Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley is a Suffolk legislator from...

Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley is a Suffolk legislator from the 14th District. (July 13, 2011) Credit: James A. Escher, 2011

Suffolk Legis. Wayne Horsley describes himself simply as "a friend of Bill."

It's a reference not to Bill Clinton, but to ailing Presiding Officer William Lindsay. In Lindsay's absence, Horsley, the legislature's deputy presiding officer, has been thrust into the heart of Suffolk's unprecedented budget crisis and also has been dealing with a new administration that still is learning on the job.

Horsley (D-Babylon), 61, believes his biggest accomplishment has been simply to keep the majority caucus together, especially on tough votes for layoffs. "We recognize we're in rough seas, but when issues come up for a vote we're doing the right thing . . . we're acting like adults," he said.

But Lindsay (D-Holbrook), a seven-term veteran, casts a long shadow. Meanwhile, Horsley is dealing with criticism from both sides of the aisle that as a Babylon Democrat he is too deferential to County Executive Steve Bellone, the former Democratic town supervisor. Some also say he's been too slow to initiate legislative proposals to deal with the budget mess.

Horsley's new role, though temporary, amounts to a real-time audition for the presiding officer's job. Lindsay, who is term-limited, must leave office at the end of next year.

Backers say the affable Horsley doesn't backstab or double deal. "There's been potential for fireworks . . . but he's such a likable guy, he's done a great job of pulling everyone together," said freshman Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket).

But Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), the minority leader, said that while he likes Horsley, there's been a "greater tendency to defer to the executive" during his tenure as deputy presiding officer. Kennedy said that while Lindsay kept "partisanship to a minimum, his absence has allowed evenhandedness to go by the wayside." Horsley disputes such characterizations, but says he "good-naturedly informed [GOP] colleagues if they punch, we will counterpunch."

Some also say Horsley needs to be a more forceful protector of the legislature as an independent branch to counterbalance the county executive.

"I only wish he would reach out and form more coalitions with other legislators. If he had, it would have helped the county executive avoid some of his rookie pitfalls," said Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches).

Horsley's move to center stage occurred by accident.

Late last year, the seven-year legislative veteran was a serious contender to replace Bellone as Babylon supervisor when Bellone was elected county executive. That prospect evaporated when Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer became town supervisor. Horsley was rewarded with the deputy post, which carries a $10,442 stipend on top of his $93,958 salary.

Before becoming a lawmaker, Horsley had worked at the Long Island State Parks Commission for nearly two decades, leaving as regional finance director. He served six years as a Babylon town board member, and six years as town Democratic chairman. He also served stints as Babylon Industrial Development Agency deputy chief executive and as a member of the town Zoning Board of Appeals. He teaches history part time at Farmingdale State College.

Horsley may be an early front-runner to succeed Lindsay, but presiding officer races in the past have involved substantial wheeling and dealing.

Other potential contenders include Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon). D'Amaro tried unsuccessfully two years ago to become presiding officer with GOP help, but lately has tangled with Republicans in legislative debates. Others see Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) and Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) as contenders.

Horsley concedes interest in the post, but says he'll only pursue it if Lindsay decides to go. Lindsay, who underwent cancer surgery last month, is not expected back at work before August or September.

"I don't even sit in his seat," Horsley said. "It's there for him, when he's ready to come back."

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