It’s been called a pipe dream. A myth. Insanity. Yet it’s been talked about on the East End for over 50 years.
And, it appears, after a brief glimmer of hope for a change in circumstance, the pipe dream is likely to remain just that.
The man long considered by many to be the biggest hurdle to making Peconic County a reality — longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — has been on the outs over the last couple of weeks, charged by a U.S. Attorney for using his position for receiving nearly $4 million in kickbacks.
Since the arrest announcement in late January, the so-called “Patron Saint of Peconic County” — South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele — said the thought of seceding from Suffolk County has again been on his mind.
“A number of people have asked me if we can revive Peconic County Now,” said Mr. Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) last week. “I’m willing to look at that, actually.”
But that’s about as far as it seems the Peconic County movement will get this time around — at least for now.
Any renewed hopes for a Peconic County were dashed previously, and perhaps most notably, in the late 1990s despite traction that brought it to a public vote across all five East End towns that passed by a 71-29 margin. Those in favor of seceding have cited more autonomy from the more populated — and frankly, very different — western part of Suffolk County as a main reason for leaving.
But Mr. Silver — the Assembly’s second-longest serving speaker in the body’s 192-year-history who earned a reputation over the years as a political stalwart in Albany — made sure Peconic County’s secession never made its way through the Assembly, a necessary measure in order to establish the new county.
Previous coverage from The Suffolk Times in the late ’90s noted that “with Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan unalterably against the drive, believing it could aid in Staten Island’s efforts to break away from New York City, no one from his party had ever agreed to sponsor Peconic County bills in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.”
After many years of calling for Peconic County’s creation, Mr. Thiele eventually stopped pushing for it, realizing the effort was probably a futile one.
“With the speaker in there for the last 20 years, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” he said.
The now-former speaker announced he was stepping down effective 11:59 p.m. Monday. His successor was supposed to be named next Tuesday, with Monroe Democrat Joe Morelle serving as acting speaker until then. But Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie quickly gained support from fellow Democrats to become the next speaker.
He was voted in on Tuesday.
While the new speaker’s opinions on Peconic County in particular remain unknown, Mr. Thiele said he’d be surprised if it has the backing of the Bronx Democrat.
“If the next speaker isn’t from New York City, it’s something we might be able to talk about,” he said last week.
In fact, only one speaker in the last 50 years has not hailed from New York City: South Fork Republican Perry Duryea, from 1969 to 1974.
Various politicians polled across the East End these days expressed varying levels of support for Peconic County.
North Fork Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said if it would benefit the region from a financial standpoint, he would stand behind it, while county Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said he favored the idea of more local government.
Mr. Krupski is just one of two legislators representing the entire East End in the 18-member county Legislature.
East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell, the former president of Peconic County Now — an advocacy group aimed at seceding from Suffolk — said splitting Suffolk and the East End towns can still benefit both regions.
Former county comptroller and assemblyman Joe Sawicki believes politicians should focus more on creating a State of Long Island than a new county, a concept supported by a Long Island Association report that came out in January noting that the region gave New York State $4.7 billion more in tax revenues than it received in 2013.
In fact, legislation calling for the state has already been proposed in the current legislative session in Albany, though — much like the Peconic County proposal — dies in committee each year.
As for the Peconic County dream, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he “would love to see it.
“But it’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime.”