Elie Mystal, the Suffolk Legislature’s first elected African-American and a key political operative who helped Democrats gain a legislative majority with his skill in crafting campaigns and legislative districts, has died. He was 71.
Mystal, who retired to Florida, died Nov. 22 of pneumonia at Naples Neighborhood Health Clinic, after a 1 1⁄2-year battle with lymphoma that left him hospitalized several times.
“He was one of the sharpest political minds I ever met,” said Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, noting Mystal was a key architect of once-a-decade reapportionment plans that helped Democrats gain a legislative majority that they held for the past 12 years.
During his career, Mystal served for 18 years as an aide to Legis. Maxine Postal (D-Amityville) and later her chief of staff when she became the legislature’s presiding officer. He succeeded Postal in 2004 as the legislator in the 15th District, shortly after she died of a rare brain disorder.
“He and Maxine were such a strong team together,” Schaffer said. “Maxine was a great presenter in public and Elie was the political brains.”
However, Mystal’s blunt and outspoken ways sometimes caused him problems, and his tenure as a county lawmaker ended in 2008 after he faced charges that he lied about living in the district in 2007 and 2008, a period during which he was splitting his time between Huntington Station, which was outside the district, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He was sentenced to five years of probation and was ordered to pay $84,300 in restitution.
“He never wanted Maxine’s job; he was always happier behind the scene because it fit better with the rougher edges of his personality,” said his son, Elie Mystal of Mount Vernon, a commentator on legal issues. “He may have won plaudits for crossing the color line [as Suffolk’s first black county legislator], but he was never designed to be the Jackie Robinson of Suffolk County.”
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Mystal was the eldest of four children and the son of a general in the national army, according to relatives. The family left Haiti for New York City when Mystal was 17, and he was offered a soccer scholarship to the University of Denver while playing in Central Park. He later stopped playing after suffering a head injury when he collided with another player as both went for the ball.
While in college, Mystal met his wife, Elizabeth Ying, with whom he had two children. The couple returned to New York after college and Mystal started a political newspaper in Harlem called “Big Red,” which he ran for about five years.
In the early 1980s, Mystal and his family moved to Amityville, where he became involved in local politics working on campaigns and began working for Postal in 1987. Mystal and his wife divorced about 1994 and he also became Postal’s companion.
After he left office, Mystal retired and lived in Naples, where he occupied himself with electric equipment, clocks and community projects, such as helping building scenery for local high school plays. He even applied for an electrician’s license.
Other survivors include daughter Elana Mystal, of New Rochelle, sister Evelyne Laine and brother Eddy Souffrant, both of Haiti.
Mystal’s remains were cremated last week, and a private memorial is planned for Dec. 9.