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Peter Schmitt remembered by friends, colleagues

Nassau County Legislature Presiding Officer Peter J. Schmitt,

Nassau County Legislature Presiding Officer Peter J. Schmitt, 62, of Massapequa collapsed during a meeting in County Executive Edward Mangano's office, officials said. (May 31, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

Peter J. Schmitt was known for playing politics as a contact sport, never minding if he had to be abrasive to further the Republican Party's agenda.

So it was a running joke when Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) introduced him year after year at swearing-in ceremonies as "Mr. Congeniality."

"Both Democrats and Republicans and everyone in the audience would fall about laughing, while Pete would be standing there with his grumpy grin," King recalled Wednesday.

Friends remembered Schmitt, 62, who died Wednesday after a massive heart attack, as a jovial man who enjoyed spending time with family, traveling abroad or watching the Yankees crush lesser teams.

He was also a committed conservative. Year after year, he stuck to his message of lowering taxes and cutting spending. He battled opponents with abandon and locked horns with the former Democratic administration of County Executive Thomas Suozzi to help rebuild a majority for his party, which in 2010 retook the county legislature and county executive's office.

Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello praised Schmitt as an "extremely bright and loyal person" who "believed that the people of Nassau County were overtaxed."

Mondello said they had been friends for 35 years. "He has been to my home and we have had a very close relationship." In a statement, Mondello called Schmitt's death "a horrible personal tragedy and a terrible loss for the people of Nassau County."

Schmitt was born on June 27, 1950, and raised in Franklin Square, where he attended local schools. He showed interest in politics early on, and joined the Young Republicans at Hofstra University, said friend and spokesman Ed Ward.

He became a student delegate to the university's board of trustees and later graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science.

Jonathan D. Moreno, a bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania who beat Schmitt in a 1972 student government election, recalled Schmitt's early interest in politics.

"He was a happy warrior -- though when he lost to me, he was really upset," Moreno said.

In the mid-1970s, Schmitt worked as an aide in the district office of Rep. Angelo Roncallo (R-Massapequa). Schmitt later spent two decades in appointed jobs with the Town of Oyster Bay, serving as community and youth services commissioner until 1995.

He was first elected to represent the 12th Legislative District in the newly formed Nassau County Legislature in 1995, and won eight successive re-elections. He was minority leader from 2000 to 2009, and has led the Republican majority since 2010.

Schmitt tussled with political foes, waging frequent attacks on the Suozzi administration and adopting a combative style that often landed him in public disputes. In August, he paid a $2,500 fine for defying a federal judge's gag order when he publicly discussed details of the police investigation into the 2009 murder of Jo'Anna Bird.

Suozzi remembered Schmitt as "a fierce and effective advocate for his party," but said he also knew when to compromise. "We managed to find common ground on matters that required bipartisan support," such as on a vote to approve the county's capital plan.

Schmitt also was a mild-mannered husband, father and grandfather, who spent summer vacations traveling to Europe and Asia, Ward said.

He looked forward to bottle-feeding his months-old grandson, Logan, before leaving the house every morning.

"He loved fighting for what he believed in," Ward said, "but there was a soft side to Peter Schmitt."

Schmitt is survived by his wife, Lois, his college sweetheart; daughter, Samantha, and his grandson, all of Massapequa. Funeral arrangements had not been finalized.

With Candice Ferrette

and Bill Bleyer

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