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Smithtown GOP leaders surprised by town supervisor race change

Councilman Edward R. Wehrheim listens during a meeting

Councilman Edward R. Wehrheim listens during a meeting of the Smithtown Town Board on Feb. 27, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Members of the Smithtown Republican Party’s executive committee say they didn’t know about a decision by party leadership to drop 39-year incumbent Town Supervisor Patrick Vecchio and instead run councilman Edward Wehrheim for the top job.

“This was news to most members of the executive committee when we read about it in the paper,” said Paul Hennings, a committee member who serves as attorney to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Hennings said Sunday he will support Vecchio at the party’s nominating convention Tuesday night.

The lack of consensus on the executive committee could heighten the chance of a floor fight at the convention. The roughly 20-member executive committee typically advises the general committee on nominations, Hennings said.

On Friday, Vecchio and town board members Tom McCarthy and Lynne Nowick released a letter urging committee members to attend the convention and vote for them instead of allowing town Republican chairman Bill Ellis to cast proxy votes.

Ellis said he believes “a majority” of general committee members support Wehrheim. Ellis, a Wehrheim supporter, also controls the proxy votes of several of the roughly 160 general committee members from the town’s 92 election districts. He declined Sunday to specify how many.

Ellis said the decision to support Wehrheim was “made within the last week” but should not have surprised executive committee members.

“They all knew about it,” he said, although “not everybody came to every meeting.” He added that “most longtime veterans, a strong majority of them, thought it was time for us to move in a different direction.”

Ellis and Smithtown Conservative Party chairman Gary Forte told Vecchio they were supporting Wehrheim in a tense meeting at GOP headquarters last Friday. Ellis said Vecchio, the longest presiding town supervisor in New York State, “erupted like Mount Vesuvius,” a description the supervisor called “absolutely false.”

Ellis also supports Robert Doyle, a retired Suffolk police detective sergeant from Nesconset, and Thomas Lohmann, who is retired from the New York City Police Department and is now a Suffolk district attorney investigator, to replace Nowick and McCarthy, both Vecchio allies.

Fractures in the Smithtown Republican party, which dominates town politics along with the Conservative Party, extend back at least to 2013, when Vecchio and councilmen Wehrheim and Robert Creighton clashed publicly over town spending and appointments. In 2014, Ellis supported Creighton for supervisor over Vecchio. Also that year, Conservative Town Clerk Vincent Puleo vacated Vecchio’s position as town supervisor on a technicality over the oath of office

Vecchio and McCarthy suggested last week that Ellis and town Conservatives were trying to exact retribution because, McCarthy said, they wouldn’t “appoint their political people to jobs.”

Over the weekend, Ellis said, surrogates for Vecchio threatened the jobs of his opponents in town government.

“Nobody threatened anybody,” Vecchio said Monday, promising that he and supporters would attend Tuesday’s convention.

He is likely to get a frosty reception from Ellis, who said of the supervisor: “He thinks he is God, and he is not.”

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