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Sep 4, 2018 10:50 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Contentious And Unconventional Primary Looms For East Hampton Democrats

Sep 5, 2018 9:04 AM

For the second year in a row—an oddity in its own right—East Hampton Town Democrats will be asked to vote in a primary election for the person they think should be the party’s standard-bearer against a Republican candidate in November for a seat on the Town Board.

Last year’s primary was a three-way contest for a spot on the Democratic ticket for a full four-year term on the Town Board. This year’s special election started out as an uncommon off-cycle vote to fill a Town Board seat for just 12 months—and thus seemed destined to be an off-kilter and minor electoral affair.

Instead, it has spiraled into a politically blood-soaked, drama-filled, fangs-out conflict on all sides. It spurred party in-fighting, accusations of collusion and felony-level fraud, two court cases, and an internecine struggle for control of the town’s long-dominant political party.

So perhaps it is fitting that the two headlining candidates in the Democratic Party primary next Thursday, September 13, present voters with a divergent choice that seems to be more than just choosing which would make the best councilman for 12 months and have a minor leg up going into the 2019 election cycle.

Most ironic of all is the roles in which the two candidates themselves are cast.

David Gruber, 64, is one of East Hampton’s most seasoned Democratic political leaders. He’s been an integral part of nearly every campaign by the Democrats in the last 20 years—as a behind-the-scenes strategist, as the party’s chairman, as a candidate or as a major financial supporter.

And, yet, Mr. Gruber is playing the upstart challenger to Councilman David Lys, 42, a young former Republican with basically no political experience before he was appointed to the Town Board in January. Mr. Lys is backed by the Democratic Party’s power base and old-guard leadership as the person they say should be the face of the party for the next generation.

Mr. Gruber, on the other hand, had to force his way into the primary after being passed over for Mr. Lys by the majority of the party’s committee in the spring, and has been carried on the shoulders of a Democratic splinter group that is making accusations of oligarchical-style bias and policy failures by the party’s powers that be.

In taking on and seemingly embracing that role, Mr. Gruber has hurled invective at the sitting board members, all of whom he helped win office. He paints himself as a new voice that will help turn the ship back toward what he says the Democrats should stand for.

In an interview this week, Mr. Gruber emphasized what he saw as the broader policy failures of the incumbent majority, even more than he focused on his opponent in next week’s vote.

“Sometime after 2015, it became clear to me that the things Democrats have been promising weren’t getting done, and I feel responsible, because I feel they were my promises in part, and they haven’t been kept—and that’s what this election is about for me,” Mr. Gruber, a retired stock trader and attorney, said on Friday.

“The Democrats have been making the same promises about affordable housing and coastal erosion and airport noise … and I don’t see a lot of progress. I see symbolism, not material progress. I think we owe these things to the people of East Hampton. So, my agenda, if elected, is to make things happen for real, not over the span of 50 years.”

To change course, Mr. Gruber said he would press for more aggressive action on the top issues. He said the town should push harder for apartment-style housing projects that can create substantial numbers of units available at below-market prices. He said the town should consider subsidizing school districts for cost hikes because of the additional children developments would bring to schools.

He also said that the town should be focusing on developing complexes that mix senior citizen residents, young people and families rather than developments targeted at, or limited to, a certain demographic.

Since he entered the political arena during the 1997 campaign, Mr. Gruber’s marquee issue has been tamping down the noise generated by the East Hampton Airport. He said the noise from helicopters that has been the main source of complaints about the airport in the last 15 years does not affect his own neighborhood, which is east of the main airport flight paths, near the junction of Route 114 and Stephen Hands Path. But he said he sees the increasing noise impacts as disproportionately affecting large numbers of residents, all to suit the needs of a few well-heeled tourists.

He said he does not support closing the airport, only imposing limitations that force aircraft to be quieter and reduce “commuter” flights.

“My goal is to have an airport that serves local needs and that people can live with,” he said. “They are going to have to find much quieter aircraft, which do exist, but they are never going to use them unless they have to. It’s the aircraft people being intransigent that is pushing things toward confrontation.”

An issue he seized on more recently, after a Springs Citizens Advisory Committee meeting late last month, is the use of a communications tower that the Springs Fire Department erected in 2015 that has been embroiled in a legal battle ever since. He said he thinks the Town Board should weigh in on the topic, in support of the fire department, and legislate that fire districts are not subject to local zoning law.

Mr. Gruber grew up in Roslyn. He attended Hampshire College and University of Michigan Law School. He practiced law for 10 years, then co-founded a company that traded stocks automatically using a statistical algorithm. Mr. Gruber has two adopted daughters who are both college students.

