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Nov 14, 2017 3:52 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

East Hampton Republicans Take Stock While Democrats Line Up Their Ducks

Paul Giardina and Jim Grimes, from left, on Election Night. JON WINKLER
Nov 14, 2017 4:11 PM

In the wake of last week’s landslide victories by Democratic candidates in every East Hampton Town race, local Republican Party leaders are licking their political wounds and trying to assess a second straight drubbing at the polls, crossing their fingers that it won’t get worse once all the votes are officially tallied.

Republican Committee Chairman Reggie Cornelia said the party is watching nervously for the counting of the absentee ballots from East Hampton to begin, with an eye on the two seats on the Board of Trustees that the party did win.

Currently, incumbent Republican Trustee James Grimes and candidate Susan Vorpahl stand as the only two in the party to have cracked the top nine in votes tallied from last week’s ballot for Trustee seats. Mr. Grimes leads the next-highest Democratic vote-getter, Rona Klopman, by 320 votes.

But there are 836 absentee ballots still to be counted, 486 of which were cast by Democratic voters, and just 169 from registered Republicans. Another 154 came from voters not registered with a political party, and 23 from registered Independence Party members, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections.

Because the neck-and-neck race for county sheriff still remains too close to call, and both candidates are jockeying for a legal fight over nearly every single vote, staff members at the Board of Elections have been bogged down making copies of the envelopes for every single one of the tens of thousands of absentee ballots cast countywide. As a result of those delays, county officials have said the town absentee ballots will not be counted until Friday of this week at the earliest, and likely not until next week.

Until then, the final extent of the Democrats’ wins will not be known. But the Republicans this week acknowledged that, regardless, there is something sorely lacking in the party’s political appeal of late.

“It is sad to see the town go this monolithically Democratic,” Mr. Cornelia said. “We have a long way to go. This was a party line vote. But one of our big problems has been getting out the vote.”

Indeed, total voter registration in the town has changed little in the last 15 years: The number of registered voters has climbed only incrementally. The Democrats have steadily increased their sizable advantage in voter registration—now nearly two-to-one—but the number of votes cast for Democratic candidates was not statistically different in the two recent landslides than it was in closer races the party won more than a decade ago.

In 2003, Democratic supervisor candidate Bill McGintee defeated Republican Len Bernard, with about 4,000 votes to Mr. Bernard’s 3,500. In 2005, Mr. McGintee won again, with 3,738 votes to Republican Roger Walker’s 2,966.

In 2015, however, Larry Cantwell won the supervisor’s seat with 4,122 votes to just 1,902 for Republican Tom Knobel, in a race with relatively low overall turnout.

And, this year, Peter Van Scoyoc appears headed for something in the neighborhood of 4,000 votes once the tallies are all done, with his opponent, Manny Vilar, probably in the 2,500 range, if the split of untallied votes holds with those cast on Election Day.

Mr. Cornelia said that he sees part of the loss of involvement by the town’s party due to lagging support, or organization, among traditional supporters.

“I’m a little surprised the local small-business community isn’t more active—that’s the bedrock for the Republican Party,” he said. “There are also Republicans who are so furious with [Republican Senator] Mitch McConnell and [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan because of the speed bumps they are throwing in the way of President Trump’s agenda. I ran into people during this election who said ‘“F” the Republicans’ and didn’t vote at all.”

Mr. Cornelia said he thinks that the statewide proposition calling for a constitutional convention also brought out Democratic-leaning retired union employees fearful that a convention could threaten pensions.

Regrouping the party will be a mission for another, as Mr. Cornelia has said he will step down from the party chairmanship, much as he took it over from Mr. Knobel after the 2015 defeats. He says he will remain on the party committee and hopes to help in finding a new base on which the party may climb back onto the podium in 2019.

“We’re going to have to discuss which way the ship is going to go,” he said. “We need to recruit some new people, and I guess we need to try to convince all these New York City Democrats to look at our ideas before they fill in the circles.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats, who are now in position to hold an absolute majority of the five-member Town Board, are starting to position the new administration.

Mr. Van Scoyoc, the supervisor-elect, said he has already asked Mr. Bernard to stay on as the head of the town’s budget office, a request he said Mr. Bernard has accepted.

“I talked to him a while ago,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc. “Len has done a good job, and I’ve worked with him for six years, and I see absolutely no reason to change anything in that office. I’m very pleased with our financial staff.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc was tight-lipped about the names on his list of possible appointees to the supervisor’s executive assistant’s office. He acknowledged he has asked current Executive Assistant Alex Walter to remain on the job as well—which Mr. Walter declined—and said he has about a half-dozen others in mind for that position.

“I’m looking for someone who is familiar with the town and the issues and dynamics within the town—context is important,” he said. “I’m looking for someone with managerial skills.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc also said that the current Democratic board members, and Councilman-elect Jeff Bragman, will begin meeting soon with candidates for appointment to the council seat that will be vacated when Mr. Van Scoyoc moves into the supervisor’s office.

He would not say who, if anyone, has already been identified as a potential candidate for the post, but he said the remaining board members would be looking to make the appointment at the organizational meeting in early January.

East Hampton has made such midterm appointments on a number of occasions in decades past, most recently former Councilman Peter Hammerle, who was appointed to the board in 1986 to replace Tony Bullock.

The Democratic Party screened 10 candidates last spring for the two council seats on the ballot. Former supervisor candidate Zach Cohen, former town attorney Laura Molinari, and Zoning Board of Appeals members John Whelan and Cathy Rogers were all among those who screened and have been talked about recently as possible candidates for appointment.

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Perhaps local Republican leaders' infatuation with Trump has alienated many moderate Republicans and Independents. Or the Dems have been doing a very good job recently and that's more important than political labels out here.
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