School Board Know-How, Town Board Hopes

This is the first in a series of articles following local candidates on the campaign trail.
Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who is running for a seat on the East Hampton Town Board, with Afton DiSunno, a town trustees candidate, spoke with John O’Connor outside the Amagansett Post Office on Monday. Stephen J. Kotz

    Despite a forecast for rain, as Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, a Democratic and Working Families candidate for East Hampton Town Board, set up camp in front of the Amagansett Post Office over the lunch hour on Monday, the skies were blue, and an Indian summer breeze warmed the air and her mood.

    “This is the best part of campaigning,” said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who clutched a stack of pamphlets as she prepared to greet voters. It is a task she has repeated almost daily for months at post offices, grocery stores, and other gathering places across town.

    On Monday, as she often is, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez was accompanied by Afton DiSunno of Northwest Woods, who is running for town trustee on the Democratic ticket. “We’re here to bring a little girl power to town government,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said.

    Despite the occasional grousing from people who say they do not want to be bothered by the candidates, most people are genuinely friendly, she said.

    “You learn to read their body language,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said, explaining that after a couple of months on the campaign trail, she’s become adept at knowing when someone is simply not interested in stopping to chat or even taking one of her brochures. In those cases, she offers a “Have a great day!” and turns her attention to the next prospect.

    Most people, though, offer encouragement, and some are eager to bend her ear about an issue that is important to them. On this day, John O’Connor of Springs wanted to know what Ms. Burke-Gonzalez’s position was on a proposal out of Town Hall to limit the number of work trucks that can be parked at private houses. The move has been suggested as a way to rein in the commercialization of residential neighborhoods.

    Mr. O’Connor said he had talked to young workers living in the community. “A couple are scared to death,” he said. Mr. O’Connor, who said there can be as many as five vehicles parked at his own house by various family members at any given time, said the legislation was misguided. “We’re talking about private property,” he said.

    As she typically does, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez offered a measured response, saying it was essential to first gather the facts by bringing together the town attorney, code enforcement officers, and representatives of the community to reach a solution through consensus that will clean up problem areas but not have unintended consequences.

    When another woman asked her to give one reason “why I should vote for you above all other candidates,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez offered a similar answer, telling her that she would be deliberate in her decision-making, gathering the facts before jumping to conclusions.

    Still, others asked if there was anything she could do to eliminate the new fence that flanks the sidewalk at the Amagansett Post Office. Sorry, she told them, that was a matter that was strictly between the Postal Service, a federal agency, and the landlord.

    “I’m not a politician,” she said later, in offering one of her few sound-bite answers. “I’m a public servant.”

    Ms. Burke-Gonzalez was raised in Valley Stream, and studied marketing and management at Siena College. She worked for 14 years with Rav and Associates, an advertising agency in Water Mill, before moving to Blumenfeld + Fleming, a Montauk agency, where she is a part-time account executive.

    Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who is making her first bid for townwide office after serving for nine years on the Springs School Board, the last two as board president, insists that there was no single issue that galvanized her to run.

    “While on the school board I learned that I really enjoyed public service,” she said. Although she thought about running in 2007, her children, Burke, 15, and Nina, 13, were too young at the time for her to make a commitment.

    Her husband, Joe Gonzalez, is a bartender at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton and often works nights, so when she attended school board meetings those first few years, she had to hire a babysitter. Now that her children are older, she said she can spare the time.

    Plus, she added, “I want my daughter to see me out of my comfort zone every day because I want her to grow up to be a strong and confident woman.”