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Jun 14, 2011 3:21 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

The Independence Party Finds Its Footing On The East End

Jun 17, 2011 4:02 PM

From time to time, the odd “I” sprouts up in the roster of New York State’s elected officials, wedged amid the heaps of Republicans and Democrats in the capital and scattered throughout the state’s counties and towns.

These Independence Party members are a minuscule but growing contingent of the state’s political class. And, in a trend that has no obvious explanation, they hail overwhelmingly from one corner of the map: Long Island’s South Fork.

The Independence Party has made unprecedented headway in Southampton and East Hampton towns, where members have won seats at nearly every level of government in recent years, often after switching from one of the two major parties. Leaders see the region as a potential jumping-off point for the self-consciously non-ideological party, which started in New York State but aspires to elbow its way into the same league as its Democratic and Republican counterparts on the national scene.

Longtime State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor left the Republican Party two years ago to join the Independence Party, making him the lone third party member in his chamber. Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk made the same jump the year before, becoming one of two Independents in the County Legislature. Three Southampton Town officials are also counted among the party’s ranks: Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor and Trustee Bill Pell.

And that might be only the beginning. A fresh wave of Independence candidates have emerged for this year’s local elections, including Brad Bender, a candidate for Southampton Town Board who is cross-endorsed by Democrats; Bill Mott, an East Hampton Town Board hopeful; and Marilyn Behan, a Democrat who is running for East Hampton Town Board solely on the Independence line.

No region outside the South Fork has a greater concentration of Independence Party members in office, according to Frank MacKay, a Rocky Point resident who chairs the party’s national organization, as well as its state and Suffolk County arms.

But why here?

Party leaders and elected officials offered a number of theories, among them: a local political culture that eschews blind party loyalty, a large block of unaffiliated voters, and an educated populace who value competence over partisan credentials.

“The East End has had a long history of kind of Yankee independence,” Mr. Thiele said. “The fact that Southampton was founded by colonists from Massachusetts isn’t lost on me, that there seems to be a streak of independence here on the East End.”

Mr. MacKay credited Mr. Thiele with setting the stage for future third party victories on the South Fork when he ran on the Southampton Party line to win the Southampton Town supervisor seat in 1991. Mr. Schneiderman suggested that Independence victories on the South Fork have built on one another, that victories by early Independence candidates gave credibility to the party and emboldened other local candidates to run on the line.

The Independence Party formed in New York State 20 years ago, and has since grown into the third-largest political party in the state. Statewide enrollment has swelled from 203,000 in 2001 to 426,000 in 2011, but, in testament to the dominance of the two major parties, represents only 3.7 percent of the state’s current registered voters. Every county has registered Independence Party members, but none more than Suffolk, which has 39,000. By comparison, the county is home to 313,000 Republicans and 306,000 Democrats.

While still largely a state operation, the party launched a national effort four years ago with the goal of positioning itself as a third major party and fielding a presidential candidate as early as 2012. The party has a network of affiliates in other states and could expand its presence if it attracts a major candidate to challenge Democrats and Republicans for the nation’s top office next year.

Closer to home, the party has positioned itself as the holder of a key endorsement in local elections, often giving a candidate from either major party the bump needed to turn the tide in a close fight. The Independence Party distributes its weight somewhat more unpredictably than other third parties in the county, like the Conservative Party, which generally sides with Republicans, and the Working Families Party, which typically backs Democrats.

“MacKay survives in this niche,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “It’s almost like a Darwinian natural selection. As long as the major parties are close, then his party really becomes important.”

Mr. MacKay, a former club owner and entertainment manager, can then parlay that influence into support for his own candidates when the time comes, party members said. Mr. Thiele and Mr. Schneiderman both pointed to Mr. MacKay’s political savvy and leadership as one of the prime reasons for the party’s strong presence on the local scene.

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Due to the fact they are right wing Republicans, I feel calling them "Independent" is a clear, and concise misnomer.

Independent should be reserved for those who subscribe to neither extreme, and think just that way. Independently. Neither totally "left", or "right".

Just my humble opinion.
Jun 15, 11 7:16 PM appended by Mr. Z
Or, am I mistaken in my conclusion they are part of the Shearer party, begun in 1967?
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Jun 15, 11 7:16 PM
Sorry, "Independence", not "Independent" in the first sentence.

My bad.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Jun 15, 11 7:25 PM
Thing is Z, half their membership is people who thought they were registering as Independents, that is without any party. Instead they wind up in this 'Independence party', because somebody was either asleep or bought when they handed out that name to McKay's little con-job outfit. Frank's got a real racket going here which you can smell right away when he talks about no big platform. That's for sure because it's not about getting anything done, it's just about wheeling and dealing, and nobody ...more
By clam pie (161), Westhampton on Jun 15, 11 9:45 PM
Kinda like how the (East End) Independent is anything but...
By johnj (1024), Westhampton on Jun 17, 11 3:02 PM