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Former Councilman Tom Ognibene, a giant in Republican politics, dies

Photo courtesy of the Juniper Park Civic Association

BY ANTHONY GIUDICE AND ROBERT POZARYCKI

Politicians from both parties and community leaders are mourning the loss of Thomas Ognibene, former Republican Councilman of the 30th District, who died on Monday afternoon following a battle with an aggressive form of spinal cancer.

Ognibene, 72, was elected in 1992 to represent the district that includes the neighborhoods of Glendale, Middle Village, Maspeth and Ridgewood and was named two years later as City Council minority leader. He remained in both positions until 2001, when term limits forced him out of office.

A Middle Village native, Ognibene was a mainstay in Queens politics. Before being elected, Ognibene helped orchestrate a controversial takeover of the Queens County Republican Party.

In 2005, Ognibene challenged then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the Republican primary, a race he lost. He made an unsuccessful bid to return to the City Council in a 2008 special election following the resignation of Dennis Gallagher, who had previously served as Ognibene’s chief of staff and stepped down amid scandal.

Undeterred, Ognibene again ran for the City Council seat the following year and lost to incumbent City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. In 2010, he ran as a Republican lieutenant governor candidate on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate and Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino. Though Paladino secured the GOP nod for governor, Ognibene lost the lieutenant governor nomination to Chappaqua County Executive Greg Edwards.

As recently as 2014, there were rumblings of Ognibene seeking political office again, this time as a potential challenger to state Senator Joseph Addabbo, but Ognibene bowed out of the race well before it got underway.

“He was a great leader for the community and a bit controversial when he was in the council,” said Vincent Arcuri, chair of Community Board 5. “He was very outspoken and very capable. Once he got involved with something he didn’t quit until it was done. This is a big loss for the city and for the community.”

Ognibene leaves behind a legacy that has influenced many of today’s politicians and community leaders. As head of an outnumbered Republican delegation in a heavily Democratic City Council, Ognibene earned the respect of many on the Democratic side as a great debater, both on the council floor and at committee hearings.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, who later succeeded Ognibene as council minority leader, remarked to the New York Observer that “If Tom were a Democrat, he’d be a legend in this town.”

Ognibene also had a profound influence on other Republicans citywide including Councilman Eric Ulrich, who lamented his loss in a statement Monday afternoon.

“Tom Ognibene was like a second father to me and I am deeply saddened by his passing. He was my pillar of strength and most trusted friend,” Ulrich said. “Undoubtedly, I would not have been elected to public office had it not been for Tom’s constant encouragement, help and guidance.”

Other elected officials took to Twitter to extend their condolences. Mayor Bill de Blasio called Ognibene “a dedicated public servant with the courage of his convictions,” while Congresswoman Grace Meng remarked that Ognibene “worked tirelessly 4 Queens.”

Aside from politics, Ognibene was the vice chairman of Christ the King High School’s board of trustees, as well as the chairman of the school’s Scholarship Committee.

“Christ the King is deeply saddened by the loss of our longtime board of trustees vice chairman and chairman of Christ the King’s Scholarship Committee, Thomas V. Ognibene,” said Serphin Maltese, chairman of Christ the King’s board of trustees; Michael Michel, president of Christ the King; and Peter Mannarino, principal at Christ the King, in a joint statement on behalf of the Christ the King board of trustees. “Mr. Ognibene was dedicated not only to the students and parents of the school, but also as a public servant during his years as a member of the New York City Council and as the Minority Leader of NYC Council. Mr. Ognibene was a dear friend and colleague and a constant inspiration to all at Christ the King.”

Ognibene graduated from C.W. Post College in 1966, served in the United States Army from 1967 to 1970 and graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1974.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret, two children, Guy and Eve, and granddaughter Alexis.

Ognibene is being waked on Wednesday and Thursday at the George Werst Funeral Home in Glendale; a funeral Mass will be held on Friday morning at Sacred Heart Church in Glendale, followed by interment at Calverton National Cemetery in Suffolk County.

Updated Oct. 14, 10:26 a.m.

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