In our bitterly divided country, where many politicians believe their role is to smear the other side or find some way of bringing opponents to their knees, and where political parties seem more like employment agencies, we hope our North Fork towns can always chart a separate course.
In so many ways, we are in a bubble here, separated from what lies to the west by acres of farmland, woods and clean saltwater. What is best for us here is what should count — not whether you have a D or an R after your name or what lines you have on the ballot or what strategies you will employ to get members of your party elected.
The recent town elections in Riverhead and Southold showed that, for many partisan players, the party is the point and the only point. The party’s well-being is paramount. The letter after a name on the ballot signifies — to some, at least — that this candidate is tied to the larger party and all the controversies that go with it. But it’s unfair to judge a local Republican or Democrat because of what is going on nationally with those parties and their leaders.
Moving forward Riverhead and Southold both need to focus on what’s happening here, not anywhere else. The challenges ahead are vast. One way to deal with these challenges, perhaps, is to create local parties with local names and an entirely local focus.
There is precedent for this here.
In 1994, Tom Wickham, who was a Republican and served on the Town Board, ditched his party and formed a new one: United Southold. Prominent Democrats like Ruth Oliva joined this new ticket, as did well-regarded centrists like Joe Townsend. The new party was fiscally centrist, bipartisan and focused on the town’s environment and how to save as much open space and farmland as possible.
The goal of the new party was to be strictly local, with no ties to any larger entity and n its agenda. In a recent interview at his Cutchogue farm, Mr. Wickham talked about his dissatisfaction with his former party and the way it ran Town Hall. He decided he didn’t want to be a part of it, with the best path forward being to create a new party.
That new party, United Southold, turned its focus on the environment and land preservation. In that town election, United Southold won every seat it ran for. It was a triumph for a party that was focused entirely on town issues and town residents.
United Southold was a short-lived third party, with the election two years later seeing the Democrats and Republicans teaming up to beat it. But the party’s work on preservation lasted, and showed Republicans where voters’ focus was. To that end, United Southold was a success.
In this day of toxic partisan politics, we need to ask ourselves how we can become a model of the traditional New England town meeting, where “here” matters more than anything else. We are different here, and that has to be preserved.