In November 1977, an upstart Smithtown politician bucked the political establishment to oust an entrenched incumbent supervisor — in a contest so close that it wasn’t decided until weeks after Election Day.
The winner of that election, Supervisor Patrick Vecchio, saw his career come full circle last week when he lost a close vote to a rival from his own party.
It portends the end of a political career that has left Vecchio — the longest-serving town supervisor in Long Island history — with a long list of accomplishments and enemies.
On Wednesday, two days after a count of absentee ballots showed he had lost to Republican Town Councilman Edward Wehrheim, Vecchio said his time in office had finally worked against him.
“I’m here 40 years. Maybe people said I had been here too long,” Vecchio, 87, a former New York City police officer from Fort Salonga, said during an interview at his Town Hall office. “Forty years is a long time. That’s twice as long as I put into the police department.”
Wehrheim, 69, of Kings Park, won the GOP primary by 85 votes. He will face Democrat William Holst and independent Kristen Slevin in the Nov. 7 general election. Vecchio’s last day in office will be Dec. 31.
Vecchio’s influence can be seen on the facade of Town Hall, which was named for him two years ago.
“Pat is Smithtown,” said town planning board chairman Conrad Chayes, a close friend. “This is a person who knew every aspect of Smithtown . . . I’ve never seen anybody quite like him.”
But discontent grew among many Republicans who became frustrated as villages from Mineola to Patchogue added chic shops and apartments while some Smithtown storefronts went dark.
“Over his 40 years, he did a good job of keeping Smithtown fiscally healthy,” Wehrheim said in an interview last week. “I think the last five years or so, there was more emphasis on keeping that bond rating high and having no debt, and we didn’t do much investing in the municipality.
“Those last five years, he didn’t grasp what he could have about what needed to be done,” Wehrheim said.
Vecchio’s disappointment last week over the loss was compounded by his bitter feelings toward the man who defeated him.
Wehrheim, a former Smithtown parks commissioner who has served on the town board for 14 years, once had been a protégé of Vecchio’s. The town supervisor encouraged him to enter politics in 2003 and the two remained close.
But Wehrheim backed then-Councilman Robert Creighton in the Republican’s unsuccessful attempt to defeat Vecchio in 2013. Vecchio and Wehrheim have barely spoken since.
“Up until four or five years ago, we had a great relationship,” Wehrheim said. “He didn’t care much for Councilman Creighton. . . . It kind of divided the board.”
Vecchio said Wehrheim would be “fine” as supervisor, but said he grew suspicious of Wehrheim when he joined forces with Creighton.
“I found that to be a betrayal,” Vecchio said, invoking a line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “Et tu, Brute.”
Vecchio also has battled in recent years with Suffolk Republican party chair John Jay LaValle and Smithtown GOP chairman William Ellis.
Though LaValle last week credited Vecchio with “keeping Smithtown’s finances in order,” he said the supervisor ran into a restive electorate.
“There’s an anti-establishment mentality,” LaValle said. “Someone who is in office for 40 years is certainly looked at as the establishment.”
In 1977, it was Vecchio who challenged the status quo.
He was considered a long shot against incumbent Republican Supervisor Charles Cacciabaudo. But he had some political experience — he had been mentored by New York City Mayor John Lindsay and campaigned for Gov. Hugh Carey. After absentee and affidavit ballots were counted, Vecchio, who ran as a Democrat, was declared the winner by 67 votes in early December 1977. He still keeps a Cacciabaudo campaign button on his desk.
“I was nobody,” Vecchio said last week. “I won. I don’t know how I did it.”
He does have a clearer idea of why he thinks he lost the primary. Vecchio admitted a broken leg from a fall at home last year left him appearing weak. He keeps a walking stick at his Town Hall office.
“When you’re limping, it’s not a good look,” he said.
He said he is not sure what he will do in retirement, but that he won’t seek another job.
Vecchio, who is married and has four children and two grandchildren, has had some interesting life experiences. He was Lindsay’s driver and boxed with Huntington heavyweight Gerry Cooney in a charity fight. A photo over Vecchio’s desk shows him as a young cop escorting a motorcade carrying then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline in October 1960.
Leaving office will give him more time to read the mysteries and historical novels he said he enjoys.
“I want to do more reading, more resting, maybe take a longer vacation than I ever took,” Vecchio said. “I was kind of married to this place. I should have enjoyed myself more.”
Told he would have to get used to a new lifestyle, Vecchio said, “I don’t know if I can.”