Peter Schmitt: Always clear where he stood

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Nassau County Legislature Presiding Officer Peter J. Schmitt,

Nassau County Legislature Presiding Officer Peter J. Schmitt, 62, of Massapequa collapsed during a meeting in County Executive Edward Mangano's office, officials said. (May 31, 2012) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Peter Schmitt, who died suddenly Wednesday during a meeting in the Nassau County executive's office, was an in-your-face kind of politician.

He said what he meant.

He meant what he said.

And if you disagreed with him, well, that too was just fine with Schmitt, the legislature's presiding officer.

Schmitt didn't rely on polls. Or make use of focus groups. And he, from what I saw of his public actions over a decade, never changed his position just to make himself more popular.

Oh, no.

That would have been anathema to Schmitt, a Massapequa Republican, who prided himself on working hard.

Schmitt, 62, followed his instincts and took the lead from the Republican Party and his supporters, who overwhelmingly voted him into office every term since the legislature's founding.

Schmitt had no problem saying unpopular things, taking unpopular votes or making unpopular decisions.

And, unlike too many public officials these days, Schmitt had absolutely no problem absorbing the heat afterward. His view was that the criticism -- for, say, a controversial deal to privatize management of the county bus system or consolidating police precincts -- usually did not last.

And that criticism did not matter if he thought he was doing the right thing. And usually, Schmitt's view prevailed.

In all of his years as a lawmaker, Schmittappeared to misread resident sentiment just once: when he wanted to give significant raises to legislative staff despite the county's fiscal mess.

A sustained public outcry, among other things, forced him to pull back.

Schmitt was well known for his combative demeanor at legislative meetings.

He ran a tight ship and possessed unusual skill in maneuvering through the maze of procedural and other rules.

Schmitt, from his seat at the center of the legislative horseshoe, could be harsh. He'd often cut off legislators, usually Democrats, whom he thought were talking out of turn or taking too long to make a point.

Schmitt's manner also frustrated many who rose to speak at public meetings. It was not unusual for him to challenge or demand more information. And it didn't matter to him whether he was demanding it from administration officials, union leadership or members of the public.

"Oh, the terrible fights we had out there," said Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who for a time held Schmitt's job when Democrats ran the legislature.

"There was a lot we disagreed on, but I considered Peter a friend," said Jacobs, who, like Schmitt, was elected to every legislative term since 1995. "He was cordial, funny, he was warm."

Outside the public eye, Schmitt spoke often and lovingly of his wife, daughter and new grandchild, and of a blue-collar upbringing he, proudly, never left behind.

He also spoke frankly when he disagreed with proposals put forth by the administration of County Executive Edward Mangano, a fellow Republican. He could tell you why; but Schmitt also could tell you how his office was attempting to make the plans better.

Schmitt as presiding officer was determined to never -- NEVER -- raise property taxes. "Too many families are hurting," he often said. "They can't take any more."

Last summer, Schmitt ended up before a federal judge for breaking a confidentiality agreement on the Jo'Anna Bird case. Schmitt had to sue the administration to learn details of an internal report about police mistakes in Bird's domestic abuse case. She died at the hands of an abusive boyfriend.

Schmitt was so incensed about the report's findings, that he did what he's always done: He spoke out, during a public meeting and in a television interview, saying that the report documented a "top to bottom" failure of the police department.

"It might have been better if I had not said what I said," Schmitt -- ever frank, blunt and to the point -- told the judge. "But I said it."

Rest in peace, Mr. Schmitt.

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