In years past, Smithtown Republican chairman Bill Ellis joked that Patrick Vecchio would remain town supervisor “until the black car comes to town hall.”
But now, Vecchio, 86, after 40 years on the job and hampered by a leg injury, has yet to give Ellis the final word on whether he’ll seek another four-year term. The town convention is weeks away.
Vecchio himself downplays his lack of a public declaration. “It’s not my style to make an announcement,” he said, adding he’s made his decision, but won’t disclose it until the convention in late May. Several sources say Vecchio has indicated he intends to run.
But John Zollo, 57, who worked for a decade as Vecchio’s town attorney, has already declared he will run in a GOP primary. He raised $13,000 in his first fundraiser last week. Zollo did a second stint as the town’s top lawyer in 2014 and 2015, appointed by a GOP board majority, later deposed, who were opposed to Vecchio.
“The first and foremost reason I’m running is that I could not let Pat Vecchio run unopposed. That would be a disservice to the town,” Zollo said. “He’s a hall of fame supervisor, but he belongs in the hall of fame, not town hall. Every good leader should know when to step aside, and the time is now.”
Asked about Zollo’s challenge, Vecchio said, “I don’t care.”
Vecchio earlier this month issued what he dubbed his “First Annual Report” touting that the town’s $17 million debt is the lowest per capita on Long Island. He predicted no tax hike in next year’s budget. “He moves a little slower, but he’s as sharp as ever,” said GOP Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick, of St. James. “People in town know what they’ve got. In these turbulent times, he’s the steady hand at the helm.”
Former town board member Robert Creighton, who lost to Vecchio in a bitter primary four years ago and backs Zollo, has no doubt Vecchio will run. But he said he should be voted out, “not because of his age, but because he hasn’t done anything in the last 10 years.” He warned that Vecchio is a “formidable candidate” in a campaign. “He’s a very good politician, he stays in touch with his base . . . concentrating on the older part of the voting electorate,” he said, “And he’ll say anything to get elected.”
Critics note Vecchio, who has been reluctant to bond for town improvements, has recently reversed field. He backed $7.4 million in election year capital spending that includes $2.7 million in bonds and the rest from town reserves. He backs appraisals on a 13-acre school district administrative building after a public outcry when the town earlier appeared ready to permit a private development.
Of his recent annual report, Zollo said, “Why did it take 39 years?”
Ellis said he has scheduled a May 11 meeting to let Vecchio and Zollo make their cases along with contenders for town board races in which primaries are also likely.
The outcome of those contests could have impact down the road should Vecchio win, but be unable to finish his term. The town board would choose a successor for what’s left on the term. Should Vecchio at the last minute step aside, other GOP incumbents such as Fitzpatrick, veteran town board member Edward Wehrheim and Suffolk Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) could well join the fray.
Democrat William Holst, a former county lawmaker, county clerk and now an assistant county attorney, is also eyeing the race. “There are a lot of people talking about the future of Smithtown, and when I talk about being the new face in town, I get a very positive response,” Holst said. “People in all parties are ready for a change.”