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Patrick Vecchio dies; former Smithtown supervisor had record tenure

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio at a town board

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio at a town board meeting on Feb. 26, 2008. Credit: Peter Dilauro

Former Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio, the town’s supervisor for a Long Island record 40 years, has died.

Vecchio died late Saturday night at St. Catherine of Siena Nursing and Rehabilitation Care Center in Smithtown, said his wife, Bernadine Kinder. He was 88.

He lost the Republican primary to current Supervisor Edward Wehrheim by 83 votes in September 2017, ending his storied political career. On Dec. 12, 2017, Vecchio held his last town board meeting.

“He just gave up on life,” said Kinder, of Fort Salonga. “He had no purpose in life after losing the election. He was just tired and sad and totally heartbroken that he was no longer the supervisor.”

Allies hailed Vecchio for his fiscal stewardship. “He steered the town through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, with the town coming out unscathed,” said Deputy Supervisor Thomas McCarthy.

Vecchio, a child of the Depression, was famous for his aversion to debt.

“You can’t do everything that everyone wants. There’s not a blank check,” said Suffolk County Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), summarizing a lesson from Vecchio. “I think the biggest gift Pat Vecchio left the residents of Smithtown is no debt. ... He left the children of Smithtown with no bills to pay.”

Critics said that focus on debt led Vecchio to ignore the town’s languishing downtowns, even as other municipalities embarked on revitalization programs, and strengthened a GOP insurgency in the solidly Republican town that led to his unseating by Wehrheim.

McCarthy declined to speak in detail about the relationship between the two leaders. “They’re both brilliant men,” he said. “And politics is politics.”

Wehrheim said the two worked for about two decades together and he credited Vecchio with leaving the town in “extremely good fiscal shape.”

“Patrick was very diligent in his job at town supervisor, he always did what he thought was best for the taxpaying residents,” Wehrheim said. “That was always at the forefront of his decisions and the things that he did.”

“He had a wonderful career,” Wehrheim said.

Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said Vecchio gave him “very wise counsel” over his entire career, including since losing the primary.

“I was a young guy and he pegged me as a potential challenger one day,” Fitzpatrick said of his time on the town board. “But over time we became very close.”

Fitzpatrick praised the former supervisor on the environment, senior housing and taxes.

“ ‘The old lion is dead’ was the thought that came to mind,” he said, referring to Theodore Roosevelt’s son Archie’s comment when his father died.

“He will be missed,” Fitzpatrick said. “He made a significant impact on the town for over four decades.”

Life of service begins

Vecchio was born in 1930 in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan to parents Frank and Rose, who immigrated from Italy.

Vecchio — the second-born of the couple’s five children — and his older brother Eugene, now deceased, spent summers and weekends packaging cigars at their father’s cigar factory on Mulberry Street. (The site is now the location of Il Cortile restaurant.)

Raised in a Catholic family, Vecchio grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He graduated from St. Michael’s High School in 1948 and earned a baseball scholarship to St. John’s University, which was located in Brooklyn at the time. There, he majored in English and planned to be an English teacher, Vecchio said in a February 2015 interview about his life.

Vecchio graduated in 1952 with a degree in education. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School, but did not pass their color vision requirements, he said. He was drafted in 1952 into the U.S. Army, where he served for two years in the Quartermaster Corps before being honorably discharged.

In 1954, Vecchio took the NYPD test on a whim, hopping into a yellow convertible with neighborhood guys. “None of them passed it, and I did,” Vecchio said, chuckling.

In November 1955, Vecchio began working as a police officer in Brooklyn's 77th Precinct. Two years later, he joined the department's Bureau of Special Services, in part due to his fluency in French.

The bureau focused on escorting dignitaries as well as investigating “subversives,” labor disputes and police commissioner requests, he said. Vecchio recalled attending rallies for groups such as the American Nazi Party and War Resisters League, taking notes on the attendees, license plates and events.

“All those files have been purged, by the way,” he said. “I think it was preventative. Also, there was a mindset in those days — remember the ’50s and ’60s, there was communism.”

His security work for dignitaries was a highlight, he said. Vecchio had been assigned to leaders such as Charles de Gaulle, former president of the French Fifth Republic; Pope Paul VI; Prince Philip; former Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani; King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen consort Sirikit Kitiyakara of Thailand; as well as former Presidents Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower.

Vecchio remembered riding in the Waldorf Astoria elevator with Eisenhower, his general and the Secret Service head, who introduced Vecchio — then a detective — to Eisenhower.

“The president reached out and shook my hand. I’m going to tell you, my knee shook,” Vecchio said. “It’s OK to see somebody, but now for that person to reach out and greet you and touch you. Amazing! Most people never saw a president, let alone meet one. It was very thrilling for me.”

During his years in the bureau, Vecchio built his family in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, having four children with his wife Violet Venerose, whom he married in 1955. The couple divorced in the 1990s and he remarried, Vecchio said.

By 1966, Vecchio started working for former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, traveling with him to Moscow, Thailand, France, England and Israel.

“He and I became very close, so I was not precluded from lots of events or meetings,” Vecchio said of Lindsay, for whom he guarded through 1973. “He trusted me implicitly and I could almost say he treated me like a brother.”

