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Long IslandColumnists

Terry Pearsall, Suffolk County government stalwart, concludes 40-year career

Terry Pearsall, chief of staff for the Suffolk

Terry Pearsall, chief of staff for the Suffolk County Legislature, has announced that he will be retiring after serving in that position for 40 years. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

When Terry Pearsall was a young Democratic activist in 1974, then-Suffolk Democratic chairman Dominic Baranello said he was moving him to an aide's job at the Suffolk County Legislature, then only four years old. But Baranello warned: "Don't expect to stay. There's no security at the legislature."

At the end of this week, Pearsall will finally end a 40-year county career in which he served as chief of staff to the past three Democratic presiding officers.

During that tenure, Pearsall was a key behind-the-scenes adviser in numerous battles -- including the fight over the Shoreham nuclear power plant, restricting smoking in public places and a long but losing effort to keep the county nursing home open.

"I don't think there is anyone in the county who has Terry's institutional knowledge," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman and a former county lawmaker who has known Pearsall since he was a teen. "Terry has pretty much seen it all and he's served as a great adviser to a generation of county officials."

Former Democratic County Executive Patrick Halpin called him "the heart and soul of the legislature."

"I'm 73 and that alone should explain it," Pearsall said. "I had to face the reality that my days are numbered," and there are "a lot of personal things I still want to do." Among them is getting a new kidney after a year of regular dialysis treatments.

Pearsall served as top aide to the late Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) during his record 12-year tenure and to his successor, Democrat Wayne Horsley. Since January, Pearsall, who makes $125,698 a year, has worked for Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), whom he helped elect by working behind the scenes when County Executive Steve Bellone tried to derail him.

"I am sad to see him go," Gregory said in a memo to staff. "Terry has been a good friend and an invaluable help to me in the past year as I transitioned into the Presiding Officer's office."

When Pearsall started, he was the sole aide to the entire Democratic minority. A year later, when Democrats took the majority for the first time, Pearsall became clerk of the legislature, a job that lasted two years.

Over the years, he was an aide to a dozen lawmakers, including the champion of those in need, John J. Foley, and anti-Shoreham activist Nora Bredes, both now gone.

Pearsall, as an aide to Foley, worked on landmark legislation in the late 1980s to regulate workplace computers -- a controversial bill that later was struck down in court. He also helped Bredes wage a successful fight against big tobacco to pass legislation barring smoking in restaurants and other public places.

But his two biggest battles involved the county nursing home.

As an aide to Foley, he helped block Halpin as county executive in the early 1990s from turning the nursing home over to a private operator. That led to the building of a new $30 million county nursing home.

More recently, as Lindsay's aide, Pearsall waged a five-year war to keep open the new nursing home, named after Foley, a fight that was finally lost last year over financial issues.

"The reason it took so long for Suffolk to get out of the nursing home business is that Terry was such a fierce defender," Halpin said.

"He will be sorely missed by anyone who believes in a truly independent legislature," said Paul Sabatino, a former GOP legislative counsel.

Others say Pearsall was not only a defender of the institution, but lawmakers and their staffs. "He treated Republicans and Democrats the same," said Legis. Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley). "He never played politics with staff or legislators."

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, said what made Pearsall most valuable was not his political know-how, but his passion for issues such as the nursing home.

"He wanted to meet the unmet needs for people in this county, which now, unfortunately, are going unmet," Kennedy said.

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