Column: Emerging Democrats, eh? I wonder

11/17/2011 8:00 AM |

Phil Cardinale made an election night vow that the town Democratic party would be back — big time — in 2013. It was a bold promise, considering the shellacking the party experienced at the hands of the town’s Republicans that day, with former supervisor Mr. Cardinale at the top of the town ticket.

“We have the making of an emerging new voice within the Democratic party,” he told deflated supporters at Democratic campaign headquarters in Jamesport that night. “In two years, we’re going to have better results.”

That got me thinking. Who the heck could he be talking about?

I planned to call Mr. Cardinale or other sources within the party to find out, but found myself having way too much fun imagining who might make good Democratic candidates to run for what will be three open Town Board seats, including supervisor, come November 2013. So here, in no particular order, is a short list I compiled of potential candidates who could pose a challenge to the all-powerful Riverhead Republicans. As a quick aside, I haven’t reached out to any of these people and have no idea if any of them would consider running for Town Board seats as Democrats, in the near or distant future.

A former town animal control officer, Sean McCabe is a darling of the East End’s animal lover contingent, some of whom have deep pockets and would probably be willing to help a McCabe campaign along. Mr. McCabe, who now works in the sewer department, is well-spoken and composed, and has the look of a politician. Once a registered Republican, Mr. McCabe screened with the Democrats in 2009, but was passed over for a Town Council run by committee members insecure about nominating former Republicans. But the fact is, the town’s only two Democratic supervisors in recent history, Mr. Cardinale and current Democratic chairman Vinny Villella, were both once Republicans. And no one in the party really seems to care now.

Mr. McCabe clearly has political aspirations. He probably has lots of friends in town and in town government and already knows the inner workings of two departments. He’s also got connections, it would seem. When his ACO job was cut in 2010, he managed to stay with the town by being transferred to sewers, despite an all-GOP Town Board. But if he does owe someone in the Republican party a favor, it could stifle his chances of running for a Town Board seat as Democrat.

Linda Hobson has long worked behind the scenes in Riverhead politics. She’s a Democratic committee member and served as treasurer for Shirley Coverdale’s unsuccessful campaign for a Town Council seat in 2009. Her lobbying and organizing skills really thrust her into the spotlight in the past two years, as she led a hugely successful charge to get financial help for residents, herself included, of the flood-devastated Horton Avenue neighborhood. Her efforts paid off big time this summer, with the announcement that the feds were chipping in $2.9 million to purchase and demolish 12 destroyed Horton Avenue properties. The town plans to convert the low-lying neighborhood to wetlands, forever solving a chronic problem that goes back decades. It’s hard to find more tangible evidence of hard work and persistence.

Ms. Hobson, a social worker with a beaming smile — which is priceless on the campaign trail — is board member of the Long Island Organizing Network nonprofit advocacy group and has otherwise worked and volunteered on behalf of the town’s elderly and needy for years, which could translate into votes. She also has a master’s degree in social work from Stony Brook University. Ms. Hobson has been a campaign footsoldier for Tim Bishop, but the Coverdale campaign she helped lead was ineffective. Perhaps lessons learned in that effort could help her in a campaign of her own.

Evan Philcox ran for town assessor on this year’s Democratic ticket. A solar installer, substitute teacher and lacrosse and soccer coach for Riverhead schools, Mr. Philcox, 29, has a master’s degree and teaches math and English. I imagine he screened with the Dems for a Town Council nomination — how many young men ambitious in politics dream of becoming a town assessor? — but was told by committee members he had to “do his time” first and run for assessor or tax receiver. (I can’t know for sure, because the committee for some bizarre reason would not release the names of people who screened with them, and for what positions.)

So now Mr. Philcox has done his time, and he could be in line for a Town Board nomination in two or even four years. But — and this is a big but — he did his time quietly. He never spoke up at any Town Board meetings during campaign season, didn’t write letters to the editor and didn’t offer any substantive public critiques of his opponents at meet-the-candidate events. A political newbie, his missteps are probably more a reflection on the party’s leadership. With good coaching and imaginative thinking, Mr. Philcox might be able to use his math, technical and English language skills — as well as his youth — to stand out in a campaign.

You would be hard pressed to find someone outside of local partisan party members more publicly dissatisfied with Supervisor Sean Walter’s management decisions than occasional News-Review guest columnist and cage-rattler Larry Simms of South Jamesport. Mr. Simms, who as of now lives here only part time, has also frequently taken issue with town Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Industrial Development Agency decisions. He would bring an acute knowledge of how town government works — or is supposed to work — to a campaign, probably moreso than any other Riverhead Town Board challenger in recent history. And his arguments can be very persuasive.

The president of a New York City company, Mr. Simms has also taken an interest in other municipal matters such as sewage treatment. He’s not involved in either party and has described himself to me as “fiercely independent,” but if he’s planning to retire permanently in Riverhead Town, as he has said, maybe he’ll try to bring his knowledge and passions to the Town Board. In the meantime — and speaking strictly about possible political aspirations — he would have to be careful about how much he throws in with certain civic and environmental factions, because he could then be susceptible to being painted by his rivals as a NIMBY activist with a one-track mind. And that might not play well at the polls.

Michael White is editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 152. Or email him at [email protected]