Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter's stunning victory on a single minor-party line demonstrates how the rules of politics sometimes don't apply in the small towns of the East End, politicians and political analysts said.
Walter overcame a loss of Republican establishment support and heavy super PAC spending to clinch a fourth two-year term Tuesday. Relegated to the Conservative line after losing a GOP primary in September, he prevailed in an unusual three-way race against Republican Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Democrat Anthony Coates.
Walter got 2,874 votes to Giglio's 2,438 and Coates' 1,720, according to unofficial results from the Suffolk Board of Elections.
Political experts said party affiliation doesn't matter as much in small towns like Riverhead, which has a population of 33,500 -- and where personalities can matter as much as politics.
"It's one of those races that's up close and personal and it's about Sean Walter," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead. "He probably would have gotten the same vote total regardless of what lines he ran on. The people who wanted to vote for him found him" on the ballot.
Walter faced an uphill battle after town and county GOP leaders and the Suffolk PBA lined up behind Giglio, effectively turning the three-term incumbent supervisor into an underdog, experts said.
Winning without the support of a major party is an "extreme rarity," said Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island political strategist who advised Walter in the race. "I certainly don't know of anyone who's done it that's not on the East End."
Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) pulled off a similar victory in 1991, when he won a four-way race for Southampton Town supervisor on the Southampton Party line.
"People sometimes tend to view politics and elections as if it's some sort of mechanical process: You add here, you subtract there, and you get a result," Thiele said. "Actually, it's more of a chemical process. When you have two candidates and you add a third to the mix, you change the entire chemistry of the election."
That's especially true on the East End, Thiele said, "where the towns are small enough that retail politics" still works.
Walter, a devout Catholic, was just as surprised by his victory. "This election is all by the strength and glory of God," he said Wednesday.
During the campaign, Walter weathered attack ads and mailers financed by the Suffolk PBA's super PAC, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, which spent $54,772 supporting Giglio, according to campaign finance reports.
The PAC spent more money in Riverhead than on any other contest, including the Suffolk executive race, records show. Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.
Giglio, who has two years left on her council term, said Wednesday that she looked forward to "burying the hatchet" with Walter.
"The taxpayers spoke," she said. "Wading River came out loud and clear in their support for their neighbor Sean Walter."