It was 1999 and Jay Schneiderman was preparing to run in his first campaign for elected office, seeking the Republican nomination for East Hampton Town supervisor.
While screening in front of the East Hampton Republican Committee, Mr. Schneiderman, who wasn’t aligned with any party at the time, recalled getting almost unanimous support from the committee—with the exception of one member.
“There was one person who didn’t support me. His name was Chris Nuzzi,” said Mr. Schneiderman, now a member of the Independence Party and the Suffolk County Legislator representing the 2nd Legislative District, which spans the entire South Fork, for the past 10 years.
“He was a Republican committeeman in East Hampton,” continued Mr. Schneiderman, an incumbent who prides himself on his non-partisanship. “I said, ‘Chris, how come you’re not supporting me?’ He goes, ‘I can’t support you, you’re not a Republican.’”
Mr. Schneiderman, who still secured the endorsement of Republicans in 1999, went on to win the first of two two-year terms as East Hampton Town supervisor that November. But in 2008, Mr. Schneiderman, then a registered Republican, switched his affiliation to the Independence Party, citing his growing “disillusionment” with the national Republican Party.
While he does not recall events unfolding exactly that way, Mr. Nuzzi, a member of the Southampton Town Board for the past seven-plus years, does remember questioning Mr. Schneiderman about his party allegiance back in 1999, noting that he has changed his affiliation multiple times since entering public office.
And Mr. Nuzzi, the Republican challenger who will try to unseat Mr. Schneiderman in next month’s election and not let him serve his sixth and final term as county legislator, says he still has questions.
“You change your party affiliation four times, all surrounding times when the [political] winds shifted. It leads me to question—me personally, although I have heard many others say this as well—‘Who are you? What do you stand for principally?’” Mr. Nuzzi said.
“And if that’s the basis on which we make our decisions, our judgments about elected officials, how do we have a fair shot at assessing who somebody is if he doesn’t know it himself?” he continued.
The two will spend the next month battling for the right to represent those who live within the 200-square-mile district that spans from East Moriches to Montauk. Both have roots in East Hampton Town as Mr. Nuzzi was born and raised there, living in East Hampton until he moved to Westhampton Beach in 2000, while Mr. Schneiderman, who lives in Montauk, served four years as supervisor of East Hampton Town and as a county legislator for the past decade.
With more than 21,000 full-time residents according to the 2010 U.S. Census, East Hampton Town makes up about one-quarter of the legislative district’s population. Top issues in the town include water quality, beach preservation and nourishment, as well as the shortage of affordable housing. During the final five weeks of the campaign, each candidate will try to prove to East Hampton voters that he can handle these issues better than his opponent while also trying to demonstrate that their respective records make one or the other a better fit to represent the town at the county level.
Mr. Schneiderman is confident that after a successful stint as the town’s top government official and a decade representing the town in Hauppauge, his record speaks for itself.
“I have 10 years under my belt,” he said. “An election is a referendum on the incumbent, have I done my job or haven’t I done my job? I think most people would say I have done my job and I’ve done it well so if people want to throw me out, they need a reason to. Chris needs to provide that reason.”
Although Mr. Nuzzi recognizes that the race will be tough for him, he still considers it a winnable one. He said because his family continues to live in East Hampton, he still feels plugged in to the needs and wants of the community. He also said that with prior experience working in the Brookhaven Town supervisor’s office—Mr. Nuzzi served as chief of staff for former Brookhaven Supervisor John Jay LaValle—he is familiar with countywide issues.
He noted that just because his opponent is well known doesn’t mean he is well liked. He also accused Mr. Schneiderman of being “checked out.”
“I believe that Jay, while a personable enough guy and who I like on a personal level, he’s ineffective, and I don’t think he’s interested in this position,” Mr. Nuzzi said. “I think he made that clear when he said he wanted to run for [East Hampton Town] supervisor [earlier this year] and basically told people he was going to do that. I think this is just a safety net for him.”
Mr. Nuzzi and Mr. Schneiderman share the distinction of having been offered the Republican nomination for town supervisor and turning it down. Mr. Nuzzi was offered the top spot in Southampton Town in 2011 and turned it down because the “timing wasn’t right.” He added: “My own party wasn’t going to back me into a corner.”
Mr. Schneiderman, meanwhile, expressed interest earlier this year in seeking his old post at East Hampton Town Hall, and even received the Republican nomination despite not fully declaring his intentions to run. He said he turned down the opportunity, attributing that decision to wanting to spend more time with his children, something he said is more manageable from the county legislator position.
Both candidates said that, if elected, they would focus on protecting the water, both groundwater used for drinking and those along the surface that contribute to the town’s status as a tourist destination.
Mr. Nuzzi said he wants to increase regulations on septic systems throughout the county, something he said the Department of Health Services has pulled back on in recent years because of Suffolk’s financial woes. He also explained that septic credits could be utilized to spark affordable housing development in East Hampton, where employees in service sector jobs struggle to buy land and find affordable homes and apartments.
“I believe in home rule—the towns should decide on zoning and land use, what they want in their towns and that should be associated with their respective comprehensive plans,” Mr. Nuzzi said. “Where the county can come into play and hasn’t is … from a regional perspective. We can be working together on initiatives like affordable housing or even initiatives like dealing with the deer population, which only within the past two weeks, after 10 years in office, has my opponent started to talk about.”
Mr. Schneiderman said he has supported protecting ground water through a resolution he introduced in 2009 to restrict fertilizer within 20 feet of wetlands, which he is trying to modify by making it 50 feet. He said he would like to see the allowed nitrogen level in drinking water reduced from 10 parts per million, the county’s current standard, to four parts per million, and he’d also like to see more immediate solutions to the recent toxic algal blooms.
“For the long-term solution, the county ought to be requiring for new construction in areas close to all wetlands, they should be requiring the higher, better alternatives for sewage treatment,” he said. “There are some interesting things you can do immediately to improve water quality that ought to be looked at, one is filtration of algae, actually removing algae to clarify water quality.”