Councilman gunning for supervisor seat; has GOP leaders scrambling

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Councilman James Wooten (left) an Riverhead Republican Committee Chairman John Galla leave Supervisor's Sean Walter's law office in Wading River after they met Tuesday night.

On the same day Riverhead Councilman James Wooten was planning to formally announce his intention to seek the Republican nomination for supervisor, a scrambling Republican leadership asked if he would instead meet with them and the incumbent, Republican Sean Walter, to reconsider.

The two men, along with the Riverhead Republican Committee’s chairman and vice chairman, met Tuesday night for about an hour in Mr. Walter’s law offices in Wading River, a meeting into which the supervisor carried a handful of Newcastle Brown Ale beers to lighten the mood.

Chairman John Galla did most of the talking and gesturing, from what the News-Review could see through a window. Mr. Wooten later said that Mr. Galla, who had not yet spoken to the media on the issue, had urged Mr. Wooten to consider what the supervisor and he had in common — and what squabbling could do to the party’s chances come Election Day.

But Mr. Wooten told his fellow Republicans he needed up to 24 hours before deciding whether to challenge Mr. Walter. In the meantime, he wanted to seek the advice of friends and political advisors.

“We talked about some commonalities we have,” Mr. Wooten told the News-Review after the meeting. “And we talked about what a primary would do and what could happen politically in the infighting. There were a couple of good suggestions made.”
“But to be honest,” he then said the next day, “there was nothing that was too convincing at the meeting, I think, that will really compel me to reconsider.”

Although he never held a formal press conference, Mr. Wooten already has told the local media that he would seek the nomination.

He said on Tuesday that he expected to release a statement late Wednesday or early today, Thursday.

Before Tuesday’s meeting in Wading River, Mr. Walter appeared hopeful the two men would “settle our differences.” he said.
“I think there are forces [within the Riverhead Republican Committee] that are wreaking some havoc,” he said. “But we’ll get through it. We’re having a meeting and I think our executive committee is going to try to work through those issues.”

The trio was joined about 30 minutes into Tuesday’s meeting, which started at about 6:15 p.m., by Riverhead Republican Committee Vice Chairman George Harkin. The four emerged from the session smiling.

“We met as gentlemen and we worked out some of our differences,” said Committee Chairman John Galla. “We’ll have to take it from here.”

The men seemed amiable as they posed for photos with a News-Review photographer.

“Can we use these for the campaign?” Mr. Walter joked.

“There will an be announcement in the next 12 to 24 hours,” Mr. Walter later said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Mr. Wooten, a retired Riverhead Police officer, was elected to the Riverhead Town Board in 2007. His four-year term as councilman expires this year. Mr. Walter, a lawyer and former Riverhead Conservative Party chairman, was elected to a two-year term in 2009 along with three Republicans who ran for Town Board seats. Members of the resulting all-Republican Town Board have since been involved in a string of public battles over controversial issues.

Mr. Wooten last weekend emailed the News-Review, saying he would be scheduling a press conference to announce his intention to run for supervisor, “possibly Tuesday afternoon.”

“My compulsion for this whole thing is I think Riverhead can do better,” he then said in an interview. “I see this dysfunctional board, which I think hinders government. I’ve always been a Republican and I certainly support the committee but I’m trying to do this the right way and convince others there are other choices in government besides the incumbent all the time.”

Mr. Wooten also said he had sent his résumé to the Democratic screening committee but was only looking for a cross-endorsement.

“Would I consider screening solely with the Democrats? No,” he said, explaining that Democratic Committee Chairman Vinny Villella had asked the councilman for his résumé. “I’m a Republican. I’ve been a Republican my whole life. I owe my allegiances to the Republican Party and I’m not going to just jump ship because of this.”

Councilmembers George Gabrielsen and John Dunleavy, reached by phone Monday, both theorized that the potential political fight stemmed from a personality clash between the two men.

“Wooten’s a nice guy and he’s very community minded but I really don’t know where he’s coming from,” Mr. Gabrielsen said. “I think we got some really good projects moving forward with the supervisor and you have to put personality aside. I’m 110 percent behind Sean. I have nothing bad to say about Wooten. I’m just puzzled; I don’t have a clue what he’s thinking. I think personalities is what’s driving this. It’s almost bizarre to me.

“Believe me,” he continued, “Sean and I go at it sometimes, but the next day we’ll talk and we’ll get back” to work.

Mr. Dunleavy said Mr. Walter’s management style can be off-putting. He also blamed the supervisor for a lack of leadership skills required to build more consensus on the board, whose members have disagreed loudly and publicly over issues. He said the supervisor also resorts to threats and scare tactics with board members.

“Last week, he got mad at me and came into my office and said some threatening words to me,” Mr. Dunleavy said when pressed for details. “And I looked at him, and said, ‘What the hell did I do now?’ I had to talk to him after, when he was calmed down. As long as you haven’t done anything wrong, he shouldn’t be able to come in and give you any threatening words, which he does. And I think that’s immaturity.”

Told of Mr. Dunleavy’s remarks, Mr. Walter described the board as split, with Mr. Dunleavy and Mr. Wooten — who served together under former Democratic supervisor Phil Cardinale — often voting together on controversial issues, and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Mr. Gabrielsen often voting the other way.

“I’m the swing vote,” he said, “but I don’t know what John Dunleavy’s saying. We’ve built consensus on many different things. With the previous board, it was paralysis by analysis. We chart a path once we build a consensus of three votes. I told the board, we make a decision and move on. Sometimes the other board members are not happy because they don’t have the votes. In my opinion, it’s better to make a decision and move forward than not make a decision at all.”

As for Mr. Dunleavy’s charge that Mr. Walter had threatened him, the supervisor said he had not been “threatening him.”
“In my family when you raised your voice, it wasn’t a really a big deal,” Mr. Walter said. “But some families, if you raise your voices, people think you’re angry or mad. I like to project.”

Councilwoman Giglio, reached Monday afternoon, declined to offer comments on a potential primary.

“This is between party leaders and between my colleagues,” she said. “Whatever comes out of this will, hopefully, be in the best interest of the taxpayers.”

Meanwhile, the Riverhead Democratic Committee is getting ready to screen potential candidates for this year’s local elections.
Democratic chairman Vinny Villella said the GOP’s infighting could work to his party’s advantage in November.

“It depends on how it plays out,” he said. “If Wooten gets the GOP [nomination] and Sean goes on a third-party line, then I’m sure that would help us.”

Asked about the possibility of Mr. Wooten screening for the Democratic supervisor endorsement, Mr. Villella said, “If we have a Democratic candidate, we go with the Democratic candidate. If he switched parties, we can think about that; that’s why there’s a screening process.”

Such a move could put Mr. Wooten in a showdown at the Democratic convention with former Supervisor Phil Cardinale, who Mr. Villella has said is considered to be the party’s presumptive supervisor candidate.

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