Feud Among S.I. Republicans Spills Into Assembly Race
By JONATHAN P. HICKS
Published: July 25, 2004
For a time, not very many years ago, Staten Island Republicans seemed to operate as one big happy family. An oddity in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, they were nevertheless a fearsome power base, wielding considerable clout with the Giuliani administration largely because of the borough’s loyalty to him at the polls.
But the party that was lorded over by Guy V. Molinari is split by a bitter feud. And that feud is playing out in an Assembly race in the central and southern portions of the borough, the 62nd Assembly District, an area that is the Republican bedrock of New York City. There, the incumbent assemblyman, Robert A. Straniere, who is also the assistant minority leader, is facing two challengers, each of them backed by a different and prominent Republican leader.
One of Mr. Straniere’s challengers is backed by Mr. Molinari, a former Staten Island borough president and longtime paterfamilias of the island’s Republican Party. United States Representative Vito J. Fossella, one of the borough’s best-known politicians, supports the other.
The race has caused the fissures within the party to become more pronounced than ever. More than anything, the race has been portrayed as a contest between Mr. Molinari and Mr. Fossella to determine who has the superior political muscle.
But Staten Islanders will see neither of those names on the ballot. Instead, they will see the name of Mr. Straniere, 63, a 24-year incumbent assemblyman who has always been something of a maverick within the Republican Party. For years he has been attacked by his fellow Republicans, who have accused him of everything from being inattentive to his district to living in Manhattan — quite the black mark in a borough that cherishes its separateness.
The ire of other Republicans reached a boiling point three years ago during a bitter contest for borough president that the assemblyman lost to James P. Molinaro, a state Conservative Party official who was endorsed by the Republicans over Mr. Straniere. Nonetheless, Mr. Straniere survived a strong challenge two years ago from a candidate backed by Mr. Molinari, winning that primary by just 159 votes.
Running with the backing of Mr. Molinari is Mario Bruno, the assistant commissioner for after-school programs at the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. And Mr. Fossella is supporting Vincent Ignizio, the chief of staff for Councilman Andrew Lanza.
For the most part, the candidates suggest that the race is more about who is best qualified to deal with the issues that they say trouble Staten Islanders the most: the fast-paced development of the borough, the need for more mass transit between Staten Island and Manhattan and the need for additional classroom space.
Mr. Ignizio, 29, says that he is the best prepared to bring new energy to the job. He cites not only his time working with Mr. Lanza but also the five months he spent as a de facto city councilman after Councilman Stephen J. Fiala, for whom he worked, stepped down to become the Staten Island county clerk. Mr. Lanza was elected to fill that vacancy.
”I’ve lived my entire life in this district,” Mr. Ignizio said. ”I have the ability to work with people.” He added that he had been endorsed by the Staten Island Republican Party as well as by Mr. Fossella, Councilman Lanza and the Council’s Republican leader, James S. Oddo.
”In my view, the assemblyman has a lackluster record on issues like overdevelopment and transportation,” Mr. Ignizio said. ”The fact that I’ve been endorsed by 16 civic associations in the district in a race with a 24-year incumbent speaks volumes.”
Similarly, Mr. Bruno, 40, says that his experience in government and in political campaigns has enabled him to learn the needs of Staten Island residents better than his rivals. A onetime engineer with the city’s Transportation Department, Mr. Bruno ran unsuccessfully for an Assembly seat in Brooklyn in 1996 before moving to the island recently.
He was a strategist in several borough races, including last year’s district attorney campaign in which the island elected Daniel M. Donovan Jr., the first Republican to hold that position in recent history. Through that race, he became better acquainted with Mr. Molinari, who was the major political backer of Mr. Donovan.
‘The assemblyman is good at getting press releases out and giving out awards,” Mr. Bruno said of Mr. Straniere. ”But the real issue is his lack of effectiveness. I have come to learn what makes government work and what doesn’t.”
For his part, Mr. Straniere says that his qualifications and effectives are less an issue than the desires of Mr. Molinari and Mr. Fossella to control the Republican Party.
”This is all personal with them,” said Mr. Straniere, who said that he indeed lives on Staten Island though he and his wife retain an apartment in Manhattan. ”This is not about how I voted on a bill or how attentive or inattentive I have been. Neither one of my opponents has any legislative credentials or experience. They are hiding behind their supporters.”
Their supporters, meanwhile, insist that they are backing candidates who they think are best qualified.
”This race is simply about getting the best representative for the people of the south shore of Staten Island,” Representative Fossella said.
Mr. Molinari said that he, Borough President Molinaro and others decided to support Mr. Bruno’s candidacy long before Mr. Ignizio entered the race. And he said that the decision of Mr. Fossella and the other officials to endorse Mr. Ignizio was an example of the divisions and lack of effectiveness of the Republican Party. ”I didn’t have any communication from the congressman,” he said.
”Right now, the party is floundering,” Mr. Molinari said. He pointed out troubles that the party had this year, specifically citing a Republican candidate for another Assembly seat who had to withdraw his candidacy because he did not live in the district, as required by state law.
”If you’re making mistakes as serious at that, if you are divided in the candidates you support,” Mr. Molinari said, ”how can the party get into a rebuilding mode and beat Democrats?”