Another Primary Fight May Loom For East Hampton Democrats

John Whelan with one of his grandchildren.

The East Hampton Democrats may be headed for yet another contentious primary election this spring after one of the party’s veteran officials said he is considering mounting a bid for a seat on the Town Board after the party leadership passed him over for endorsement.

John Whelan, the chairman of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals since 2014, was nominated for consideration by the East Hampton Democratic Party Committee at the party’s convention this week. But the 34 committee members who cast votes representing their respective election districts overwhelmingly supported giving the committee’s endorsements to the party’s chairwoman, Cate Rogers, and two-term incumbent Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez.

But Mr. Whelan said on Friday that he may not be satisfied just leaving his candidacy up to the choices of the committee.

“I’m a team player, I always have been, but my thinking on this is that the 37 committee members may not all know me very well — and of course a lot of them know Cate,” Mr. Whelan said. “So, I just feel like I should base my political future on more than just the committee and let all the town’s registered Democrats choose.”

The February 18 Democratic convention had already upset the political apple cart when the committee dropped two of its own incumbent elected officials from its slate for this year’s election.

At the February 17 virtual meeting, the committee declined to endorse both Democratic Councilman Jeff Bragman and Trustee Rick Drew to the party ticket for this year’s election, in favor of Ms. Rogers for council and David Cateletto, a political newcomer, to be the ninth Trustees candidate.

Mr. Bragman, who has frequently butted heads with other Town Board members during his three years in office, had acknowledged before the convention that he knew he would not be earning an endorsement for a second turn on the party ticket. Indeed, his name was not even offered by a committee member for consideration at the convention.

Mr. Drew, who is in his third term as a Trustee and has been one of the top vote-getters in the Trustees contests each cycle, was nominated for consideration to the ticket, along with his eight fellow Trustees and Mr. Cataletto.

When it came to the roll call vote from election districts, he received votes of support only from fellow Trustee Francis Bock, who is a Democratic committee member representing one of the town’s 19 election districts, and one other ED representative. Incumbent Trustees Tim Garneau and Ben Dollinger, who are also members of the committee, abstained from casting votes for their assigned election districts — presumably to avoid voting against either a current or potential future colleague.

The committee unanimously endorsed the other eight incumbent Trustees — seven of whom are Democrats, and the eighth, Trustee James Grimes, a registered Republican who was cross-endorsed by the Democrats in 2019 as well.

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez and Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc were both endorsed for new terms. Town Clerk Carole Brennan, Highway Superintendent Steve Lynch, Town Justice Steven Tekulsky and Tax Assessor Eugene DiPasquale also received the party’s endorsement.

The committee endorsements are technically mostly symbolic — though they provide a substantial financial and logistical leg-up for those with committee backing — and both Mr. Bragman and Mr. Drew, or any other campaign hopeful, could still file candidacy petitions independently of the committee’s endorsement and force a primary election in June, at which Democratic voters would choose the respective slates.

Neither has yet stated whether they intend to join Mr. Whelan in mounting primary challenges to the party choices.

Ms. Rogers has been the party’s chairwoman since 2018 when she succeeded Jeanne Frankl in a changing of the guard that set off an internecine struggle within the party, a lawsuit alleging collusion and vote stacking among party leaders and, ultimately, an unprecedented committee election that saw most of the party’s dissenting minority ejected from their posts on the committee.

Ms. Rogers is a member of the East Hampton Town Energy Sustainability Committee, an advisory committee, and is a former member of the town Zoning Board of Appeals. She ran for Town Trustees in 2013 and has been talked about frequently as a possible nominee for town council in recent previous elections.

“I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for your support and the faith you have placed in me,” she said of her endorsement. “This faith is not an entitlement to me, but it is a responsibility and I pledge to give my candidacy and the job 100 percent of myself and to always work for the betterment of our community and the goals of the East Hampton Democratic Party. I am thrilled to be on a slate with such awesome and experienced leaders and I look forward to the weeks and months ahead working together and winning in November. I will not let you down. “

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez has been the party’s top vote-getter in each of her previous two elections. Council terms are four years.

