Column: This Riverhead election isn’t lacking for story lines

Walter Coates Giglio

Local elections in Riverhead have always been a mess of political drama, personal histories, party lines swapped, alliances made and then broken and feuds aired out in the open.

But have we ever had an election so filled with story lines as this year’s town supervisor race?

So far in 2015 we’ve had a razor-thin primary challenge, an incumbent running without the support of his own party leadership, an upstart challenger from another party with former political ties to the incumbent and two sitting Town Board members facing off for the supervisor’s chair.

Riverhead has seen these plots play out before from time to time, but perhaps never all at once. The situation is nearly unparalleled in town politics.

Two-time incumbent Supervisor Sean Walter — who as recently as last year had his party’s support to run for county Legislature — was passed over by the Riverhead Town Republican Committee during their nominations. In his place, the party picked, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio by a mere half-vote. Mr. Walter took Ms. Giglio to a primary, where she emerged victorious, again by a tight margin.

Mr. Walter — who still has the backing of the Conservative Party — has vowed to fight on into the general election. Meanwhile, his former political advisor turned Democrat Anthony Coates is running against both Ms. Giglio and Mr. Walter, campaigning on an anti-administration platform.

It’s rare to have a three-way race in which all candidates have a legitimate chance of securing victory, so let’s break down the possible scenarios.

Ms. Giglio and Mr. Coates could split voters who oppose Mr. Walter, giving his sizable collection of loyal voters an opportunity to deliver re-election with a plurality of votes. Mr. Walter also has the name recognition that incumbency affords.

But Ms. Giglio, a town councilwoman since 2009, also has name recognition and experience in town government to back her candidacy. She’ll have the advantage of support from the largest political party in Riverhead Town, and a party-line vote could propel her to victory.

However, Ms. Giglio and Mr. Walter could also split the Republican votes.

In the last town supervisor race, the Republicans pulled in 3,058 votes to the Democrats’ 2,929. That’s a slim enough margin that a close Giglio-Walter race could hand Mr. Coates the win. Mr. Coates should also hope for a large turnout, something that has historically benefited Democrats in Riverhead.

The last tight three-way Riverhead town supervisor race was in 1995, when acting Supervisor Jim Stark swept the Republican nomination away from party-backed councilman and longtime political foe Frank Creighton, who ran as a Conservative.

The two faced Christopher Kent, a former Republican turned Democrat. The final Election Day tally had Mr. Stark steamrolling ahead, beating Mr. Kent and Mr. Creighton by winning 3,519 votes to their respective 2,376 and 1,767.

Since then, third candidates have been big losers when the votes are added up. Ruth Jernick, an Independence candidate, pulled in less than 1,000 in 1999. And perennial also-ran Greg Fischer, who ran on his own Riverhead First party, managed only 217 votes.

The closest parallel may come from Riverhead’s neighbors to the south. In 2007, the incumbent Republican town supervisor in Southampton, Patrick “Skip” Heaney, lost out on the party’s nod to town councilwoman Linda Kabot in a primary. Yet Mr. Heaney managed to stay on the ballot through the Conservative party line.

Mr. Heaney and Ms. Kabot faced off against Democratic challenger Henry James in a tight three-way race.

It was an incumbent supervisor with Conservative backing taking on challengers from both major political parties.

Sound familiar?

Of course, there are some differences: Mr. Heaney had the party’s backing in the primary that year — unlike Mr. Walter, who is campaigning without the support of Republican committeemen.

As for the results of that 2007 race? Mr. Heaney finished a close third, just 400 votes behind the Democrat, Mr. Henry, who was beaten by supervisor-elect Ms. Kabot. She eked out a tight victory, winning by just 53 votes.

This November, Ms. Giglio will be hoping history repeats itself; Mr. Walter and Mr. Coates won’t.

Paul Squire is the web editor for Times Review Media Group. Email him or give him a call at 631-298-3200, ext. 232. He’s on Twitter @pauljsquire