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When a rare vacancy arose this year for a Civil Court judgeship representing a mostly middle-class, conservative swath of Queens, Suraci, a 52-year-old attorney, figured that if he could get on the ballot he had a shot. His résumé already read like a Queens jurist: Raised in Sunnyside, he attended Archbishop Molloy High School, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Manhattan College, and received his law degree from St. John's. He spent 20 years as a trial lawyer for Legal Aid defending low-income people in Queens criminal courts, where he had achieved a reputation among county prosecutors as a formidable opponent. He then moved on to private practice, handling disability cases and also serving as an administrative law judge adjudicating disputes at the city's parking violations bureau.
He was active in his community as well, serving as secretary of the Friends of Middle Village Library, vice president of Woodside Senior Assistance Center, and pro bono legal counsel to the Middle Village Property Owners Association. He helped found several nonprofit organizations including the Sunnyside Drum Corps and the Gateway Community Restoration Corp. The son of a former Republican district leader, Suraci had also paid his political dues, carrying his party's banner four times, coming closest to winning in 1993, when he was a candidate for the Supreme Court on the Republican and Conservative lines. The New York Times called him "clearly the best choice" in the race and he took in nearly 165,000 votesjust a handful shy of his Democratic-Liberal opponent, Luther Dye (recently forced off the bench for inappropriate courtroom behavior).
Despite his many partisan campaigns, Suraci, who appears thoughtful and self-effacing in person, has picked up admirers in the opposing party. "If there were more people like Joe in politics, it would be a better place," said a Democrat who once defeated him.
Democrats hold an almost insurmountable 5 to 1 edge in voter registrations in Queens, but Suraci believed the Third Civil Court District, where the vacancy arose, was winnable. Comprising the neighborhoods of Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale, and Richmond Hill, the district has repeatedly sent Republicans to the City Council to represent it.
So, Joe Suraci sat down and wrote a letter to the man with the most influence in the selection of judicial candidates for the GOP, state senator and county party leader Serphin Maltese, a former Conservative Party leader who had switched to the Republicans in 1990. Suraci had long told Maltese and other Republican officials of his interest in seeking a judgeship, but he thought a formal letter requesting consideration was appropriate. Not taking any chances on his request getting lost amid party or senate business, he mailed the letter to Maltese's home. He then waited for a response. And waited.
"That was in mid-May," said Suraci. "He never got back to me. I never heard anything from him. That alone was very upsetting."
Curious to see whom the Queens GOP had selected as its standard-bearer for the seat, Suraci went to the Board of Elections to check the official records. There, he saw that the Republicans had designated the same candidate as the Democratic and Conservative organizations, a woman by the name of Anna Culley. He didn't recognize the name at first, but when he saw another record that listed the candidate's full, hyphenated name, Anna Seminerio-Culley, he realized this was the daughter of longtime Queens Democratic assemblyman Anthony Seminerio.
"I was just astonished," said Suraci. "This district is one of the few Republicans have a chance to win. Why would you give it to a Democrat? Why not to someone who espouses the party's principles?"
The answer, in raw political terms, he knew, is a system of mutual back-scratching that serves the leadership of both parties well, if not their constituents. For his part, Anthony Seminerio, a former corrections officer whose brash, shoot-from-the-hip conservatism has made him a kind of force of nature in Queens politics, has repeatedly backed Republicans for higher office (he supported Mayor Giuliani, as well as Governor Pataki). He has made more than $1,500 in contributions from his own political fund to Republican candidates and organizations in the past year. In addition, Seminerio is a close friend of Maltese, the two of them dining frequently at Seminerio's favorite restaurant, La Bella Vita on Rockaway Boulevard.
There are also reciprocal favors paid by the Democrats to the Republicans in that part of Queens. Maltese has had no Democratic opponent on the ballot since 1994. This year, Republican city councilman Dennis Gallagher has no Democratic challenger, like his predecessor and mentor, former councilman and county GOP official Tom Ognibene.
It is an arrangement that troubles many in the Queens organization. "A lot of Republicans in Queens County are not happy about the way the party cross-endorses almost all the Democratic nominees on an almost pro forma basis," said Matt Hunter, a leader of the Forest Park Republican Club who has also tangled with the county party leadership. "We can't quite understand why it is that way."
It is particularly troubling, added Hunter, in the case of a district such as the one Suraci sought to represent, which, he said, is "quite capable of electing a Republican."
The Queens GOP handles judicial nominations in the same closed-door method that has disturbed reformers and prosecutors in Brooklyn: The county leader, in this case, Maltese, sends names of candidates to be interviewed to a screening panel. Frank Kenna, whose family has been active in the Queens GOP for generations and who heads the screening panel for Republican judicial candidates, said he received Seminerio-Culley's name from Maltese. Currently legal secretary to the county's administrative law judge, Seminerio-Culley appeared before the panel and was quickly approved. She was the only candidate interviewed. "I know Joe Suraci," said Kenna. "I know he has run occasionally, but I did not know he wanted to run this time. I never got his name."
Like Hunter, Kenna agreed that the party could win the Civil Court seat in the Third District. "It was a winnable seat," said Kenna, except that Seminerio-Culley carried one clear advantage: her name. "Could a Republican beat a Seminerio? I doubt it. Her father is one of us. We consider him one of our own."
Maltese makes no bones about his friendship with Seminerio. "He told me early on his daughter wanted to run," he said. "She went through the panel and she was accepted. End of story." The county leader said he had no idea Suraci had any interest in running until recently. But it wouldn't have mattered, he added.
"Yes, it's a local district race that a Republican would have a chance to win, if he had some visibility. Joe has none and he obviously doesn't have the confidence of his district leaders," said Maltese.
Like Brooklyn, Queens is not unique in picking judges based on connections rather than ability. Judges are made the same way in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island as well. "Nobody challenges any of this," said Suraci. "A lot of people are afraid to criticize, that their own political aspirations will be hurt if they do so. It will just go on forever unless someone does."