In 1974, Vecchio took a yearlong leave of absence from police duties to work for David Garth, a political consultant running Hugh Carey's New York gubernatorial campaign.

Vecchio retired from the NYPD as a sergeant in 1975 and worked as a state Department of Taxation and Finance investigator.

A Smithtown staple

Smithtown Democrats approached Vecchio in 1977 and asked him to run for town supervisor. Vecchio, who had lived in the town for about a decade, had no clue what the position was, he said.

“No one explained it to me ... I had no idea,” Vecchio said. “It was something I could try because I had watched all these other politicians run and I said, ‘I'll try it.’ ”

Vecchio won the election by 67 votes, defeating incumbent Charles Cacciabaudo, he said. No Democrat had been elected to the town board in 16 years, he said.

But the victory was an exercise in on-the-job training. Democrats had been out of the loop and the all-Republican board didn’t help, Vecchio said. “I had to learn everything about the job by myself,” he added.

Rich Schaffer, the Babylon Town supervisor and Suffolk County Democratic leader, knew Vecchio for decades. He said Vecchio’s experience as new Democratic supervisor was brutal: Entrenched GOP leadership “would shut off his phone, they would do all sorts of things to make him irrelevant,” Schaffer recalled. “They actually turned him into a martyr. He knew how to spin that.”

Brad Harris, the Smithtown historian and former Democratic town councilman from 1980-1992, said that Vecchio brought open government to a town that was, in the '70s, insular, with most decisions made quietly by a handful of leaders. Vecchio, Harris recalled, was defiantly his own man. “He didn’t listen to party bosses, Democrat or Republican. I think the constituency at large liked that. They liked that he was independent and that he stood up for people.”

A 1983 Newsday story about political patronage filling thousands of summer jobs at Long Island municipalities singled out Smithtown as one of the exceptions, noting that Vecchio had proposed a lottery system after taking office. “The town board was apoplectic,” Vecchio said. “But they eventually bought it. Up until that time, if a kid didn't know a committeeman, he didn't get a job.”

Vecchio remained a Democrat for about half of his 13 terms as supervisor, but switched parties in 1990 to become a Republican. He made a bid for Suffolk County executive, but lost a 1991 primary and never again ran for higher office.

That party conversion had less to do with political self-interest than dissatisfaction with county Democratic leadership, which supported Ed Koch over then-Lt. Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in the gubernatorial primary, Schaffer said. Vecchio and Cuomo were friends and former baseball teammates, Schaffer said.

That relationship “absolutely” helped Smithtown secure a $40 million commitment for sewers from Cuomo’s son, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in 2017, Schaffer said.

Vecchio was initially reluctant to move from septic systems and make future development possible, Schaffer said. But, he said, Vecchio “started seeing what was happening on the Island, seeing the improvements that were being made. … He saw the world didn’t come to an end because of the development we were doing, by the train stations and downtowns, and he got over that mentality.”

Vecchio's leadership was not without controversy. A Suffolk County grand jury report released in 2012 found that town residents were endangered after a town employee persuaded a developer to ignore town codes and demolish asbestos-laden buildings without proper permits. The grand jury did not recommend charges against anyone in the case, and the district attorney's office said no one would be charged. The report did not identify the employee.

‘I’ve had a great life’

When asked about his governing style, Vecchio said: “I just am very parsimonious with the public’s money. ... I also believe that government — local government — should not be pizzazz. It should just … [be] delivering services, getting jobs done and being accountable.”

Among his top achievements, Vecchio cited the brokering of a joint garbage deal in the 1980s with the Town of Huntington, winning national attention in 2007 by requiring town garbage and recycling haulers to use compressed natural gas vehicles and being fiscally conservative.

Vecchio was proud of the Aaa credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service the town earned under his leadership in 2016, and of the town’s low debt, which he calculated in 2017 was $17 million — the lowest, per capita, of any town on Long Island. 

“I think I introduced a tenor here of spending money, of being frugal with people’s taxes,” he said. “I truly believe in small government and I think I’ve accomplished that.”

Vecchio said in the 2015 interview that the last few years had been the most difficult, with town board members not communicating with one another.

When not working, Vecchio said he loved to reading spy novels and biographies of leaders such as former presidents. Jack London was one of his favorite authors. “That’s about it at my age. I don’t do much more,” he quipped, adding that he used to play golf, but “not well.”

Vecchio pointed out that he was a lucky guy. “I’ve had a great life. A pretty good life. I really did. I really did,” he said. “Really, truly, I mean it from my heart. I do believe in public service and service to the people, and my whole career has been that — from the military, to the police, to here.”

In addition to Kinder, Vecchio is survived by sons Frank Vecchio, 63, of Delray Beach, Florida; Patrick Vecchio Jr., 54, of Fort Salonga; Richard Vecchio, 56, of Kings Park; and daughter Patrice Vecchio, 61, of Sayville. He is also survived by brothers Frank Vecchio, 85, of Brooklyn; Richard Vecchio, 80, of Brooklyn; and sister Ann Cardino, 80, of Commack; and three grandchildren.

Services will be held at the Clayton Funeral Home in Kings Park on Wednesday and Thursday, Kinder said, with times to be arranged. A funeral will follow at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton.

With Rachel O’Brien

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