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Republicans cultivate votes in diverse corners of boro

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In a borough where Republicans acknowledge their handicap is high, the party is seeking to renew itself this election year by turning to an unlikely source of votes: immigrants and minorities.

Out of the borough’s 33 seats in the House of Representatives, state Senate and state Assembly up for grabs in November’s election, only two are now occupied by Republicans. The ratio of registered Republicans to Democrats in Queens stands at a meager one to five, and the number of borough Republicans in the City Council dropped after last year’s election from three down to one.

Despite the obvious disadvantages facing the Republican Party in Queens, however, the county organization is putting candidates on the ballot in half of this year’s races, braving the odds with a strategy of heavily supporting the governor while cultivating local Republicans among the borough’s diverse ethnic communities.

“We’re a revitalized Republican Party,” said state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), the chairman of the Queens County Republican Party and one of the borough’s two Republican incumbents running for re-election this year.

The party’s local hopes are largely pinned on the success of Gov. George Pataki, the Republican incumbent who is seeking his third term in office. He is facing a challenge from state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, a Democrat, along with six third-party candidates, including Thomas Golisano of the Independence Party and Stanley Aronowitz of the Greens.

“Whether or not George Pataki continues in office is the most important thing, not only to us that are Republicans but to the state,” Maltese said in a recent phone interview. “So that is the No. 1 race.”

Encumbered by limited resources, the borough organization is focusing its efforts on drumming up support for Pataki, with the idea that Republican candidates in local races could ride his coattails into office themselves.

The governor has already shown a strong interest in Queens, with both he and his wife making repeated visits to the borough in recent months, greatly increasing his visibility among local voters. He also picked up the endorsement of former Borough President Claire Shulman, a Democrat who is not afraid to cross party lines.

“He wants to concentrate on Queens,” Maltese said of the governor. “He views Queens as very important to his victory, and I see him carrying Queens very decidedly.”

That precedent has already been set. Despite its large number of registered Democrats, Queens was instrumental last year in the election of Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, having provided the votes that tipped the scale in his favor.

But the Republicans are also branching out to new groups with their eyes open to a fundamental feature of the borough’s population: cultural diversity.

“We felt this year would be a watershed year for the Republican Party to reach out to the minorities and to the new immigrants in our midst,” Maltese said. “We’re reaching out to the ethnic groups in Queens that we’re hopeful will begin to vote more and more Republican.”

Although many minority groups traditionally vote Democratic, the Republican slate features candidates from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds, who may help the party build support within their communities.

Among the assembly candidates Maltese cited were Charley Gonzales, a Hispanic Filipino running in Jackson Heights; Meilin Tan, a Chinese-American running in the new Flushing district; and Marina Rejas, a Hispanic candidate running in southeast Queens.

All told, Republicans are running in half of this year’s races for legislative posts on the state and federal level.

In the 18 local races for state Assembly, which has no Republican incumbents, the party has put eight candidates on the ballot, while four of the seven contests for the House of Representatives — which in Queens is also an exclusive club of Democrats — include Republican challengers.

In the eight races for state Senate, where the Republican Party holds the majority, both Maltese and state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) are running without Democratic opposition, while two other Republicans are trying to unseat Democrats and three races have no Republican representation. State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) has been cross-endorsed by the Republican Party.

But that still leaves one in two districts without a Republican candidate. Although failing to run anyone amounts to a Republican forfeit in half the districts, sometimes finding a person who is willing to run for office in a heavily Democratic district is an impossible task.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Maltese said, citing low Republican enrollment. “Nobody wants to run and lose.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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