Cover Story: It’s an Election Day sweep for Riverhead Republicans

11/10/2011 2:00 PM |

JOHN NEELY PHOTO | Republicans, from left, Jim Wooten, George Gabrielsen, Sean Walter and John Galla, celebrate their sweep.

As Republican Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter sipped champagne from a plastic cup moments after delivering his victory speech Tuesday night, his Democratic challenger, former supervisor Phil Cardinale, vowed his party would have better results in two years.

Mr. Walter, who defeated his opponent two years ago by just 241 votes, won his second two-year term in a landslide victory this time — taking 62 percent, or 4,664 out of 7,512 votes cast. Mr. Cardinale, who previously served six years as supervisor, received 35 percent of the votes, or 2,630, and a third candidate, Greg Fischer of the Riverhead First independent party, trailed with just 211 votes, or 2.8 percent. There were also seven write-in votes.

Mr. Cardinale received about 1,400 fewer votes than he did in 2009, while Mr. Walter gained more than 300 votes, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections website.
The incumbent supervisor attributed his victory to honesty, a positive campaign and knocking on the doors of 4,500 homes in Riverhead Town.

“If you look at what the Democrats did. If you look at what the civics did … throwing mud, stealing signs,” Mr. Walter said. “you realize, the negative doesn’t work.”

While Mr. Cardinale did not make any public concession phone call, he told his supporters at the Democratic campaign headquarters in Jamesport that “the people have spoken, and I congratulate my opponent for winning.”

Then he vowed, “We have the making of an emerging new voice within the Democratic party … in two years, we’re going to have better results.”

He also speculated the results might have been different if more voters had gotten to know his challenger better.

Still, the champagne flowed at GOP headquarters on East Main Street Tuesday night, where the election was called within an hour of polls closing. Republicans swept the five categories in which their candidates were running against Democrats, including supervisor, two Town Council seats and two tax assessor positions.

Town Republican chairman John Galla held up a broom in honor of the “sweep.”

“[The Republican party] has never had two complete sweeps, not that I know of,” Mr. Galla said, referring to this year and Election Night 2009, which saw three Republicans grab three Town Board seats up for grabs. “Maybe in the 1800s…But as far as anyone could remember, never. It’s like, wow. It’s humbling, it really is.”

Chairman for only about eight months, Mr. Galla was elected to lead the party on March 3 at the Elk’s Lodge. He was sworn in that night. “And it’s been a hell of a ride,” he said.
Meanwhile, the mood at Democratic headquarters in Mr. Cardinale’s Jamesport law office was somber as party members started to file out about 10 p.m., leaving behind uneaten food as it became apparent the party would only be taking the town clerk position, for which incumbent Diane Wilhelm was running unopposed.

“I want to thank everybody here, I just wish we had better results,” said Democratic chairman Vinny Villella, also a former supervisor.

In the at-large race for Town Council, five candidates sought two seats on the five-member Town Board. Incumbent Republican councilmen Jim Wooten and George Gabrielsen easily defeating their challengers.

Mr. Gabrielsen was the lead vote-getter with 4,996, followed by Mr. Wooten with 4,702, and then the Democrats’ Marlando Williams with 2,249 and Matt Van Glad with 2,129. Riverhead First candidate Ruth Pollack tallied 206 votes, and 12 people wrote in their own candidate names.

Incumbent Republican tax assessors Mason Haas and Paul Leszczynski also easily defeated their opponents winning 4,776 and 4,754 respectively. Democratic challengers Robert Svoboda and Evan Philcox received 2,137 and 2,105 votes respectively.

Incumbent Judge Richard Ehlers, running unopposed, received 5,916 votes, and Maryann Wowack Heilbrunn received 6,079 votes in the race for town tax receiver, for which she was also unopposed.

Mr. Wooten said he was looking forward to a second term in office. He said he hopes to have three dog parks in town up and running by this summer and see the municipal animal shelter turned over to the control of a private organization.

“I think the people recognize my honesty and integrity,” Mr. Wooten said. “I’m a straight-shooter, not a politician.”

For Mr. Gabrielsen, seeing ball fields at the Enterprise Park at Calverton opened to the public is one of his top goals for his first full four-year term. He was appointed in 2009 to fill the remaining two and a half years of Conservative Tim Buckley’s term.

“It’s being honest and pushing for the right things,” Mr. Gabrielsen said when asked about his success.

Mr. Walter took 19 out of 22 election districts in town, including the district where Mr. Cardinale lives, according to polling numbers released at GOP headquarters. Mr. Cardinale only won districts 2 (Polish Town) and 15 and 18, in Calverton.

Even with a bright sun and temperatures in the mid-60s, almost 1,000 fewer people showed up to the polls in 2011 than in 2009, when 8,429 Riverhead Town residents turned out to vote. Mr. Walter won 325 more votes than the 4,339 he won in 2009, but Mr. Cardinale received exactly 1,460 fewer votes than in 2009, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections website.

Mr. Walter announced during his victory speech that an Italian restaurant could be opening in the same space where the GOP had its campaign headquarters. The beginnings of a rebirth of downtown Riverhead were helpful in his reelection efforts, he said.

“I think people realize Main Street is coming back,” Mr. Walter said.

It seemed many voters agreed.

“I voted for Sean Walter, Wooten and Gabrielsen,” said Sue Koukounas of Aquebogue, after voting at the town senior center on Shade Tree Lane. She and her husband, Ted, said they both voted for the Republican incumbents.

“I just felt they had the most ability to get it together for Riverhead,” Ms. Koukounas said. “They had more of a plan, they were the best choice to move Riverhead forward.”

vchinese@timesreview.com