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Jul 13, 2018 4:26 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Democratic In-Fighting Flares At Start Of Special Election Campaign In East Hampton

Councilman David Lys
Jul 17, 2018 2:53 PM

What started more than a year ago as a minor internal struggle over bringing new blood into the East Hampton Democratic Party’s leadership circle has now bubbled into an internecine primary battle between two factions.

That battle, in turn, has spawned competing slates of 38 candidates for committee seats, as well as an already heated race for the party’s nomination for the single Town Board seat on this fall’s ballot.

Town Councilman David Lys and former party chairman David Gruber both filed the requisite petitions for the Democratic Party’s nomination to the council seat last week. On Monday, Mr. Lys received authorization from the party’s county chairman, Richard Schaffer, to run on the party line, even though his registration with the Democratic Party does not officially take effect until November.

Whichever of the two would-be Democratic nominees wins the council primary will face Manny Vilar on the Republican line on the November ballot in a town election that could see a relatively high turnout, because it coincides with the governor’s and the 1st Congressional District elections.

Mr. Vilar, who ran unsuccessfully on the Republican line for supervisor last fall, filed petitions for the Republican and Conservative party lines last week.

The winner of the November special election will serve only one year, completing the remaining council term of Peter Van Scoyoc, who took over as supervisor in January, and will have to stand for election again in 2019 for a full four-year term.

Also on the September 13 Democratic primary ballot will be, for the first time in decades, dozens of pairings of competing candidates for the seats representing the town’s 19 election districts—though voters in each election district will see only the candidates for the two seats in their home district on their ballots.

Two factions within the party—one spearheaded by party Chairwoman Cate Rogers and other longtime party leaders, the second by Mr. Gruber and Rona Klopman—have both filed petitions for full slates of candidates.

The fight over the committee appointments, which are rarely an issue, was stirred up over the winter, when Ms. Klopman sought to challenge Ms. Rogers for the party chairmanship. She accused former chairwoman Jeanne Frankl of having shuffled committee assignments to stack the electoral votes each committee person represents in favor of Ms. Rogers.

Ms. Klopman filed a lawsuit accusing the party of violating state election law, which was dismissed in court. Ultimately, she lost the chairmanship election, 19-11. Then, when Mr. Gruber challenged Mr. Lys for the committee’s endorsement and lost, 18-10, he too pointed to the committee arrangements that Ms. Frankl had made.

On Monday, each side in the coming campaign fired scathing salvos at the other and heralded itself as better upholding the party’s traditions and values.

“David Gruber, who lost the committee’s support in the nomination of David Lys as the Democratic candidate for Town Board, has also filed petitions for a slate of his own candidates for the Democratic committee, apparently in retaliation against those who did not vote for him,” Ms. Rogers said in a statement on Monday that also carried words of support for the establishment’s slate from Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc and his predecessor, Larry Cantwell.

“Gruber, a hedge fund founder, and previously unsuccessful candidate for supervisor in 2001, recently returned to live in East Hampton, having lived in Paris and New York for the past 14 years. With little local volunteer support, he has resorted to advertising for paid employees to campaign on his behalf.”

Ms. Rogers also pointed a finger at Ilissa Meyer, whose one-year tenure alongside Ms. Frankl appeared to be the first crack in the Democratic unity that had carried the party to supermajorities on the Town Board and Town Trustees in the last two election cycles.

Mr. Gruber, who was the party’s supervisor candidate in 2001 and then served two years as its chairman, blasted the Democratic establishment within the committee as being “hostile to elections” and working to silence the voices of critics within the party.

“I think there are grave problems within the Town Democratic Party, and those problems extend well into the Democratic committee, which was engaged in a vote-rigging scheme,” Mr. Gruber said. “The best way to put a stop to that kind of thing is to have elections. This is a democracy. No sitting member, like any incumbent, has any entitlement.”

