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Suffolk GOP hardly obeying Reagan dictate

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio during a town board

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio during a town board meeting on Feb. 7, 2012. Credit: Ed Betz

Even Suffolk's staunchest Republicans acknowledge it's bad for their brand when the party's longest-serving elected official calls his county chairman a failure, prompting the chairman to dismiss the attack as "practically incoherent."

"You don't go public with that kind of stuff," said county Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip), who has also held posts at the town and state levels in more than 30 years in politics. "As [Ronald] Reagan once said, 'Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.' It hurts the party."

But political experts and insiders are divided over the true, combined impact of the recent spat between Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio and Suffolk GOP leader John Jay LaValle, as well as other prominent intraparty dust-ups in Islip and Brookhaven towns.

Some veteran Republicans say the confluence of controversies is an embarrassment, no matter the circumstances. Others note that the county and town GOP have a history of turmoil, with the infighting mattering only as much as the most recent election result.

The latter played out last week in Brookhaven, where the slow response to the Feb. 8 blizzard that left 30 inches of snow caused town GOP leaders to trade blame and raised interest in a special election for highway superintendent. Republican Councilwoman Kathy Walsh had joined the Independence Party and gotten Democrats' endorsement to take on the GOP candidate, Assemb. Dan Losquadro of Shoreham. Walsh lost by 832 votes, not counting absentee ballots.

"People don't vote on which party is the tidiest," said former County Executive Steve Levy, a Republican who defected from the Democratic Party in 2010. "The only way it has an impact is if the two people who are fighting end up splitting the vote in a general election."

That could happen this fall in Smithtown. Vecchio has been town supervisor since 1978, but last month he was formally challenged by Councilman Robert Creighton, a former Conservative Party member. LaValle publicly disparaged Vecchio's government as a "laughingstock" in endorsing Creighton.


Strong words exchanged

That prompted Vecchio's Feb. 26 letter to LaValle that assailed the county party's results under his watch: "It is mind-boggling that you, with your failed electoral record, have the temerity and audacity to come into Smithtown and endorse a candidate," Vecchio began. He noted that county executive Steve Bellone is a Democrat and 13 of Suffolk's 18 legislators vote with that party.

LaValle replied by calling Vecchio's tone "offensive and immature," reiterating his desire to see him defeated.

"The infighting does nothing to advance the Republican Party, or for that matter, good government," said the county legislature's minority leader, John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset). "There are important things going on, make no mistake about it. We want good GOP candidates and to take back the legislative majority. That's the stuff I want to focus on. Not nipping at each other's heels."

Islip may be the next test of how short voters' memories are. In January, Republican council members tried to stage a coup against Republican Town Supervisor Tom Croci, introducing a resolution that would have stripped him of much of his control. Sources said the effort was retaliation for Croci not complying with Islip GOP chairman Frank Tantone's demands for patronage jobs. Tantone denies the allegations.

Public opinion seemed to be with Croci, and the proposal was abandoned, to a standing ovation, at a town meeting last month. Two council members who supported the measure, Trish Bergin Weichbrodt and Steven J. Flotteron, are up for re-election in November.

"It was nothing which affected taxpayers," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works mostly with Republicans. "The only question is, will it spill into a primary? If it doesn't it's largely forgotten by Election Day."

But looking at individual situations as the sum of Suffolk GOP's problems misses the bigger picture, said Paul Sabatino, a Republican who has held high-level appointed positions with both the county executive and county legislative offices.

The party missed a "historic opportunity" by cross-endorsing Democratic Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota this fall and not running a candidate who would bash the state court decision that dismissed the county's term limits law and allowed Spota to again seek office, Sabatino said.

Instead, he added, the Suffolk GOP Committee has created a culture whereby any candidate who sees an inside challenge feels he or she can get cross-endorsed and buck leadership.


'History of infighting'

"There's no Republican brand in Suffolk anymore," Sabatino said. "Nothing unifies them, so it becomes cannibalization. They all turn on each other and eat each other alive."

That's always been the case, said Stanley Klein, an LIU Post political science professor and Huntington GOP committeeman. "Republicans in Suffolk have a long history of infighting," he said.

Suffolk Democrats, on the other hand, tend to resemble Nassau Republicans, in that it's rare to see anyone question the county leader, Klein said. A recent example came in Huntington, where Suffolk County Water Authority chairman James Gaughran, a Democrat, publicly mulled a run against his party's supervisor, Frank Petrone. But he quickly backed down at the urging of county chairman Richard Schaffer.

"With the Democrats in Suffolk, the big umbrella over the towns tends to rule," Klein said. "With Suffolk Republicans, individual spokes of the umbrella tend to go their own way. You can win elections that way, but it's tougher."

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