Assemb. James Conte focused on serving community

Assemb. James Conte (R-Huntington Station), who decided not

Assemb. James Conte (R-Huntington Station), who decided not to seek re-election this past summer so he could focus on his battle against cancer, died on Oct. 16, 2012. (Credit: Kathy Kmonicek)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

bio | email

Huntington Station is going to miss James Conte, the straight-talking state assemblyman who stood up for his hometown.

It takes an unusually strong person to stand against criticism, and a stronger public official to take one position when others are taking the opposite stance.

Conte did just that, in word and in deed. And he did it more than once.

In 2004, when Conte, who died Tuesday at age 53, decided to host a health fair for the growing local Latino community, fliers filled with racist slurs and attacks on Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, circulated in the community.

Conte went through with the fair at St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church anyway, attracting more than a hundred residents who had the opportunity to meet with representatives from dozens of health care agencies.

Why did he want to do it? Because, said Conte, immigrants, including the day laborers crowding the community's streets back then, "want to work, they want to raise their families, they want to get a good education for their kids -- all the same reasons my grandfather came here 100 years ago."

Conte's grandfather, he often pointed out proudly, was an immigrant from Italy who'd once stood on those same Huntington Station streets looking for work as a day laborer, too.

By 2007, as the tide of anti-illegal-Latino immigrant fervor was rising higher in Suffolk County, Conte was still standing his ground.

"There are certain people in our community who are fed up with the illegal immigration and the problems that it has foisted on our community. And they are not shy in that they're going to be vocal," he said. "And then there's a number of us who understand that we're not going to deport 12 million people."

Conte held firm even as other elected officials jumped on the anti-illegal-immigrant bandwagon. By 2009 -- when one county legislator representing another community felt comfortable enough to say during a public meeting that if he saw an influx of Latino day laborers in his neighborhood, "I would load my gun and start shooting, period" -- Conte must have been feeling very alone.

No matter. He kept his modest office on New York Avenue, in the heart of the community. And he kept that office door open to any constituent who sought his assistance.

During his 25-year Assembly career, he didn't just wait for constituents to come to him. Conte also seemed to find time to attend every Eagle Scout gathering, every parade, every chamber and community event.

In 2010, Conte was courting controversy -- although he would say he was just doing his job -- again.

This time, he stood against a move to close the Jack Abrams School because of crime in the mostly African-American neighborhood. While most other officials publicly hemmed and hawed, Conte joined a local NAACP rally and spoke out, saying that closing the school, in the heart of his beloved district, would be wrong.

Conte didn't win that one.

But the effort, for a man whose passion for every segment of his community never flagged, was bold.

In the Assembly, Conte, a survivor of two kidney transplants, rose to become the Assembly Republican Conference's floor leader before stepping down this summer.

Conte was felled by cancer. But not before he made time to spend with family and friends.

His mantra to the elected officials he mentored was: Serve your community.

Conte, 53, did just that. With distinction.