Suffolk Closeup: History, politics and what might have been

Karl Grossman
Karl Grossman

He could have been, and should have been, a contender for Suffolk County executive.

But Patrick Vecchio had to settle for staying on as a town supervisor.

And did he stay on! Smithtown Town supervisor for 40 years, he became the longest-serving town supervisor ever in Suffolk County and the state.

Now 87, Mr. Vecchio was narrowly defeated in a Republican primary last month. He regretted the loss saying he had “so much more to do.”

Before he takes leave of the governmental stage, Mr. Vecchio should be celebrated. He has been among the spunkiest, most dynamic, most straightforward people in politics in Suffolk I’ve known through the years.

Mr. Vecchio’s inspiration to get into politics was golden-haired John Lindsay, mayor from 1966 to 1973, and before that a congressman representing the “Silk Stocking” district, Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Mr. Lindsay’s independent-minded approach was clear while he was in Congress.

He was a leading member of a group of GOPers voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, advocated Medicare and establishment of the National Foundation for Arts and Humanities

As mayor, he continued his independent ways. In 1969 he lost the Republican nomination to run for re-election. But unlike Mr. Vecchio this year, he already had minor party support in the Liberal Party. He ran on the Liberal line and won.

In 1971, he switched his enrollment to Democrat and made an unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic candidate for president in 1972. In hindsight, Mr. Lindsay would have been a stronger Democratic candidate against Republican Richard Nixon than George McGovern, who carried only one state, Massachusetts.

In 1977, Mr. Vecchio, a resident of Fort Salonga, ran as a Democrat for Smithtown supervisor. I hosted a TV program at that time, and broadcast an interview with Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Vecchio. The bond, the affection between the two, and the political similarity of an independent-minded focus was apparent.

Mr. Vecchio, a former NYPD detective sergeant, had been through Mr. Lindsay’s tenure as mayor his bodyguard, although he preferred the title head of security. The bottom line, no matter the title, was he was there to take a bullet for the mayor if it came to it.

That takes a certain kind of courage. And it was not just Mayor Lindsay he protected through the years. As a young New York City cop, Mr. Vecchio served in the NYPD guard unit protecting candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960 and then President Kennedy on numerous occasions thereafter, as well as other notable figures.

In 1979, an opportunity surfaced for Mr. Vecchio to get into politics on the county level, to run for Suffolk County executive. Then-Suffolk County Executive John V. N. Klein, eight years in the post, lost his bid to run for re-election in a Republican primary. Islip Town Supervisor Peter F. Cohalan (now county historian), focused on the unfolding scandal involving the $1.2 billion Southwest Sewer District, the biggest sewer project ever undertaken in Suffolk and quite the boondoggle, and won.

With a split GOP, a strong Democratic candidate running for county executive — Mr. Vecchio — would have had a good chance.

But long-time Suffolk Democratic Chairman Dominic Baranello, instead steered the party’s nomination to Martin Feldman, a dentist from Dix Hills and a member of the Suffolk Legislature. Dr. Feldman was trounced by Mr. Cohalan, losing by a still remarkable 100,000 votes.

Not only in hindsight, but I and many others believed then, that the charismatic and colorful Mr. Vecchio would have been a stronger Democratic candidate for county executive that year. Instead, he ran in his first of many re-election campaigns for Smithtown supervisor, winning handily.

That decision by the late Mr. Baranello to pass over Mr. Vecchio for county executive was at the core of Mr. Vecchio becoming a strong critic of the Democratic chairman and, like Mr. Lindsay, subsequently switching parties, but for him, it was going from Democrat to Republican.

He tried again to be a candidate for county executive in 1983, but lost in a Republican primary to Robert Gaffney, the eventual winner.