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Islip GOP infighting 'not good' for party

Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci, left; and Councilwoman

Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci, left; and Councilwoman Trish Bergin Weichbrodt. (Jan. 2, 2012; Jan. 29, 2013) Credit: James Carbone, Randee Daddonna

The public battle over patronage in Islip could weaken the 5-0 GOP-Conservative Town Board majority if the fight isn't resolved, friends and enemies agree.

"They are over the cliff," said Suffolk County Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), who is watching but trying to distance himself from the fray.

"This should have been taken care of without one word in print," Barraga said. Referring to the town GOP, he said, "once its gets out, the instrument is damaged. To say everyone is getting along won't wash -- the public is no fool."

The struggle became public a little over a week ago when three Republicans and one Conservative on the council filed a resolution to strip their own town supervisor, Republican Tom Croci, of his powers to hire, fire and to handle union negotiations. Town sources say Islip GOP chairman Frank Tantone backed the proposal, though Tantone denies it.

The day after the board set a Feb. 12 hearing date for their resolution, Croci fired town board member Trish Bergin Weichbrodt as his deputy supervisor.

"There are two spins out there -- one that it is a good government move by the town council, the other it's a political move by the town council and the party leader," said political consultant Michael Dawidziak, who works mainly for Republicans.

"No matter who wins the spin battle, this is not good for the Republican Party . . . ," Dawidziak said. "To have a family squabble in public during an election year is never a good thing."

The battle comes as two board members -- Bergin Weichbrodt and Steven Flotteron -- are up for election in November.

"The public has a very short fuse for these kind of antics," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman. "What the public expects is for town officials to work together and not spend their time on personality and ego conflicts."

Croci, who was elected supervisor in 2011, is a retired Navy officer who worked in the White House of President George W. Bush. But he's new to town government and its preoccupation with issues including potholes and patronage.

"I think the local political game has been a challenge for him," said John Cochrane Sr., a former Suffolk GOP chairman and father of town board member John Cochrane Jr., a Republican/Conservative. "With his military background, everything is black and white, where in politics, there are a lot of grays."

Tantone led a GOP faction that revived the party a year ago after Democrats had taken over Town Hall following the jailing of former GOP Supervisor Pete McGowan for misusing his $1 million campaign fund.

Despite the reform mantle he took on, Tantone is no stranger to the patronage system that rewards party activists who gather petitions, raise money and knock on doors for the town slate. Tantone is a former head of the town planning board, his wife works for state Sen. Philip Boyle, and his son just started working for newly elected Assemb. Andrew Garbarino (R-Sayville). Tantone said he and the others were all qualified.

Some say Tantone and the board wanted a direct presence in the supervisor's office.

"Tantone was looking to go as far as he could and have someone in the supervisor office to look over Croci's shoulder," said Warren Greene, a former GOP town operative. "Croci drew a line in the sand and Tantone crossed over it."

Croci won't mention any names but acknowledged "political forces have sought to cross the line," and that that in effect would "nullify the vote" of the public for elected officials.

"I think everyone knows where this is coming from and I'll leave it at that," Croci said.

Tantone has called a meeting of the GOP committee on Tuesday to update committee members on the dispute. Meanwhile, town sources say that Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and Boyle are trying to work behind the scenes to bring feuding officials together.

Edward Walsh, Suffolk Conservative chairman, downplayed the mess and predicted a settlement. "There's a little difference of opinion," he said. "All it means is we have elected officials who are passionate and are willing to bang it around to come up with the best ideas for taxpayers."

Tantone said the dispute centers on differences between Croci and the town board and that he's not involved. "I'm the chair of the entire party and I can't be on the board side or Tom's side -- they have to work it [out] between themselves," he said.

He has called a town GOP committee meeting for Tuesday because party headquarters has been "bombarded with calls" and he wants to answer members' questions.

But he conceded that public battles don't help the party. "It's always good to be on the same page and in the end I'm optimistic that's where we're going to be," he said.

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