Richard Haeg, who is running on the Republican and Conservative tickets for East Hampton Town Board, is a man of interesting parts. A decorated Vietnam War veteran who loves to paint and a devoted Republican who also believes a politician is just a voice for the people, Mr. Haeg has a gentle disposition despite a hard-nosed career background — he served as a plainclothes police officer and detective in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Narcotics Squad and Rackets Bureau for over 15 years.
In 2005, Mr. Haeg ran for town justice, believing his background in law enforcement and knowledge of the court system had given him insight into perspectives of both the defense and the prosecution.
“I think it would have been great to end my career as a referee,” he said. “But I also knew going into it that it was an impossible race. It’s so difficult to unseat an incumbent justice, especially when we have great justices.”
He initially rejected Republican supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s request that he run on the Republican ticket this year. “My first reaction was, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” he said, laughing, “because it’s a tough position to run for and there is an element about politics these days . . . people tend not to like politicians. But Bill pointed out some things the board could use that I have, and as I thought about it, I realized that most of the things I had done in life have brought me to a place where I could really add something to the board and the town.”
“It’s about the community and the people,” he said. “If I can help make this a better place, then I can give four years to do that. That’d be wonderful.”
Mr. Haeg’s entire career has been in service to country or community, he said, beginning with a four-year stint in the Marine Corps starting in 1966. He earned a Bronze Star with a V for valor and the Conspicuous Service Medal from New York State.
“I went to France, Italy, Spain, it was outrageous,” he said. “I was only 19. But I got to meet a lot of different military people from all over Europe. It was a pretty amazing experience.”
A native of Mattituck, Mr. Haeg returned to his hometown when he was discharged in 1969 and the following year received a call from the Suffolk County Police Academy. He had taken exams for the Washington, New York State, and Suffolk County Police Departments on a whim, while still in the Marine Corps, but had forgotten about them.
“Honestly, it was never something I had an interest in,” he said. “I had passed all the exams, but Suffolk County called me first. By that time I was married, and [the Police Department] offered insurance benefits, the pay was pretty good, and having grown up here, I wanted to work nearby.”
After retiring, he worked as a private investigator. He also lectured at Suffolk Community College and served on the college’s advisory board for over a decade.
It wasn’t until 1999 that he moved to the South Fork, but he had always loved the area, he said, and its landscapes had been the inspirations for many of his paintings.
“I do love to paint. I find it very calming,” he said. “I’ve done it since high school and that’s one of the reasons I came out here, but life tends to get in the way and you don’t always get to do what you want to do.”
These days, he is spending much more time dealing with politics than paints. In addition to his current campaign and his run for town justice, he served as a vice chairman of the East Hampton Town Republican Committee.
Mr. Haeg said he would approach issues with a spirit of compromise and believes that everyone should be able to sit down together and move forward “as friends.”
“I’ve worked with victims and defendants for a long time and there is no bigger compromise than that in life,” he said. “The issue of overcrowding in Springs — I have friends that have worked on those problems successfully. They’ve done it in Farmingville and again in Riverheard. They’ve decreased the population and the density in these areas. The prior boards and zoning have created that problem because they weren’t thinking about the future.”
Mr. Haeg said that he has learned there is an unfortunately long lag between what society needs and what the legislators are putting into the pipeline. He believes that the Republican Party, helmed by Mr. Wilkinson, is aware of that lag and is working to shorten it.
“What we are going to legislate is not going to affect the future citizens of the town in a negative way,” he said. “You have to be able to anticipate the changes. It’s like a chess game.”
The campaigning process has been surprising, rewarding, and challenging, he said, with most of his surprise stemming from the fact that finances seem to have strayed from the center of voters’ radar.
“I was also surprised at the amount of work and how draining being a candidate is,” he said. “I have so much respect for all the candidates that are stepping out there. It takes a lot. I’ve been on 2,500 job interviews for a part-time job. Whether you win or lose, it’s an amazing process.”