán in the primary stay home.
The fracturing of the GOP has gone under the radar compared to the high-profile power struggles among establishment Democrats, leftist reformers and socialists in Queens, but the Republican factions were clear immediately after the DA primary.
Former GOP Executive Director Robert Hornak told the Eagle in June that the party was in disarray. At the time, retired Judge Greg Lasak considered seeking the GOP nomination after finishing third in the Democratic primary. Hornak called Lasak a “respectable guy,” but said he did not want to vote for a lifelong Democrat.
“The reality is this just exemplifies the current Queens GOP,” Hornak said at the time. “How much more failure can we expect from our own party?”