Assemb. James Conte (R-Huntington Station), a strong advocate for organ donations who decided this summer not to seek re-election to focus on his own battle against cancer, died Tuesday.
Conte, 53, died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, where he had been hospitalized since mid-May.
"Huntington has lost one of its finest," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), referring to Conte's strong community ties, including his family's longtime ownership of the popular Conte's Burger Haven, now closed.
"Long Island has lost an extremely valuable public servant," Flanagan said. "Jim's consistency is probably his strongest suit -- he never changed his stripes."
In his final years in the Assembly, Conte climbed to the GOP's second-ranking post, minority leader pro tempore. "He rose to a very senior position, where he helped control debate and really hit his mark," said Flanagan. "He could be tough, but was always fair. He was a steady hand on the helm."
Conte was stricken with a kidney ailment during his winning special election campaign for the Assembly in 1988. A year later, he received the first of two kidney transplants.
Among the legislation Conte championed was Lauren's Law, which passed this year and seeks to increase organ and tissue donations.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Tuesday praised Conte for giving those needing vital organ transplants "new hope for life."
Brian Kolb, Assembly minority leader, said Conte's battle for organ donations "moved him deeply because it touched him personally."
Health problems deepened for Conte in the spring, when he was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma. He declined nomination for re-election in July. At the time, Conte called the decision "very hard," but said he "realized . . . I must devote my full energies to regaining my strength."
Conte represented the 10th Assembly District, which straddles the Nassau-Suffolk border and covers parts of Huntington and Oyster Bay. Democrats often mounted stiff challenges because the district is considered a swing area.
Political consultant Michael Dawidziak said Conte beat back the challenges because "he never forgot where he came from" and worked hard. "He . . . absolutely never forgot the grass roots," said Dawidziak.
Conte served for many years as ranking minority member of the Assembly Education Committee. In the most recent legislative session, he served on the Health, Labor and Higher Education committees.
Survivors include his wife, Debra; son, Jeffrey; daughters Sarah and Samantha; brothers Michael, of Yorktown, Iowa, and Robert, of Huntington Station, and sisters Donna Farmer, of Huntington Station, and Susan Zimmer, of upstate Wynantskill.
A wake will be held at M.A. Connell Funeral Home in Huntington Station Thursday and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. A funeral Mass will be celebrated Saturday at St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Station.