Smithtown Republican Chairman Bill Ellis thought he had a slam dunk when he bounced Suffolk Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. from the ticket and launched a primary campaign attacking him as ‘soft on sexual predators.’
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
First off, Ellis’ handpicked candidate, Vincent Trimarco Jr., gained little traction with the predator ploy. Kennedy was the lone dissenter against a bill that barred sexual predators from loitering near playgrounds and other places where children congregate. He said it was unenforceable and unconstitutional.
‘They never put forward a platform except to criticize me on one issue,’ said Kennedy, who was making calls until 8:30 primary night and had not taken a day off since July. ‘I connected with the average people on real issues, not ideology. There’s no Republican way to fight a gas pipeline, or sound walls.’
It was also hard for Ellis to claim the high ground since Trimarco himself fathered a child out of wedlock and used his daughter’s picture in campaign mail. Kennedy never raised the issue publicly, Ellis discounts the impact, but it was no secret. Trimarco has acknowledged he is a single father who supports the child.
It also did not help, according to critics, that Trimarco’s father is a top zoning attorney for local developers and the proposed Water Mill hotel complex. It gave Kennedy, a Nesconset Republican, an army of angry homeowners unhappy about over-development, flooding and the hotel project.
The town GOP’s first sign of trouble was when Kennedy collected 1,700 signatures to qualify for the ballot, 500 more than the GOP organization gathered. This is not the Smithtown GOP committee of the mid-1970s that once blanketed the town at election time, but a geriatric group closer to ‘The Producers’ chorus line with walkers.
Ellis also made Republican lawmakers wince with post-election remarks that he is already looking to enlist another Kennedy foe for 2009. They worry it will only drive Kennedy, whose re-election is assured with both major party lines, further into the arms of Democrats helping them maintain their majority next year. ‘John is still part of the Republican caucus,’ said Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches), calling Ellis’ comments ‘politically inopportune.’
In response to Ellis’ harsh words, Kennedy the next day said, ‘Rank and file Republicans gave Bill Ellis the pink slip on Tuesday.’ Yet Kennedy says he will not seek to oust Ellis as chairman when he [Ellis] seeks re-election Wednesday night. ‘If anyone cared, it would be an issue,’ said Paul Costello, one GOP maverick from Smithtown. ‘But everyone knows Ellis doesn’t run much and what he does run, he runs into the ground.’
Even in defeat, Ellis says Kennedy’s votes on predators and illegal immigrants were against Republican values. He also emphasizes that he won the most important town race – defeating the primary challenge of another incumbent he ousted – Republican town board member Joanne Gray. ‘They were chanting my name at campaign headquarters,’ said Ellis.
But Ellis’ ongoing war with Kennedy now poses a major obstacle to a countywide Republican comeback. ‘Winning back the majority in the legislature would be a crucial step in re-establishing the Republicans as a force to be reckoned with,’ said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Albany lobbyist. ‘Where Kennedy goes is the $1-million question.’
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman who gave Kennedy his party ballot line when his fate was uncertain, declined to say whether the lawmaker promised to back a Democrat for presiding officer, calling such talk ‘premature.’ Kennedy said he has made no decision whom to back, though he’s ‘appreciative’ of the Democratic line.
However, Frank Tassone, Trimarco’s consultant, said Kennedy can’t straddle the fence for long. ‘John’s a big boy and he’s going to have to make a decision,’ he said. ‘He’s going to have to pick a side.’
Others disagree. ‘Right now, he’s in political fat city,’ said John V.N. Klein, former Republican county executive and Smithtown resident. ‘He has no compelling obligation to anyone except his constituents.’