Smithtown's longtime chief, 81, still fiery

Photo credit: Ed Betz | Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio listens during a town board. (Feb. 7, 2012)

May 19, 2012

Gerry Cooney was a heavyweight contender in October 1980 when he stepped into the ring for a charity boxing match at the old Colonie Hill hotel in Hauppauge. 

Across from him stood Patrick Vecchio, then 50 and in his third year as Smithtown's supervisor. Though under 6 feet tall, Vecchio wasn't content to shadow box the 6-foot-5, 224 pounder. 

"Vecchio, of course, feisty little bugger, started punching," recalled Smithtown town historian Bradley Harris. Vecchio was rewarded with a black eye. 

"He might have caught a shot by accident," Cooney said, adding he didn't try to hurt Vecchio, a former Golden Gloves boxer. "He knew what he was doing." 

Later, Cooney lost a title fight against Larry Holmes, and Colonie Hill was torn down. 

That Vecchio is still in office pleases Cooney. "When you looked into his eye, you could tell he wanted to show what he had," he said. 

In his 35th year leading Smithtown, Vecchio, 81, seems to be showing no signs of quitting. 

Political insiders expect Vecchio -- the longest tenured town supervisor in Long Island history -- to run for re-election next year, for his 13th term. The Republican, who will turn 83 two months before Election Day 2013, has not announced his plans. But if he wins next year and serves out that term, Vecchio will have been in office 40 years. 

"I always thought," said Harris, a former Democratic town councilman, "the only way he's going to be carried out of office is feet first." 

Carved his own path

Since taking office in 1978 -- Ed Koch's first year as New York City mayor -- Vecchio has fashioned an image as a political maverick who has defied the leadership of two parties: A former Democrat, Vecchio became a Republican in 1990 to make an ill-fated run for Suffolk County executive. 

And despite complaints that he has stifled local economic progress, he has remained steadfast in what he has said is his primary responsibility: protecting overburdened taxpayers from reckless government spending. He has curtailed use of town vehicles, cut staff travel budgets, and forced department heads to account for every dollar they spend, Harris said. 

Supporters say Vecchio's frugality is the secret to his political longevity. 

"Pat keeps it simple. He's always been hard-nosed when it comes to costs," said Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James), a former town councilman who recalled Vecchio's opposition to spending $65,000 for a water slide at a town park. "He's a fixture in this town," he said. "He'll go into the history books." 

But he has critics. 

Vecchio raised the ire of Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle two years ago when he crossed party lines to endorse Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop of Southampton. Bishop won a close race after weeks of recounts. "I think he's a very divisive individual," LaValle said. 

Vecchio is reluctant to talk about himself and did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. 

Learned from mentor

A retired New York City police officer, Vecchio has said he learned politics from former Mayor John Lindsay, for whom he served as a driver and bodyguard. Though the pair rubbed elbows with dignitaries, Vecchio said Lindsay -- a patrician who left the Republican Party and ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 -- nonetheless had the common touch. 

"He was a guy who never would want someone to carry his coat or his briefcase," Vecchio said after Lindsay's death in December 2000. 

Lindsay is among dozens of luminaries with Vecchio in photographs that line the walls of the supervisor's second-floor Town Hall office. Vecchio is also posed with entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, actor Marlon Brando and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Behind his desk hangs a giant picture of Vecchio as a young cop escorting a limousine carrying President John F. Kennedy. 

An old-fashioned politician, he doesn't exchange emails with staff, preferring to do town business over the phone or in person. You won't find him on Facebook or Twitter. 

Friends, however, say Vecchio is not the humorless penny-pincher he sometimes appears to be. They describe him as complicated: short-tempered, to be sure, but a warm, jocular man who relaxes by reading suspense novels on a Kindle and tending the garden at his Fort Salonga home. He has also appeared in musicals at local theaters. 

Hauppauge construction company owner Jack Kulka recalled a round of golf with Vecchio on a hot summer weekend trip to Virginia. Kulka thought Vecchio would explode when a course official scolded him for driving his golf cart off a path. 

"Normally Pat would get very upset," Kulka said. "He laughed. 

"I think that's the real Pat Vecchio . . . a softy. Easygoing, warm. I think in public life you have to build up a public facade as a protective measure." 

Critics have different view

Some detractors describe Vecchio as polarizing. They say Vecchio, who is paid $111,635 annually, has blocked economic development and let roads deteriorate while leaving a litany of political enemies. 

Some business leaders complain that Vecchio doesn't work with them. Downtown Smithtown and Kings Park are pockmarked with empty storefronts -- due to what they say is Vecchio's intransigence. 

"He's a relic who's a legend in his own mind," said Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a St. James resident and longtime Vecchio foe. 

Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors' Association, said Vecchio is "cordial, but he's never expressed any interest in our industry." 

But Kulka defended Vecchio, saying he is a take-charge supervisor who quickly responds to calls from business owners. 

"Even though he may be acerbic, he's a doer. He's kept the taxes down. He won't put up with disingenuous people," said Kulka, a founder of the Hauppauge Industrial Association. "Pat Vecchio has lived up to all of his promises." 

Under Vecchio's no-nonsense leadership, the five-member town board -- including four Republicans and one Conservative -- typically speeds through meetings, voting on dozens of resolutions in a half-hour or less with little discussion, disagreement or debate. Some say Vecchio abhors lengthy discussions; some view him as autocratic. 

In recent months, Vecchio has been at odds with other board members -- notably Edward Wehrheim and Kevin Malloy, both Republicans, and Robert Creighton, a Conservative -- over the town budget and a town attorney appointment. Creighton and Wehrheim backed town Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen's request to borrow $10 million to fix roads and sidewalks. Vecchio opposes the idea. 

"Very little has been done in town recently, and the roads are the best example of that," Creighton said. "It's commendable to save money on taxes, but not if it's to the detriment of the people in town." 

Malloy said Vecchio remains in charge. "We keep him involved in all of it," he said. "It's a solid team of five, and we're trying to do things for the town as a whole. It's not a team of three." 

Town Republican leaders said Vecchio likely will not face a primary challenge if he seeks re-election. Smithtown Republican chairman William Ellis said Vecchio is in "amazing health" and returns the calls of every resident who phones him -- "even if they're screaming and yelling." 

Vecchio often leaves work at 2 p.m., but town officials say he presides over monthly night meetings and attends weekend community events. 

"People may say they think he's too old and he should retire," Ellis said. "But when they see his name on the ballot, they pull the lever for him." 

Democrats will mount a challenge to Vecchio next year, said Babylon Supervisor and Suffolk Democratic chief Richard Schaffer. He acknowledged Vecchio will be tough to beat. 

"He's an institution in Smithtown," Schaffer said. "Because it's kind of a small town, everyone has a Pat Vecchio story of how he helped them or how he helped someone's kid become an Eagle Scout." 

Former Republican Town Councilwoman Joanne Gray said she is not sure Vecchio still wants the job. Gray, a critic of Vecchio before she lost her seat in a 2007 primary, said Vecchio sometimes appeared frustrated with town politics. 

She recalled a conversation with him in his office several years ago. 

"What am I doing here?" she said Vecchio blurted out. But he paused, Gray remembered. "And then he said, 'But what else am I going to do?'" 

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