On the dais of the Nassau County Legislature, where political spats often devolve into a chaotic crosstalk of insults, Judy Jacobs stood out.
The onetime presiding officer — a Woodbury Democrat who served continuously on the legislature from its first day in 1996 to her death Tuesday, at age 77 — was an even-tempered, almost-nurturing presence: “Grandma Ju Ju” to friends and colleagues.
“She was not a pushover in any way, shape or form, but she conducted herself in a very, very calm manner,” said Bruce Blakeman, a Republican who served as the legislature’s first presiding officer, from 1996 to 1999, working with Jacobs when she was minority leader. “She wasn’t the type to be nasty or vitriolic.”
That assessment was repeated Wednesday by a bipartisan cast of current and former legislators, county executives and political party leaders. They remembered Jacobs as a steady presence who helped bring the county back from the brink of fiscal insolvency in the early 2000s and later championed strict anti-smoking laws.
“She was that mother-earth figure that everybody gravitated to,” said State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a longtime friend who was the Nassau Democratic leader in 1999 when the party won the legislative majority in an upset and chose Jacobs as presiding officer — a post she held through 2007.
DiNapoli recalled watching election results that year at Papa Razzi restaurant in Westbury, and turning to Jacobs and an aide.
“We looked at each other in one of those ‘Uh-oh’ moments: what do we do now?” DiNapoli recalled. “But one thing we knew for sure is that Judy would be our next presiding officer … she was someone from the grass roots, not from the smoke-filled room in the back.
“We knew she had that ability to work across party lines, and wouldn’t be viewed as a party hack,” DiNapoli said.
Raised in Queens, Jacobs met her husband, Sidney, in the late 1950s. The couple was introduced by their parents, who played cards together. Judy Jacobs graduated from Hunter College in Manhattan in 1960 and was a teacher in Elmont before working at her family’s real estate management company.
The seeds of her political career were planted in 1967, when she and her husband moved to Woodbury. The hamlet was beginning its transformation from a home for cabbage fields to a center for residential and commercial development.
Jacobs, who raised three children, became a civic leader. She advocated for local taxpayers and the environment, taking part in a successful fight against expansion of an area landfill.
Jacobs ran unsuccessfully for Oyster Bay Town Board in 1977 and 1993. She also served as town Democratic leader, and in 1995 ran for a seat on the new 19-member county legislature, which had replaced the board of supervisors.
“It was an experiment that we had to turn into a reality,” said Thomas Gulotta, the Republican county executive from 1987 to 2001.
“There were so many questions that needed to be answered,” Gulotta recalled, and he and Jacobs “developed a very close bond to make it a reality for citizens.”
Gulotta called Jacobs “a person of the highest integrity; her word was her bond.”
When Jacobs became presiding officer in 2000, Nassau was in a budget crisis, with its credit rating downgraded to a step above junk status.
Jacobs pushed for state legislation that created a financial oversight board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which delivered $100 million in state aid to balance the county budget.
Jacobs also supported a referendum that authorized the legislature to approve the most-lucrative “personal services” contracts issued by the county executive.
“She was the most consistently responsible voice, Democrat or Republican, for fiscal responsibility, and it was done without bluster and in a very congenial way,” said Thomas Suozzi, the Democratic county executive from 2002 to 2009.
While Suozzi and Jacobs sometimes clashed — and the Democratic majority fractured in Jacobs’ last years as leader over issues including re-appointment of an independent budget office director — she remained easy to work with, Suozzi said.
“She definitely had a viewpoint and political perspective, but unlike the contemporary world, where everything is personal and petty, she never slipped into that,” Suozzi said.
“She did not tolerate the besmirching of anyone,” said Legis. Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), who served with Jacobs since 1998 and is now presiding officer.
As a legislator, Jacobs helped make Nassau in 2002 the state’s first county to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants, and, in 2006, raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 19. In recent years, she tried but failed to get the county to join Suffolk and New York City in raising the age again, to 21.
She often talked about how the issue was personal: her husband, Sidney, a smoker, died of lung cancer in 2004.
County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican who took office in 2010, served with Jacobs on the legislature from 1996 to 2009. Mangano said that while Jacobs was tackling big issues such as tobacco usage, she also was deeply involved in constituent requests to secure new stop signs and traffic signals.
“No issue was too small for Judy Jacobs to advocate for a solution,” said Mangano.
Jacobs is survived by daughters, Jackie Herschander of East Setauket and Linda Jacobs-Geller of Woodbury; a son, Lenny Jacobs, of Commack, and grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at Gutterman’s Funeral home, 8000 Jericho Turnpike., Woodbury.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Jacobs’ name to Variety Learning Center, Syosset.
Nassau County law requires Judy Jacobs’s 16th Legislative District seat to be filled on Nov. 8, the day of the presidential election.
The county charter stipulates that if a vacancy occurs after May 1, a special election must be held to fill the seat on the day of the November general election. The process began Wednesday when County Clerk Maureen O’Connell filed a Certificate of Vacancy to fill the seat.
Democratic and Republican party leaders have a small window to nominate candidates. The county Board of Elections begins mailing out military ballots on Sept. 24.
The district has 23,017 registered Democrats, 14,445 Republicans and 13,327 voters unaffiliated with any major party. The winner will hold the seat until November 2017, when all legislative seats are up for re-election.