Smithtown voters must decide on Nov. 5 whether to re-elect the longest-serving town supervisor in Long Island history or choose one of two other candidates who say the town has stagnated and needs new direction.
Republican Patrick R. Vecchio, 83, who has held the office more than 35 years, is facing Robert Creighton, 76, a former Suffolk County police commissioner and town councilman backed by Conservatives, and the Democratic, Independence and Working Families parties' candidate Steve Snair, 31, a lawyer and political novice.
Stanley B. Klein, a political-science professor at LIU Post who has researched local races since 1961, predicted "a very close race" between Vecchio and Creighton. "At this point, I don't think there's a clear winner."
Klein said Vecchio's narrow victory in the Republican primary last month -- 3,410 votes to Creighton's 2,707 -- suggests he's not home free.
Vecchio "barely won, which means that while he has 35 years as an incumbent, even a sizable number of his own party would like to see a change," Klein said.
Vecchio has cautioned against opponents' pledges to transform Smithtown. "I haven't changed one iota since the first day I came in," Vecchio said. "If people want change, for change's sake, you better be careful what you wish for."
Candidates state goalsSnair "is running uphill," said Klein, because the largely Republican town doesn't "start off with enough Democrats to make a difference" and Snair's development plans to modernize the town would create a "major change in the character of Smithtown."
The road to Election Day has been beset by bumps and ego bruises.
In February, Creighton -- a former Conservative -- said he switched to the Republican party to run against Vecchio because he could not win solely on the Conservative line. (Creighton changed that position in an October interview, saying he could win on that line alone.)
Vecchio responded to Creighton's intraparty challenge with a terse, "Et tu, Brute?" -- evoking Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" when the Roman emperor is betrayed by his former ally Brutus -- and called for the resignation of Suffolk County Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle after the GOP leader endorsed Creighton.
In interviews, candidates outlined their visions for the town of about 118,000.
Creighton said he wants to "reinvigorate" the town "sensibly," through residential and commercial development in downtown areas and slashing red tape.
"I am not trying to turn Smithtown into Queens," he said. "There is no question that the downtown areas are in disrepair and are inactive . . . we have to try to do something to improve it."
Creighton said he wants to work with the Smithtown Chamber of Commerce to create a business improvement district and develop more parking. A larger economic base will help keep taxes low, and updates to parks will restore them as the "gem of Smithtown," he said.
Snair said he wants to address sagging downtowns by making them more "pedestrian friendly," filling vacancies, and developing "moderately priced" town houses for retirees and young professionals.
Increasing government efficiency is a top priority, said Snair, adding that he wants a comprehensive audit to determine leaner ways to operate.
"If we can couple that with expanding our tax base . . . that's how you save the taxpayers' money and provide them with better services," he said.
Snair said Creighton has been largely in step with Vecchio until his run for supervisor. "They have sat side by side on the town board together for six years, and we've seen what type of progress -- or lack of progress -- they've made."
Vecchio disputed his opponents' criticisms about high vacancy rates, saying in an August report that the Main Street vacancies in Smithtown average 6 percent. "For those who think the sky is falling . . . it is not."
Vecchio said he wants to "continue to do the right things at the right time" and envisions Smithtown looking "like the way it is now" in five to 20 years.
Managing quality of life is among Vecchio's chief concerns. "There has been too much talk about 'business' development, and what I believe are bad zoning decisions -- like the proposed Uplands [at St. Johnland] in Kings Park, which would destroy 50 pristine acres of 1-acre zoned residential property," he said.
Snair has also opposed the 136-bed proposed assisted-living facility. Creighton said he favors the concept but wants to wait for results of a final environmental impact study.
Highway work criticizedVecchio said he is also concerned about the environment and wants to keep a keen eye on it while "keeping sound fiscal policy."
All three describe themselves as fiscal conservatives, but Creighton and Snair have said that Vecchio has allowed road improvements to lag. "I would say that is not true," said Vecchio of the critique. "We pave almost 20 to 22 miles a year of roads out of 450" miles.
Snair and Creighton cited the February blizzard as an example of the town's poor communication and leadership, exacerbated by old equipment. "Smithtown should not have been using 35-year-old trucks," Creighton said.
Snair said that as a result, "some people were literally trapped in their homes and they felt that no one was coming to help them."
But town officials have said an obscure state highway law on the amount of tax dollars that can be spent on heavy machinery has hindered efforts to upgrade aging equipment.
Vecchio said his experience leading Smithtown through critical times -- like brokering a deal with the Town of Huntington for garbage disposal -- and keeping taxes low during the recession, make him stand out. "Smithtown is the most fiscally stable town on Long Island," he said.
Klein said the decision will come down to campaign management -- and to voters, who typically engage in campaigns two weeks before the election. "Whichever campaign has a better organization to get their voters out, wins."