Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Wayne Horsley stepped down last week after 72 days as the Suffolk Legislature's 17th presiding officer, but that short tenure belies the crucial role the Babylon lawmaker played during some of the darkest days in the body's 43-year history.
The affable Horsley -- Suffolk's own version of Joe Biden -- deserves appreciation for a nearly two-year behind-the-scenes role aiding the legislature's longest-serving presiding officer, William Lindsay. He dutifully helped as Lindsay waged a losing battle with lung cancer and faced much of the brunt of the county's grim realities: layoffs, a shuttered nursing home, and sold-off assets.
"I don't know how we would have done without Wayne," said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), who was selected as Horsley's replacement Friday. "He was a consensus builder in a time that could have been wrought with confusion and disarray. He held things together."
While some say Horsley (D-Babylon) was too accommodating to the county executive, county sources say members of the Bellone administration engineered Horsley's exit to the $120,000-a-year job as regional director of Long Island state parks because they were unhappy Horsley did not do more.
"Why they were so averse to Wayne makes no sense to me," said Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset). "And they are already paying the price."
The only legislative loss Democrats suffered in November was what had been Horsley's safe seat, despite Bellone's and Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer's best efforts to walk virtually the entire district to hold the seat against Amityville Deputy Mayor Kevin McCaffrey.
And there's no guarantee that Horsley's successor will deliver any better for Bellone or keep what has often been a cantankerous legislature as calm as Lindsay or Horsley did. Horsley was a known quantity. His replacement will have a learning curve or could face a revolt if too heavy-handed.
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider disputed that Bellone played a role in Horsley's exit, saying Horsley was "an excellent ally; we're really sad to see him go." Of his departure, he said Horsley "was in a position to write his own ticket" and couldn't pass up the opportunity for a higher-paying post.
Horsley, like Biden, can stumble in his sometimes overly florid rhetoric, but he also comes across as earnest, decent and respectful. Some say Horsley, who has a doctorate in history and teaches college classes as an adjunct, puts his affability to good use, deflecting sticky issues.
"Wayne is like everyone's big brother," Schaffer said. "There's not anyone who ever felt uncomfortable speaking with him. He could always defuse even the craziest of situations."
Horsley declined to discuss machinations behind his departure. He says only that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's top aide, Larry Schwartz, a former Suffolk deputy county executive, made the offer for Long Island's top parks job, an agency where he worked for 19 years.
For Horsley, 63, the move makes sense, returning to an agency he loves to cap his career and help his pension. His career started at age 24, when he first ran for office in 1974 in a close but losing race for Assembly. Later, he got a job as supervisor of tolls and maintenance overseeing 600 workers in the now-defunct Jones Beach State Parkway Authority.
During that nearly 40-year career, Horsley also has headed the Babylon Zoning Board of Appeals, was elected a town board member, served as Babylon Democratic chairman and was elected to the county legislature eight years ago.
As a lawmaker, Horsley was known as "Mr. Sewer" because he pressed for sewer funding to spur economic development, including a $25-million measure from the excess sewer tax stabilization fund to pay for new projects. He also sponsored landmark laws to ban drop-side cribs and to require supermarkets to provide bins where customers could return plastic bags.
Horsley conceded there were emotional moments at the legislature's Dec. 17 final meeting. He quoted Teddy Roosevelt, who once said, "It is not the critic who counts . . . the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood."
"It's been a stressful few years," Horsley said. "But we did what's right for the county."
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