Tom Ognibene was knocked out of the Republican primary by petition challenges from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign, but he remains on the ballot as the Conservative Party candidate.
Ognibene was a City Councilman for 10 years until 2001 representing Middle Village and other parts of Queens, and he was the Republican minority leader for seven years. He is currently practicing law. Ognibene spoke to The Jewish Week in a phone interview Monday about his campaign.
Jewish Week: Without enough money to advertise, how are you able to get your message out?
Ognibene: There are many organizations that are favorable to me, religious and civic organizations, and they’ve been doing mailings including pieces about me talking about the issues and reminding people that there are three candidates in the race, that there is an alternative to the major candidates.
What would your immediate priorities be as mayor?
I would attack the budget. This mayor, if there’s any significant flaw in his administration, it’s how he has reduced what he calls the uncontrollable: Medicaid, fringe benefits, debt service. He has raised the budget three times the rate of inflation. He has done nothing to control spending. What that’s going to lead to, I believe, is another 25 percent tax increase … That’s part of his philosophy. He never looked to reduce the burden of government on people. His idea is that you increase spending on what he perceives to be the needs of government and then make people pay for it through taxes.
Second, I would reduce the size of city government. There is a lot of room for consolidation. We have a workforce that is about 42 percent over the national average. I would direct my deputy mayors and commissioners to look at how to consolidate agencies and reduce the payroll. Over four years I would reduce it by at least 20,000.
Who would be the top people in your administration?
I would try to bring back somebody like a Bill Bratton or Howard Safir to run the Police Department. The mayor takes a lot of credit for crime reduction … I don’t think crime is down but he manipulates the statistics. I’ve talked to police and they confirm that. I would also change the whole focus on [Housing Preservation and Development], which has always been to preserve the status quo. I’d bring in an outside developer or financier and put them in charge of HPD. People who know how to build housing are in the private sector. Government often stands in the way of creative ideas for housing because people who are commissioners and deputy mayors are people often from inside government, they don’t get a fresh perspective from the outside.
You don’t believe Ray Kelly has done a good job as police commissioner?
He’s done an effective job. I happen to like him, but he has moved away from the kind of effective law enforcement that was a hallmark in the 1990s under Rudy Giuliani. What they do now is manipulate statistics, change burglaries to felony trespass or misdemeanors.
You have been attacking the mayor as not a true Republican. In an overwhelmingly Democratic town, isnít that playing into his hands?
One thing that disturbed me a lot was that the mayor came in and said he had an epiphany and saw that the Republican way of running the city was the better way and he would help build the party. I met with him in 2001 and we had a long discussion. But he turned his back on the Republican Party, didn’t raise any funds, didn’t appoint Republican officials to shape his administration … didn’t do anything for three-and-a-half years. It’s important to have a two-party system in this city, and the mayor did everything possible to destroy that.
Short of winning, what would you consider a victory in this campaign?
I’ve already achieved a victory: I made the mayor back in January run to the Republican Party and start paying attention to it. He did fund-raisers now for the counties, has now appointed a few Republican judges. I think he’ll just go right back and do nothing [after the election]. At least I made him stand up.
Aren’t you hurting your own party by trying to weaken its nominee?
No, I think it would help us begin to look and build the party from the beginning. From the beginning my whole idea was to make him more sensitive to a two-party system and Republican needs. Unfortunately my colleagues didn’t have the same level of moral courage that they should have. Certain county leaders and elected officials capitulated too early to the mayor.
Should there be limits to personal campaign spending?
It’s a difficult thing when you think about it. He has always complained about special interests and yet he is the quintessential special interest. He’s been able to drown out, really, democracy in this city. The only image we get is what he tells us about himself. The newspapers and TV have completely capitulated to him. They don’t have the moral courage … When he talks about statistics and education nobody challenges him.
If you deprived the mayor of enough Republican votes to help Ferrer win, how would you feel? Would that make you happy?
If you can tell me one difference between Fernando Ferrer and Michael Bloomberg I’d answer the question. They are both ultra-liberal Democrats, although Ferrer seems to me to be a much more decent human being.
It sounds like you’re angry at Bloomberg.
I am opposed to gay marriage and I’m pro-life, and I think on those two issues he pokes a lot of good people, a lot of decent and religious-based people in the eye, and I think he does it was glee. That’s offensive to me.
What is your message to Jewish voters?
I ask them to look at my positions and what I stand for. I’m married for 38 years, I have two children brought up in this city, and they live and work in this city. I’m pro-life, opposed to gay marriage and I believe we have to reduce taxes and burdens of city government. I believe in freedom of expression with respect to speech and religion.
Have you campaigned in Jewish neighborhoods, picked up any endorsements?
I’ve campaigned at many stops. [Former Brooklyn City Councilman] Noach Dear has been very supportive. He’s advised me and I’m very thankful that I have him as a friend. I served 10 years with him in the Council.
Have you followed the controversy over a mohel who was investigated by the Health Department and a baby who was infected with herpes?
Sometimes these things happen, but it’s an important religious ceremony. [The city] was forced to do the right thing and drop it. If it wasn’t an election year they wouldn’t have done the right thing. They never should have created the issue in the first place.