John Powell, who rose from a highway department payloader driver to one of the state's most powerful Republican leaders until his conviction on federal corruption charges, died Wednesday after being stricken at his Medford home.
Powell, 51, was found by his daughter Alexandra in bed unconscious, family members said. He was taken by ambulance to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at about 11:30 a.m.
"He was a larger than life figure in Suffolk County politics," said John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman. "He was a brilliant politician."
The hospital refused to comment on the cause of Powell's death. Powell's cousin Betty Manzella, the town GOP vice chairwoman, said Powell "had some heart issues. He was going to a heart doctor."
The death of the charismatic political leader ended a roller-coaster life.
Nicknamed "Mugsy" after actor Leo Gorcey's character in the Dead End Kids films, Powell, at the height of his power, was chairman of both the Brookhaven Republicans and the Suffolk Republican Committee. No one since the late Kingsland Macy ran the county GOP in the 1940s and 1950s had wielded such far-reaching political clout.
Powell earned his dual roles by taking a political risk. Against the wishes of then-Suffolk Republican chief Howard DeMartini, Powell in 1994 backed George Pataki, then a little-known state senator, for governor. Suffolk later delivered the largest plurality for Pataki of any county in the state, as Pataki defeated Democratic incumbent Mario M. Cuomo.
The new governor returned the favor, appearing the next year at the Suffolk Republican convention to nominate Powell for county chairman to replace DeMartini.
Friends and associates recalled Powell as a politician who could rally party troops.
Suffolk Undersheriff Joseph Caracappa, a former legislative presiding officer and a Powell protege, said Powell "had the ability to bring together the bikers and the bankers in the same room, and make them feel comfortable enough to march together in one direction."
"He had tremendous political instincts, second to none," said LaValle.
Powell's downfall came in 1998, when he was arrested and led away in handcuffs by federal investigators. The next year he was convicted in U.S. District Court of extorting $20,000 from a trash hauler seeking to gain access to Brookhaven Town's landfill. He later pleaded guilty to other charges stemming from his involvement in an illegal truck chop shop.
Powell spent two years in federal prison, and after his release he said, "I got involved with the wrong people and I made a mistake. But I stood up like a man and took my punishment. . . . I learned my lesson."
"He was a supernova that burned out way too soon," said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Republican lobbyist.
Powell's political career began when he volunteered at Brookhaven GOP headquarters in Farmingville, where he stuffed envelopes, manned a campaign sound truck -- and even helped tile the floor. Later, he became a town highway worker and created a 500-member townwide Heritage GOP club made up mainly of other blue-collar town employees who became his political army.
In 1988, Powell became a candidate for state Assembly, and won an upset over 16-year Democratic incumbent I. William Bianchi.
But a year later, the tragic death of his 2-year-old son, who was run over by a postal truck in front of his house, caused Powell to leave Albany and run for town board. In 1991 he became town leader and later added county leader.
Following his release from jail in 2002, Powell entered the paving business and later joined Michael Dawidziak in his political consulting business. In 2009, Powell played a major behind-the-scenes role in getting LaValle elected as county GOP chairman.
Some officials believe Powell was looking to come back as town or county leader, something Powell denied in the weeks before his death.
In addition to Powell's daughter Alexandra, other survivors include Powell's mother, Theresa; his brother, George; sons Anthony and John, and daughter Mia, all of Medford.
A wake will be held at Ruland Funeral Home, 500 North Ocean Ave. in Patchogue, on Sunday and Monday from 2 to 4 p.m., and from 7 to 9 p.m. A funeral Mass will be celebrated Tuesday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church in Patchogue. Burial will follow at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram.
With Mitchell Freedman, Paul LaRocco and Sandra Peddie
Politicians react to the death of former Suffolk Republican Chairman John Powell:
Brookhaven Republican Chairman Jesse Garcia
"A master chess player in politics -- He used the political arena to make communities better."
Suffolk Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches)
"Suffolk is going to be a different place without John Powell. He had the knack to win elections and promote good people. . . . He made a mistake in life, and it was a shame, because he had a lot of talent."
Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.)
"I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of John Powell. He was a great campaign strategist and organizer. My thoughts and prayers are with his family."
Republican and former Gov. George Pataki
"John Powell was a friend, a leader and a man who, right or wrong, took responsibility for his own actions. I will miss him."
Suffolk Undersheriff Joe Caracappa, Republican and former presiding officer of the county legislature
"People just naturally wanted to follow this man. Regardless of what you think about John Powell, based on his trials and tribulations, there are a lot of people out there in Suffolk County and beyond who owe him a tremendous amount."
Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle
Referring to recent reports that he was concerned about a posible political comeback by Powell, LaValle said: "Though some of our recent disputes have been widely publicized, I will always remember him as a brilliant politician and charismatic leader who was a good family man."
"Hopefully in defining his legacy there is considerable recognition for his charisma and passion. . . . You never knew exactly what he was going to plan on doing next."
"He was obviously a very talented individual and was a critical architect of Gov. Pataki getting elected."
Former Brookhaven Supervisor Felix Grucci
"John Powell had probably one of the smartest and adept political minds of his time. . . . He made some bad decisions, and he paid for those decisions."
Compiled by Paul LaRocco