“What I know from my tenure on the Town Board and the Springs School Board is that the true value of public service is the ability to bring people together,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said in accepting the committee’s nomination. “Where members of the community participate, collaborate and assist in problem solving — that leads to more informed decision-making.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc is entering his 10th year on the Town Board, the first six a councilman and the last three as supervisor. When he announced he would run for a third term, he cited the desire to see to fruition a number of initiatives the town has begun under his watch, as well as the need to navigate the lingering pandemic.

“I am committed to seeing us through the pandemic and making real progress dealing with climate change, water quality, housing affordability, building a new senior center and hospital emergency room,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said in a statement following the convention. “The committee has put forward excellent candidates who best exemplify our values and have the skills and abilities to achieve them.”

Mr. Drew and Mr. Bragman have had little in common politically — other than that over the last three years they have been the lone voices of skepticism from within the Democratic hegemony about the town’s enthusiastic embrace of the South Fork Wind Farm proposal.

Both had said they supported the idea of wind energy in principle, but had pushed for the town to be more resistant to the wind farm developers’ offered designs and “community benefits.”

Mr. Bragman has maintained that the town should not have agreed to sign on to easement agreements for the landing of the power cable in Wainscott until the state Public Service Commission has issued its findings about the most appropriate landing site. He was the lone vote against doing so last month, which is now the subject of a lawsuit by Wainscott residents.

Mr. Drew voted earlier this winter in favor of signing the lease with wind farm developer Ørsted, saying the agreement the Trustees had hammered out with the developer had addressed many of the Trustees’ main concerns.

But he had been a fierce critic of the wind farm proposal early on — saying the developers were making very few accommodations to try to gauge or mitigate the impacts the wind farm might have on fish migrations and commercial fishermen — and had maintained a strident stance that more accommodations need to be made to protect fishermen and fish habitat.

Largely on the back of his objections, the Trustees presented a long list of demands for protections and guarantees from the wind farm developers that ultimately became the foundation of the lease and easement agreements that the town and Trustees signed with the developers this month.

Mr. Drew’s name has been the most mentioned by other Trustees and their representative when applauding the work the board did to force new requirements into the wind farm project’s plans. Since the initial proposal, the wind farm developers have pledged to deeper burying of the power cable as it goes under the beach in Wainscott, push the interconnection point farther from shore, conduct an expansive fisheries study and additional study of the effects of electromagnetic emissions from power cables, and have forced the introduction of an alternative that would make the wind farm developers avoid critical fish habitat when anchoring the wind turbines in the sea floor.

The attorney hired by the Trustees to represent them in the negotiations with Ørsted singled out Mr. Drew for his stridently outspoken advocacy — saying he knew the Trustees “were doing something right” when an attorney for the federal agency had called one of his partners to complain about Mr. Drew’s needling.

At Wednesday night’s convention, Mr. Drew’s name was again the most used — in a decidedly impolite way. With the nomination process requiring each election district representative to nominate nine of the 10 candidates, many chose to simply voice the one name they wished to leave out — Mr. Drew’s over and over.

“I’m very troubled to understand what went on there,” Trustee Francis Bock, the longest-serving current member of the Trustees and the board’s chairman, said. “I really like the board we have right now and any possibility of keeping it together was a goal I was looking forward to. I think we’ve done a lot of good work together and Rich has added an awful lot to what we’ve done. It’s a shame to lose someone who has so much knowledge and who is as engaged as Rick is.”

Mr. Bock, however, said he struggled to see how Mr. Drew’s stance on the wind farm application could have played a role in the coordinated effort to eject him since over the last three years he had gone from being against the project to playing a key role in the Trustees ultimately supporting the lease agreements.

The town Democratic Party, particularly Mr. Van Scoyoc and Ms. Rogers, have been ardent supporters of the wind farm and several members of the party committee, including Ms. Rogers, are also members of Win With Wind, an advocacy group that has worked closely with the wind farm’s developers to promote the project and counter criticisms from residents of Wainscott.

Mr. Drew said last Wednesday night, February 17, he assessed his rejection by the party committee as the settling of a “vendetta for speaking out about the wind farm,” but also noted that it could have been blowback from within the party for his having accepted the cross-endorsement of the “Reform Democrats,” who challenged the party’s committee choices on the Independence Party line in the 2019 race. Mr. Grimes had also been cross-endorsed on the Independence line, as well as remaining on the Republican Party’s official slate.