His opponent, Mr. Lys, has waded into his role on the Town Board, this election and the primary race on the back of his local roots, the volume of time and effort he dedicates to community projects and his nuts-and-bolts approach to problem-solving.

An Amagansett native and East Hampton High School graduate who survived a rare bone cancer diagnosis in his early 20s, Mr. Lys attended Penn State University, where he studied kinesiology. He met his wife, Dr. Rachel Lys, while working in a cardiac rehabilitation center in Brighton, England, where she was studying. They settled in East Hampton and have four daughters.

Mr. Lys works at BodyTech, a fitness training gym in Amagansett, as well as Weekend Warriors, a kayak and paddleboard tour company. He also manages commercial properties that his family owns in Amagansett.

Mr. Lys served on the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals for five years and, as chairman of the Amagansett Life-Saving Station Committee, spearheaded the restoration of the station. He was a founding board member of the beach access advocacy group Citizens for Access Rights and of Paddlers for Humanity, which raises money for local charities through organized kayak and paddleboard journeys.

“My perspective on leadership comes from a desire to maintain the quality of life that I want our children to inherit—for it to be as special growing up as it was for me,” he said. “But our generation needs to step up now, and start involving itself in the leadership of the town. I want to be that role model. We are the future.”

He lamented that people of his generation often have a harder time dedicating themselves to public service than previous generations did, because they have to work harder to be able to afford to remain on the South Fork. And, to that end, expanding more affordable housing options remains probably the top priority for the town, he said.

Mr. Lys said that he thinks the best way to boost supplies of affordable housing, and to take a smart-growth approach that clusters high-density housing near hamlet centers and transportation hubs, would be to use the Town Board’s power of creating special zoning overlays on select properties around downtown areas.

“We can start working on this right now, with the hamlet studies,” Mr. Lys said, referring to the five packages of long-term development guidelines recommended to the town by consultants after meetings with residents in 2016. “New affordable housing overlays that won’t change the character of the community but allow for more density within walking distance of the hamlets. It has to be for seniors, too, and that has transportation and health care considerations that could even be job creators. If we can keep our seniors here, we could see more jobs for health care and senior services.”

Nodding to his own profession, he said that the town needs to start taking an active role in increasing fitness-related recreational opportunities for school-age youths. He said the town should support sporting leagues and other active lifestyle programs as a way of promoting health and community spirit, as well as combating the addiction epidemic. “A physically healthy community is a community that is going to have great promise,” he said.

He noted that he has already shown independence from those who appointed him and nodded to his own split—along with Councilman Jeff Bragman—from the board majority on the decision to assure Deepwater Wind that town roads would be accessible for burying a power cable if the South Fork Wind Farm is approved.

“I’m not against wind turbines, but what I saw was an application that I felt didn’t have the information I needed to be able to say, ‘Okay,’” he said.

Mr. Lys says critics of the current board have been “making mountains out of molehills” about issues like the public participation in policy discussions and transparency in the board’s decision-making. He said that in his months on the board he has a seen a panel that has advanced a number of initiatives to curtail stormwater runoff into harbors and bays and address the water pollution crisis in Wainscott.

“We are all residents of this town and we all welcome insight from our neighbors,” he said. “We’ve taken everything to the public, to the advisory committees, to the citizens committees. All the Town Board members are only a phone call away or a visit to Town Hall away and I haven’t seen anything that is being hidden from anyone.”

He said that he wants to help advance town efforts to further curtail runoff, to expand the use of solar panels on town facilities and to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers. If the town were ever to seriously entertain the idea of closing the airport, he said, it should be a matter put to a townwide referendum.

Only voters registered as Democrats may cast ballots in the primary on Thursday, September 13. Along with Mr. Gruber and Mr. Lys’s names on the ballot, voters in each election district will also see the names of candidates for that district’s two representatives to the Democratic Party Committee, all of which are contested by either three or four candidates that have been mustered both by party leaders and the founders of the splinter group called the Reform Democrats.

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and to complicate matters more, those who submit absentee ballots will not be able to vote for their local district democratic representatives. looks as though only a handful of votes will determine the outcome in each of the 19 districts. .
By jafr (2), East Hampton on Sep 6, 18 8:39 AM
I just mailed in an absentee ballot yesterday. I was able to vote on that ballot for my election-district representatives. Last column on the right side.
By juliacmead (11), East Hampton on Sep 6, 18 12:24 PM