Republican divide leads to unprecedented primary

By CHRISTIAN FALCONE

Infighting within the city’s Republican Party is not uncommon. But the current strife has led a faction of GOP members to primary for election district leaders and that is unprecedented.

On Sept. 10, registered Republicans will have the option of voting for district leaders. In total, six election districts are being challenged.election_circle1

Publicly, party officials say the reason for the primary lies with the recent nomination of a registered Democrat to the Republican Party’s November City Council slate.

Back in June, Kirstin Bucci was selected by Republican district leaders to run on the party’s ticket at its annual nominating caucus.

But, at the time, there was significant disagreement over the selection, according to sources.

Matt Thomas, president of the Rye Republican Club, said many members in the club felt it was a failure of leadership that the party endorsed a registered Democrat.

“There was a lot of frustration,” he said. “It really is frustration with the current management leadership of the committee.”

Soon after, a group o-f- Republicans began circulating their own petitions for district leader and collected enough signatures to trigger primaries‑in what are typically unopposed contests‑in six districts.

The primary goal is not a change in party leadership as much as to send a message that the dissenting group wants its voice heard, according to Thomas.

The dissident group is spearheaded by John Alfano, a former city judge, Matt Fahey, a former city councilman, and resident Pat MacCarthy.

“I think a lot of them want to have a seat at the table regardless who is at the end of the table,” Thomas said.

The Rye Republican Club was resurrected two-and-a-half years ago after decades of dormancy. Thomas said it was restarted after the Republican success in 2009, when the “Change for Rye” ticket headlined by Mayor Douglas French swept into office, winning four City Council seats.

However, since that time, there has been some conflict between the two GOP groups.

The committee is the legal entity that endorses candidates, while the club’s mission is to raise the political narrative, according to Thomas.

“I didn’t sign any petition. I’m not running for district leader and I have no desire to become [party] chair, he said.

But, members of the Rye City Republican Committee believe the dissident group actively recruited candidates for City Council in a back door attempt to primary the GOP-endorsed ticket. Unable to field a slate, however, the group is then believed to have decided its only recourse was wrestling control of the party by taking over districts, according to committee members.

“Why can’t they be men and stand for principles instead of being weasels,” said Republican committee chairman Tony Piscionere, adding he doesn’t believe Bucci’s nomination was the driving force behind the dissident group’s actions.

Instead, Piscionere believes the divide between the opposing sides of the Rye GOP goes much deeper than what has been made public, and is an attempt to overthrow him.

“I think this is nothing more than [Doug] French and [Peter] Jovanovich trying to exact revenge for the fact that I didn’t support French for his failed policies and administration,” he said. “It was a power play. That’s what this is.”

Indeed, Piscionere and Republican Mayor Douglas French have been at odds since the outset of French’s administration, which began 2010. Piscionere has been a strong backer of Republican Councilman Joe Sack‑a consistent French detractor and the party’s 2013 mayoral candidate‑during French’s time in office.

Piscionere and Sack have also clashed with Republican Deputy Mayor Peter Jovanovich, a French ally who launched his own independent mayoral run last month.

City Manager Scott Pickup has often been at the center of the conflict between French and Sack. Pickup has been criticized by some in the community for his role in both the Rye Golf Club and Rye TV controversies. French and Jovanovich have been ardent supporters of the city manager, while Sack has been highly critical of Pickup’s performance since 2011.

Piscionere said Jovanovich’s candidacy is nothing but an attempt to continue French’s policies by thwarting Sack’s mayoral run. He also said the connection between Jovanovich and certain Republicans are too evident to ignore. According to Piscionere, Fahey carried petitions on behalf of Jovanovich’s mayoral candidacy and Thomas has been asked to run the councilman’s fall campaign.

But French said the issues at play within the Republican Party have nothing to do with him or Jovanovich and are driven by elements of the party turning against the chairman.

“I’ve decided, for my own career, not to run. It has nothing to do with the politics going on,” the mayor said. “For [Piscionere] to associate that with me is grasping. This is within his own party.”

French pointed to the history of infighting that has besieged the Rye Republican Party for years under Piscionere’s watch. In 2005, a faction of Republicans split from the GOP and launched its own party, the Rye Citizens First Party, which ran its own slate of City Council and mayoral candidates that year.

In 2007, Republicans, still reeling from the divide, were unable to field a full slate for City Council, forcing a controversial merger with city Democrats and an uncontested election.

Then, in 2008, French approached the party chairman about running for mayor. He said the conflict with Piscionere started shortly after he took office in 2010 after winning the mayor’s seat in the 2009 election. According to French, he had an agreement in place with the party chairman that was very clear.

“I thought he was the wrong leader with the party in 2008 given his track record,” French said. “I said ‘I will rebuild the party, but you step down.’ He agreed to that, but never stepped down.”

French has since accused Piscionere of using his political influence to sway votes or have specific people appointed to boards and commissions.

“I’m the one that has fought him every chance,” the mayor said. “The days of Boss Tweed are over. He wants to have political influence on all the decisions.”

Piscionere called French’s comments delusional and said there was never any such agreement in place.

“He came to me begging to run for mayor,” Piscionere said. “He was chasing me. Why do I have to have an agreement with him to step down as party chair? That is absurd.”

Piscionere said, in his 20 years as party chairman, he has rarely spoken at City Council meetings until the French administration took office.

“Our mayor was doing things so terrible that I refused to be quiet and sit down and let people have the opinion that he was supported by the Republican Party. This is revenge because we wouldn’t blindly go along,” he said.

In the end, this all may be much ado about nothing. Even if the dissident faction’s candidates win each district they are contesting, the group still will not have majority control of the Rye Republican Party.

Contact: chris@hometwn.com

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About Christian Falcone

Christian Falcone is the editor-in-chief for the Hometown Media Group chain of weekly newspapers covering cities, towns and villages throughout Westchester County. He took over the seat in April 2013. Prior to that he spent more than six years as an associate editor of The Rye Sound Shore Review. Known for his investigative brand of journalism, Christian has collected numerous awards for his reporting. Most notably, he took home honors for his coverage of the 2007 floods as well as Tropical Storm Irene. Most recently, he uncovered the alleged corruption at Rye Golf Club that led to an ongoing criminal investigation by the Westchester County District Attorney’s office. Prior to joining HomeTown Media Group in February 2007, Falcone reported for the Long Island Press and Queens Courier. He is a graduate of Hofstra University. Christian can be reached at 914-653-1000 x19 or at chris@hometwn.com; follow him on Twitter @christfalcone.