Peter J. Schmitt, the presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature whose influence loomed large over county politics for more than two decades, died Wednesday morning after suffering a massive heart attack during a meeting about the county budget in Mineola.
Schmitt, 62, was pronounced dead at 11:55 a.m., according to county officials.
Schmitt had complained of lightheadedness during the meeting in County Executive Edward Mangano's office, said Schmitt spokesman Ed Ward. Schmitt didn't immediately lose consciousness, but County Comptroller George Maragos had to hold him up to keep him from falling, Ward said.
"I held him in my arms until help arrived," Maragos said, still visibly shaken nearly four hours later.
Maragos said police and emergency medical technicians arrived two to three minutes after being called but Schmitt had lost and never regained consciousness. He was rushed by ambulance to Winthrop-University Hospital, where family and county leaders gathered. He is survived by his wife, Lois, and daughter, Samantha.
"Nassau County has lost a dedicated public servant," Mangano said in a statement. The county "is a better place because of Peter's leadership, commitment and compassion and he will be greatly missed."
Mangano ordered flags be flown at half-staff at county government buildings through Tuesday.
News of Schmitt's death stunned state and local political leaders, who celebrated the Massapequa Republican's outspoken persona and remembered him as loyal to his constituents.
"He was an iconic leader of our legislature since its inception," said Nassau Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport).
Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican, called Schmitt a "passionate" leader whose "outspoken dedication" deserved admiration.
Schmitt often railed against property tax increases.
Last year he told Newsday: "The message is clear to us: Don't raise taxes. We want to cut the size of government spending, slim it down, head it into a new direction."
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs called Schmitt a "formidable political opponent" who "was also always a gentleman in his dealings with me, personally."
Schmitt's death leaves a 9-9 split between Republicans and Democrats in the 19-seat county legislature. Mangano must call a special election to fill the seat within 30 to 60 days after the seat is declared vacant.
Schmitt was a member of the legislature since its inception in 1995. He served as deputy presiding officer from 1996 through 1999, minority leader from 2000 through 2009, and in January 2010 became presiding officer and majority leader.
Through the decades, he was at the forefront of fiscal battles and party-line skirmishes, helping the GOP weather its loss of control of the Nassau Legislature for the first time in 83 years in 2000.
Though he clashed with Democrats at meetings, longtime legislators said Schmitt never let politics affect his personal relationships with opponents.
"Despite the fact that we usually disagreed on policies, at the end of the week, we would always give each other a hug and a kiss for the weekend," said Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who knew Schmitt for 17 years.
With Celeste Hadrick,
Sid Cassese, Robert Brodsky, Sarah Crichton, Joseph Mallia, Víctor Manuel Ramos and