It was a small step for Smithtown's town board member Robert Creighton. But it may well be the first sign of a possible sea change in town politics after 35 years with Supervisor Patrick Vecchio.
The move clears the way for the former Democrat and Conservative to potentially run in a GOP primary should Vecchio, 82, decide not to seek re-election next year -- or possibly to challenge Vecchio outright.
While there's little advantage in making the move so early, Creighton, a former Suffolk police commissioner and district attorney's chief investigator, had no choice. He put in papers Oct. 12, the last day he could file to have his party switch take effect immediately after this year's Election Day. Had he waited another day, his joining of the GOP ranks would not have taken effect until after Election Day 2013.
Former County Executive Steve Levy's failure to change from Democrat to Republican early enough two years ago effectively foreclosed him from running in a three-way GOP gubernatorial primary.
"I've been thinking of doing it for a long time and decided to do it," Creighton said, adding that there's "absolutely no bad blood" between him and the supervisor. Vecchio did not return calls for comment.
Creighton also did not say whether he would challenge Vecchio, but left open the door for next year when the supervisor is up for re-election.
Creighton said Vecchio has been "sending mixed signals" about whether he will seek another four-year term.
"If he were to step down, I'd consider it," Creighton said. "But I've known Pat Vecchio a long time and he has no intention of stepping down."
Creighton said switching parties gives him "more maneuvering room," but also said his own age, 75, could be an issue were he to run.
Others note that Creighton and his allies on the town board have successfully battled Vecchio in the last year on issues including road-repair spending and the choice of town attorney and see Creighton making a direct challenge to Vecchio.
Fitzpatrick, a Vecchio backer whose late father Paul served as supervisor, said he would be interested in the job if Vecchio were to step aside. County Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said he would also pursue the job "vigorously" if Vecchio retires, but he would not take him on.
Town board member Edward Wehrheim, another possible contender, said he plans to stay put and warned that Vecchio is not be underestimated.
"There's nothing out there that Pat fears," said Wehrheim, who is also a Republican.
But Desmond Ryan, a business lobbyist, said Vecchio has failed to deal with key town issues including redevelopment of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, Smithtown's fraying downtown and the loss of tax revenue from the condemnation of the Gyrodyne property.
"There is no direction, no leadership and the community is trapped in the 1950s," Ryan said.
Edward Walsh, Suffolk Conservative chairman, said the party continues to support Creighton. The party has no love for Vecchio because the supervisor backed Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) in 2010, when Conservatives strongly supported Republican challenger Randy Altschuler. Bishop and Altschuler are facing off again this year.
Bill Ellis, Smithtown GOP chairman, downplayed the significance of Creighton's move, noting that he was a Republican before becoming a Conservative in 2005.
"I think he's just coming home," Ellis said. "I have to sit down and see what his intentions are."
But Ellis added, "I think he is weighing his options."