Dem Infighting Reveals Inner-Party Dealings

Last November, all three candidates from the East Hampton Town Democratic Party trounced their Republican opponents in the local election, as usual.

Don’t blame the losers: Republicans Manny Vilar (for supervisor), Jerry Larsen and Paul Giardina (town board) ran a well-financed campaign, were well versed, and well known around town, especially Vilar, a lifelong resident of Springs, and Larsen, the longtime East Hampton Village Police Chief.

Yet Peter Van Scoyoc was easily elected town supervisor, and Kathee Burke Gonzalez and Jeff Bragman won the race for the two vacant town board seats, all by nearly 2-1 margins.

It’s been that way for a long time in East Hampton. In fact, the Dems have not suffered a loss since a shocking unanticipated financial meltdown during the Bill McGintee era led to a district attorney’s investigation and the arrest of the town’s budget officer, and the town winding up $29 million in debt.

It is doubtful the Dems would have ceded control of the town to their political rivals without the scandal. As it was, the GOP swept into office under Bill Wilkinson in 2009, after the district attorney had swept into town hall and leveled financial impropriety charges. The town quickly reverted back to its Democratic leanings, forever; Wilkinson won literally by a handful of votes two years later and the Democrats regained the majority one election cycle later..

For a party flush with power, though, the Democrats certainly aren’t laughing it up. In fact, a chasm has ripped the party open, pitting its most powerful insiders against each other and forcing a district-by-district election to choose committee members. In the process, the dirty laundry is hanging out for all to see, and Republicans privately are chortling that the end result may well be the dismantling of a powerful political machine that has shaped the town for years by controlling the appointees to its zoning and planning boards.

Chris Kelley’s name is synonymous with “Party Boss” in East Hampton Town, those interviewed agree. Just ask any of the insiders who have witnessed him rule for 30 years. It is Kelley who controls the party’s purse strings and has the final world on appointees to the planning and zoning boards. And it is Kelley who usually has his way when it is time to choose who gets to run for town board, keeping in mind the election is usually a mere formality: to run on the Democrat ticket is to win. (Kelley is interviewed elsewhere in this section.)

The rift erupted in public after Jeanne Frankl, the longtime party chairman and Kelley disciple, announced she was stepping down. Kelley, opponents said, wanted Cate Rogers, a former ZBA vice chair, to take the helm.

But Rona Klopman, a longtime party loyalist, wanted to be named chairwoman as well. “I’m a lifelong party member. I’ve always helped out on every event. I met with them every Friday,” said Klopman. Often seen sitting with Frankl at town board meetings, Klopman assumed she would naturally ascend to Frankl’s position. “Chris Kelley didn’t want me,” she said pointedly.

Klopman has since charged Frankl and Kelley “manipulated the districts” to a point where their followers had enough votes to choose Rogers over her. She filed suit and lost. But now the matter will be resolved on primary day, September 13. All 19 districts will end up for grabs, and two candidates from each chosen.

David Gruber has kept a lower profile in the Democratic committee but has been a power since he emerged on the scene 25 years ago, barely losing a bid to be elected town supervisor. In the last election he “wrote campaign literature and set strategy,” Gruber said, while Kelley “handled logistics.” He is supporting Klopman, he said, “because the other side engaged in vote rigging.”

Gruber has announced his candidacy for the soon-to-be vacant town board seat.

When Van Scoyoc was elected town supervisor, he still had a year left on his term as town councilman, which was left vacant. The Dems chose David Lys, a political neophyte who served on the zoning board, to finish the year remaining on the term. It was doubly shocking. It was doubly shocking because Lys was a Republican, and because a number of prominent Democrats felt the seat should have gone to one of them.

“It was illogical, and politically a bad idea,” Gruber commented. “The voters wanted a Democrat.” Lys soon announced he would register to become a Democrat, but the change in designation will not take place until after November’s general election.

“He’s a bobble head. They voted for him to go along with the majority,” Gruber said of Lys. “Kelley wanted him because he can be controlled.”

The Democrats probably didn’t think Lys would be challenged by another Democrat, but he has been — by Gruber. And Vilar will be waiting to take on the winner. Gruber, like Klopman, blames Kelley for championing Rogers over Klopman. Not so, says Frankl.

“That is so unfair. The image of Chris Kelley they paint is so wrong,” Frankl said. “They are nasty and jealous and full of baloney.” Rogers got caught in the middle, and that too is unfair, Frankl said. “She is hard working. She served on the ZBA for 10 years.”

Frankl acknowledged she and Frankl worked closely together. “We were a team. I appointed her to be a board watcher. I appreciated her,” Klopman said.

Klopman, Frankl said, was bitter because she was narrowly bested when she ran for the Town Trustees last year, and she wanted to be appointed to either the ZBA or town board. “She has a bad mouth. She can be very critical,” Frankl said, so the party hierarchy chose not to promote her to another position.

Amos Goodman, the chair of the East Hampton Town Republican Party, said the malice towards Klopman might run deeper than that. After the subsequent election, Goodman said the Republicans had a chance to challenge a number of votes that went to Klopman’s opponents — there were nine trustees elected. Klopman finished 10th, one of only two Democrats who weren’t elected. She lost by 151 votes. “They [The Democrats] didn’t even show up to challenge. I was there. She would have gotten in,” said Goodman.

Gruber is seeking the Independence Party line as well, as is Vilar. Both sides are claiming petition fraud and scheduled a court date.

If Lys beats Gruber in the Democratic primary, Lys and Vilar will face off for the open seat. And both will be registered Republicans.

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