Before a crowd of fellow Republicans that included several of his political nemeses and a potential primary foe, the longest-serving town supervisor in Long Island history announced Sunday he would seek an unprecedented 13th term in office.
Smithtown's Patrick Vecchio, speaking at a town GOP fundraiser in Lake Ronkonkoma, said he hoped to retain the post he first won in 1977 -- the year the late Edward I. Koch was first elected mayor of New York City. His term ends in December.
Vecchio, 82, a former Democrat who ran an unsuccessful 1991 campaign for Suffolk County executive, has been praised by supporters for his tightfisted stewardship of town finances. But detractors have blamed him for declining downtowns and deteriorating town roads.
Most Republicans said they believed he would seek re-election. But some Sunday said they were still disappointed because they want to see a new face in that position -- such as Councilman Robert Creighton.
Vecchio said he is looking forward to campaigning.
"It's what I do every four years," he said. "I enter every campaign with some sense of trying to give my message out to the people. . . . I hope that it works again this time."
Speculation about Creighton's plans increased in October when the former Suffolk police commissioner left the Conservative Party and became a Republican. Sunday, Creighton, 75, would not rule out running in a primary against Vecchio, but said he would work with him and "hopefully, resolve some of the differences and move the Town of Smithtown in a positive direction."
When asked about Creighton, Vecchio said: "I think that when somebody joins the church four months ago, you can't expect to be the bishop."
Republican Councilman Edward Wehrheim, a Creighton ally, said he would not endorse a supervisor candidate "until I see who's getting in the race."
Wehrheim said he is concerned about the town's economy and infrastructure. "I believe that Smithtown is not competing as well with surrounding municipalities," he said.
Some Republicans said Vecchio had served long enough and should retire.
"I think he should step down with dignity," said Elizabeth Freer, of Smithtown, who said she has supported Vecchio in the past. "I think Pat should enjoy retirement and hold his head up high."
Vecchio Sunday defended his record, saying neighboring towns such as Brookhaven and Islip -- also led by Republican-Conservative majorities -- laid off workers and trimmed services to cut costs, and Islip approved a 26 percent tax hike.
"We never laid anybody off," he said, "and we kept the taxes tolerable."
Democrats still mustering
Smithtown Democratic chairman Ed Maher said Sunday the party is recruiting potential candidates to face Vecchio. He wouldn't comment on the possibility of cross-endorsing Vecchio or endorsing him if he loses a Republican primary.
Smithtown Conservative chairman Gary Forte declined to comment Sunday.
Republican Councilman Thomas McCarthy, Vecchio's most reliable town board ally, praised his fiscal conservatism. "People can't afford tax increases. Patrick treats Smithtown as he does his own home," he said.
Party leaders, such as Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), said they hope to avoid the kind of intraparty strife taking place in Islip -- where Republican council members are attempting to strip GOP Supervisor Tom Croci of some powers.
Kennedy, a Vecchio supporter, said, "It's not good for Republicans to fight with other Republicans."