Mr. Vilar, much as he did last fall, kicked off the campaign with an appeal to voters dissatisfied with the job the Democratic supermajority has done. “Voters can and will reject the false choice between an ineffective status quo and new hyper-partisans,” Mr. Vilar said in a statement issued by the town Republicans. “It’s time for leadership that can build bridges and be both a listening ear and an independent voice to bring people together.”

Mr. Vilar, who lost to Mr. Van Scoyoc by more than 25 percentage points last year, now steps into an election that could see the usual Democratic vote-getting powerhouse hobbled somewhat by the animosities of in-fighting.

In the party’s statement on the coming race, Republican Party Chairman Amos Goodman seized on the Democratic in-fighting and highlighted Mr. Gruber, in particular, as a political flashback.

“David Gruber is a strident and stubborn throwback to yesterday,” he said. “[He] will deliver nothing but more partisanship and less competence. Our town government can little afford that type of backward vision for the future.”

Beyond the war of words, Mr. Gruber scored the first points of the campaign before the primary race was even official, by securing the endorsement of the town’s Independence Party, the largest of the town’s minor parties. Initially, it looked as though Mr. Gruber would have to win a primary for the Independence line when nominating petitions were filed on behalf of Lisa Mulhern Larsen, who is a party member. But Ms. Larsen, who ran for a council seat on the Town Board on the Republican line in 2015, declined the nomination on Monday.

The town party chairwoman, Elaine Jones, said that she and other party leaders chose to support Mr. Gruber over Mr. Lys because of anger over the recent Town Board decision to allow a fundraiser for the East Hampton Library to be held at the 555 Montauk Highway property in Amagansett. She also cited Mr. Lys’s support, which she said he voiced at his screening with the party last month, of the proposed South Fork Wind Farm.

Mr. Lys said on Monday that he thought Ms. Jones was wrong in her assessment of his position on both the 555 issue and the wind farm, but he said he is resigned to marching into the election with the support of only the Democrats.

“My opponent seems to be trying to paint me as not being a true Democrat, because I switched parties, but I had always voted for whoever I thought was best for the job, Republican or Democrat, and I expect people to think of me the same way,” Mr. Lys said. “I’ve spent my time on town regulatory boards and working for the community, and I think my record of service in this community stands for itself. That should be what people base their decision on. I have the backing of the Democratic Party committee because that’s what most of them based their decision on.”

Mr. Lys served five years on the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals and was appointed to the Town Board in January to serve a one-year term. He filed to change his party registration from Republican to Democrat shortly before being appointed to the board, but state law does not allow his registration to be officially changed until after the next general election.

The Democratic Party holds a nearly two-to-one advantage in voter registration over the Republicans in East Hampton Town and has won every Town Board seat since 2011, save two: former Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s 15-vote reelection victory in 2011, and former Councilman Fred Overton, who was not registered with a political party, winning a council seat on the GOP line in 2013.

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Wright is Wrong. This 15 vote re-election victory has been perpetuated by Zach/Dems for the last 7 years. They are deliberately omitting a large part of history. Its like talking about the Benefits of Deepwater without reporting on its effect on fish and the fishing industry. As Amoos Goodman, the Republican Chair, described in his Letter to the Independent - After the 2011 Democrat Challenges were exhausted and Wilkinson was the victor, there were still close to 200 Republican challenges that ...more
By pluff (60), East Hampton on Jul 17, 18 12:55 PM
Lys is weak and lacks spine...just Peter's sad errand boy. Gruber should get out of the way and go back to Paris. Single party Dem-rule has been a disaster. I'm with Manny!
By SpringsBub (11), Springs on Jul 17, 18 1:16 PM
Are you serious SpringsBub??? Dave Lys has and always will care about this community before party politics. He has been here since day one and is raising a family in this community. If making decisions for the best of East Hampton means he lacks “spine” then I will support him all day. If you try to get to know Dave, you will realize that he is East Hampton first all day. I respectfully ask you to do your homework on Dave. I am sure you will see that he is not a politician first, but ...more
By jhand6847@aol.com (12), East Hampton on Jul 22, 18 11:29 PM