It’s on; Republican rivals to square off for supervisor nod

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Sean Walter and James Wooten after Tuesday night's private meeting in Wading River.

Riverhead Councilman James Wooten is not backing down in his bid to seek the Republican nomination for supervisor, he announced Thursday afternoon.

He issued a press release just hours after the head of the Riverhead Republican Committee alerted the media Mr. Wooten had decided to screen for a councilmember seat — instead of supervisor — before GOP committee members tonight.

James Teese of Smithtown, Mr. Wooten’s political adviser, told the News-Review the Republican Committee put Mr. Wooten in a tough spot by insisting the incumbent councilman only screen for one position — while scheduling the councilperson screening opportunity before the supervisor screenings.

It was also implied by GOP leaders that if  Mr. Wooten isn’t nominated as supervisor, he would not get the council nomination either, Mr. Teese said.

“[Our] request was to screen with both groups,” Mr. Teese said.

“There are some people making the complaint that screening for two offices is running for two offices,” he continued. “But no one is running for anything until the committee makes a decision.”

In a statement, Mr. Wooten said he hopes “to receive the endorsement of my fellow Republicans for supervisor.  If not, I humbly believe that my service will be recognized and respected by the committee and I will receive their endorsement for re-election.”

Mr. Wooten also challenged party insiders to keep the nomination process “open.”

“I do not expect that, in 2011, the party would seek a return to the obsolete ways of autocratic control that would deny the committee a real choice in selecting the head of the ticket,” Mr. Wooten said. “I bear no ill will toward the supervisor, but I believe it is time to bring to Riverhead the necessary leadership that the community demands and deserves. We must build consensus on the council to bring Riverhead into the future.”

Responding to the news, Mr. Walter said, “It sounds like he wants to be both councilman and supervisor, and if he cant make those decisions in his personal life, how’s he going to make important decisions that affect 35,000 residents in the town?”

He also said he was fully prepared for a party primary in the “unlikely” event Mr. Wooten should win the committee’s nomination.

“I will be waging a primary,” Mr. Walter vowed, adding that he would also be seeking the Conservative and Independence lines. “And now I think the Republican Committee should be concentrating on finding council candidates to run for Jim’s spot, because you can’t run for both.”

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.

Although he never held a formal press conference, Mr. Wooten already had told the local media that he would seek the GOP nomination. That had Republican leaders scrambling, and on Tuesday night Mr.Wooten, Mr. Walter and Republican Committee leaders, with Mr. Galla emceeing, met in Wading River in an attempt to settle their differences.

Mr. Wooten left that meeting saying he needed 24 hours to consider stepping aside and not running for supervisor, but the next morning told the News-Review “there was nothing that was too convincing…that will really compel me to reconsider.”

“My compulsion for this whole thing is I think Riverhead can do better,” Mr. Wooten told the News-Review this week. “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…convince others there are other choices in government besides the incumbent all the time.”

Mr. Walter, who had refrained from directing harsh comments at Mr. Wooten in the hours before the private meeting Tuesday, said Thursday that Mr. Wooten would have trouble running on his record of almost a full four-year term as a Town Board member.

“He’s had one signature issue for 3 1/2 years, and that’s the animal shelter,” Mr. Walter said. “The only other issue I see that he’s worked on is the double-wood utility pole issue. And Tara McLaughlin from my office had as much to do with that as he did.”

“I accept the fact that some people don’t appreciate my style,” Mr. Walter continued. “But I want people to look at the goals that we’ve accomplished. I’ll work on the style, but the people will hopefully understand the positive things we’ve accomplished.”

He also said Mr. Wooten’s politics may be better suited for the Democratic camp.

Asked for a response to Mr. Walter’s take on Mr. Wooten’s track record, Mr. Teese said Mr. Wooten “will be making those statements tonight,” at the Republican screening event.

The head of the Riverhead Democratic Committee, Vinny Villella told the News-Review Thursday the continued GOP infighting should help his party, especially if the two Republicans end up splitting the Republican, Conservative and Independence lines.

“This should help out with splitting the ticket; Jim’s a good candidate,” Mr. Villella said.

Additional reporting by Tim Gannon.

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