By Gabriel Rom
Former Council Minority Leader Thomas Ognibene, a Queens Republican giant who mixed a strong conservative vision with practicality and brought the interests of the central section of the borough to a city-wide platform, died Tuesday at the age of 72 following a battle with aggressive spinal cancer.
Ognibene was first elected to the Council in 1991 representing the southwest Queens neighborhoods that cover Middle Village, Glendale, Ridgewood and Woodhaven.
Ognibene exhibited a knack for political horse-trading and quickly rose to the position of Council minority leader in 1994, holding the position until 2001 when he left office because of term limits. Carrying a strong belief in the importance of civic associations, Ognibene helped build the Juniper Valley Civic Association into one of the most powerful in the state.
“Where could a civic get access to the mayor and deputy mayor before Tom?” asked Bob Holden, president of Juniper Valley. “He had such influence because he was well respected by both parties.”
At 6-foot-3, Ognibene cut a physically imposing figure and quickly earned respect in the Council from across the political aisle, enjoying friendly relationships with city Democrats, including former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. and former Queens Congressman Anthony Weiner.
“He was a great credit to the GOP and to the city of New York,” Vallone said. “He knew that being a party member meant that first you’re loyal to your city and your country. We both agreed on that, we were able to do tremendous things against all odds. I loved the man and I loved what he stood for.”
Much of Ognibene’s tenure in the Council served as a bulwark for one of the city’s most conservative enclaves against then-Mayor David Dinkins’ progressive politics. Ognibene strongly opposed Dinkins’ taxation plan as well as a variety of socially liberal policies that came from the Council.
Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who represents a younger generation of Queens Republicans, grew up under the guidance of Ognibene.
“There is no doubt in my mind that all of the communities that he represented are solid middle-class communities today because of Tom’s hard work,” Ulrich said.” “He delivered millions of dollars to those communities for parks, to new schools, to libraries.”
“He was a bright light on a City Council that was dominated by ultra liberals,” Holden wrote in a 2001 essay for the Juniper Berry, the civic’s magazine.
In 2005 Ognibene tried to take his agenda to all five boroughs, challenging then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the Republican mayoral primary.
“Tom knew that Bloomberg wasn’t really a Republican and that’s why he ran against him,” Holden said.
Bloomberg successfully challenged Ognibene’s run and disqualified him from the GOP race. Ognibene continued his mayoral candidacy on the Conservative party ticket. Ognibene attempted to win back his old seat in 2009, but lost to current Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale).
He backed Joseph Lhota for mayor in 2013, while much of the Queens Republican establishment supported John Catsimatidis.
Ognibene was born during World War II on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, son to Josephine, a school principal, and Morris, a paint contractor. A talented student, Ognibene deferred attending college in order to work and assist his family and graduated with honors from C.W. Post College in 1966. He then joined the U.S. Army Armor School Officer Candidate Class. When he left the service in 1970 he moved to Ridgewood with his wife Margaret Bollmann.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without him,” Ulrich said. “I’m at a personal and a professional loss. He was a giant and I stood on his shoulders.”
Reach reporter Gabriel Rom by e-mail at grom@