ALBANY -- The family of late Assemb. James Conte sat in the back of the Assembly chamber Wednesday, as one legislator after another rose to tell them about their father's life at the Capitol.
From Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) to among the least powerful in the chamber, lawmakers at the tribute testified about a "gentleman" lawmaker who carried out partisan battles with grace. Some couldn't fight off tears.
His daughter, Sarah Conte, was awed. "When we were younger, he never brought his work home with him," said Sarah, 22, a recent Manhattan College graduate. "We didn't know the extent he touched people until now. To see how well-liked and loved he was, it's astounding."
Conte, 53, died of cancer in October. The Huntington Station Republican had represented a Huntington-based district since 1988. He had battled kidney ailments and had twice received kidney transplants. It was through his work promoting organ donation legislation and awareness that he gained the most widespread attention.
Conte served for many years as ranking minority member of the Assembly Education Committee. In his final years in office, he climbed to the GOP's second-ranking post, minority leader pro tempore. That meant he led debates in the Democrat-dominated Assembly for the Republicans.
Many remembered him through music. He played in a bipartisan jam band called the Budget Boys Blues Band and, years ago, participated in "Legislative Idol," Albany's version of "American Idol." He kept a guitar in his legislative office.
"Sometimes, after a long day of [legislative] session, we'd go back to his office and he'd break out the guitar," said Assemb. Joe Saladino (R-Massapequa), who played drums in the band. Conte liked to strum Jimmy Buffett, Pure Prairie League and the Allman Brothers, among others. The Allman's "Melissa" was one of Conte's favorites.
"I heard him playing it over and over in my head today when people were speaking about him," Saladino said.
Toward the end of the hourlong tribute, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) talked of Conte's physical and political battles and said he "set an example of how you are supposed to act when the odds are against you."
When Kolb talked of visiting the hospital in Conte's final days, he choked up. "It's so painful when you try to keep it together," Kolb said. "When you start thinking about the smile. The guitar. The camaraderie. The debates. The friendships. I miss him."