Politics: Indy Party Screens Hopefuls

Much talk of consensus and cross-endorsements
Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, seeking nominations for East Hampton Town Board, stood in Ashawagh Hall in Springs Tuesday night as Independence Party leaders screened the next of six town board hopefuls. Carissa Katz

   The absence of a Republican hopeful for town supervisor at the East Hampton Independence Party’s candidate screening on Tuesday night may have been the most notable part of the evening, prompting continued speculation about who will take the top spot on the G.O.P. ticket.
    Nancy Keeshan, who last week said she was planning to screen for supervisor with both the Independence and Republican Parties, was a no-show on Tuesday at Ashawagh Hall and confirmed yesterday that she had decided not to run for supervisor. That left Zachary Cohen and Larry Cantwell, both of whom are also seeking the Democratic nomination, as the only candidates standing.
    “What happens if you were even offered a third endorsement? Would you accept it?” Elaine Jones, the Independence Party’s chairwoman, asked Mr. Cantwell on Tuesday.
    “It’s flattering that people are even discussing that,” he responded, guessing that such talk is prompted by a desire for consensus-building at Town Hall after a period in which some board members seem determined to disagree. However, “People in the community might be disappointed that there’s not a thorough debate,” he said. “I’m perfectly ready to earn an election to town supervisor.”
    “We will have a candidate,” Kurt Kappel, the Republican leader, promised yesterday, dispelling rumors of a cross-endorsement.
    Though the Independence Party ran its own candidates for town board in 2011, it generally throws its support behind those running with one of the two major parties.
    In addition to Mr. Cohen and Mr. Cantwell, the party interviewed people seeking nominations for town board, town clerk, trustee, highway superintendent, town justice, and assessor. The six seeking nominations for town board included the Republicans’ choices, Councilman Dominick Stanzione and Fred Overton, the outgoing town clerk, as well as Job Potter, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, Kathy Cunningham, and Peter Wadsworth, who are all seeking the Democrats’ nod.
    On Tuesday, while each of the candidates for supervisor and town board was asked if he or she would run with only Independence support, Ms. Jones was quick to tell them that if that happened, “you won’t win.”
    If he’d had the Independence line in 2011, Mr. Cohen, who ran on the Dem­ocratic ticket, might well have won his race against Supervisor Bill Wilkinson. The local Independence Party wanted to endorse Mr. Cohen, but the county leaders overruled the choice, instead backing Mr. Wilkinson, who squeaked back into office by just 15 votes.
    Despite that disappointment, Mr. Cohen told the party Tuesday, “I stayed very loyal. I was not bitter.” He told party leaders that he supports many of their ideals, and is “about as nonpartisan a candidate as you’re going to find who runs for a party line.”
    He has strong support from town employees and is a known and popular face at Town Hall, he said. “I say please and I say thank you . . . but I also go to bat for them.”
    He said he has the financial expertise, the management skills, and the vision to be supervisor. “I’ve shown in all my policy work that I have vision,” Mr. Cohen said.
    As for a cross-endorsement from Demo­crats and the Independence or Republican Party, Mr. Cohen said, “I believe in cross-endorsements. I believe this is a good year for a cross-endorsement if I win the Democratic line.”
    And if he’s on the ballot, he believes he has an excellent chance at winning. “As it looks now, whoever the Democratic candidate is is going to win,” Mr. Cohen said. This year looks a lot like 2009 did for Mr. Wilkinson, who lost by a hair in 2007 to Bill McGintee, then came back to win election by a landslide against Ben Zwirn. In 2007, he was relatively unknown, but “because he had so many votes in his pocket,” he was able to win two years later, Mr. Cohen said. “In 2011, 3,400 people pulled the lever for me,” he said. This year, “it’s not just going to be a win. If I win, I’m going to win by a lot.”
    Nevertheless, Mr. Cantwell, who is retiring as East Hampton Village administrator after 31 years, is seen as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination. Before working for the village, he was the town’s youngest elected bay constable, then served for two terms as an East Hampton Town councilman.
    He made his case to Independence Party leaders using the same speech he delivered a week and a half ago when officially announcing his candidacy. The town, he said, needs a mitigation and recovery plan to address coastal erosion. It needs to invest in technology and in a rapidly deteriorating infrastructure, and it needs a supervisor who believes in the town’s planning and zoning regulations and respects town employees.
    Asked what he sees as the biggest need and the first priority if elected, Mr. Cantwell said, “the first thing is to set a new tone” for how the town operates and how people are treated, “because it starts at the top.” One of the first things he would do, he said, is meet with all the town employees to talk with them about how to work together to help the public. “We need to pull the wagon in the same direction.”
    That was a recurrent theme echoed also by the town board hopefuls, who all talked about the importance of consensus-building in order to actually accomplish some of the important tasks at hand.
    The Independence Party plans to announce its nominations in the coming week, which will make it the first party in town to officially do so, but those nominations could be turned on their heads if the party chooses candidates not endorsed by the Democrats or the Republicans. Democrats are still interviewing candidates and have scheduled their nominating convention for May 15.
    Republicans have most of their slate firmed up but still need to interview supervisor candidates, which Mr. Kappel expects will happen in the next week or two. Despite the vacancy at the top, he said he’s pleased with the choices already in place. “We have a solid ticket.”