Councilman risks losing re-election opportunity

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Councilman James Wooten at the Town board work session last Thursday morning after he screened for Supervisor.

“My response to him is, jump in, Jim. The water’s fine.”

That was Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter’s reaction to the news that Councilman Jim Wooten planned to challenge him for the Republican nomination for supervisor.

The Republican committee screened both Mr. Walter and Mr. Wooten for the supervisor candidacy Thursday night, April 14, at the American Legion Hall on Hubbard Avenue.

In seeking the nomination, Mr. Wooten stands to lose his council seat. His term ends this year as does that of Councilman George Gabrielsen, also a Republican. Former town Conservative Party leader Warren McKnight also screened for supervisor.

With their seats up for grabs, three other candidates screened as GOP candidates for Town Board Thursday: Brian Mills, a financial adviser from Wading River who heads the Riverhead Republican Club; former deputy town attorney Mary Hartill of Wading River; and Bob Weir of Baiting Hollow, a marketing and design firm owner who screened for a Republican Town Board nomination in 2009.

Mr. Wooten, 51, a downtown resident and retired Riverhead Police officer who was elected in 2007,  announced his intention to run for supervisor a week ago but it seemed for a while he might not go through with it.

Trying to head off a party battle, Mr. Walter, Republican chairman John Galla and vice chairman George Harkin met with Mr. Wooten last Tuesday night at Mr. Walter’s law office in Wading River. After the meeting, Mr. Wooten said he needed about 24 hours to decide what he was going to do.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Galla disclosed that Mr. Wooten had told him he would screen for a council seat, not the supervisor’s post. But by Thursday afternoon, Mr. Wooten had issued a press release announcing that he did intend to screen for supervisor.

“I do not make this decision lightly or out of any motivation other than my love of Riverhead,” Mr. Wooten said in his press release. “Ultimately, a run for supervisor would mean forgoing a re-election effort” for his Town Board post. “I am confident I would win. My remarks before the committee tonight will outline why I believe my vision for Riverhead is the right one at this time. I was born in this community. I have chosen to remain to raise my family in this community. I have lived a life of public service in this community. It will be a privilege and a pleasure to use my experience and leadership skills for the continuing betterment of Riverhead.”

Mr. Wooten said he had asked the GOP committee to consider him as a candidate for his council seat if it chooses Mr. Walter for supervisor at its May 11 nominating convention.

Of Mr. Wooten’s challenge, Mr. Walter said that “in the unlikely event that he obtained the nomination of the Republican committee, I will be waging a primary.” Though he stopped short of saying so during his screening, sources said.
The supervisor had some harsh words for Mr. Wooten in an interview last Thursday, immediately after Mr. Wooten issued his statement.

“It seems to me that Councilman Wooten wants to run for both town supervisor and town council,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways, and if he cannot figure out what he wants to do for his personal life, how in the world is he ever going to make decisions affecting the town residents?”

Mr. Walter, 44, a Wading River resident and former town deputy attorney and former Riverhead Conservative Party chairman, said he also would seek the supervisor nomination of the town Conservative and Independence parties. He said Mr. Wooten was akin to a “liberal Republican” and might be more suited to running as a Democrat.

Mr. Galla, who was recently elected chairman of the town Republican committee, said this was the first year in at least 30 that the entire Republican committee had met to screen candidates, rather than just an 8- to 12-person screening committee.
“I think the whole evening went well,” Mr. Galla said. “There was a great amount of civility. Everyone was polite. They basically asked the same questions of both candidates.”

While the decision will be up to the committee, Mr. Walter doesn’t think it should consider Mr. Wooten for a council seat if he doesn’t get the supervisor nod.

“If he screens for supervisor and other individuals screen for council and Jim doesn’t get the supervisor nomination, I think the other individuals take precedence over Jim,” Mr. Walter said. “I don’t think the committee should go with him just because he’s a sitting councilman.”

He added, “What I look for in a leader is the ability to be decisive and I think that I’ve been decisive. I understand the criticisms, but you don’t always make everybody happy when you’re decisive. The fact that Jim can’t make that fundamental decision as to what position he’s likely to seek shows indecision.”

The Democrats have not begun to screen candidates, according to party chairman Vinny Villella.

Meanwhile, Riverhead Republicans hosted the Republican committees of the other four East End towns Friday night at Polish Hall to screen three candidates for county executive.

Mr. Galla said the committees screened County Treasurer and former County Legislator Angie Carpenter, State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick of St. James, and State Sen. John Flanagan of East Northport. He said County Commissioner of Jurors Michael O’Donohoe has screened with other town committees, but was not present Friday.

Former Congressman Rick Lazio and Randy Altschuler, who narrowly lost a Congressional race to incumbent Tim Bishop last November, did not appear at the screening despite talk that they might be candidates.

Mr. Galla said County Comptroller Joe Sawicki of Southold had withdrawn from consideration for a county executive run, and County Legislator Ed Romaine, who represents the North Fork, was there Friday but had not asked to be screened.

The incumbent, Steve Levy, was elected as a Democrat in 2003, re-elected with both Democratic and Republican support in 2007 and then switched his registration to Republican last year, before announcing this year that he is not running for re-election.

The Democratic frontrunner for the county executive nomination appears to be Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone.

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