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John V.N. Klein, a force in Long Island politics since the 1950s, dies

Former Suffolk County Executive John V.N. Klein.

Former Suffolk County Executive John V.N. Klein. Credit: Newsday/Thomas R. Koeniges

John V.N. Klein, a quarter-century force in Suffolk politics, and a two-time county executive forced from office by his own party before becoming a go-to fixer in the following decades, has died. He was 90 years old.

His death was confirmed by Kay Tomlinson, secretary at the Harrison Funeral Home & Crematory in Lexington, Virginia, where Klein retired in 2008 and died on Dec. 23. No cause of death was disclosed.

Before his political defeat in 1979, Klein, whose ancestry on Long Island dates to the 18th century, had been eyed as a possible candidate for governor or U.S. senator. But those possibilities were flushed away when he handily lost a primary election over his staunch support for a scandal-scarred project called the Southwest Sewer District to install sewers in Babylon and parts of Islip.

Although he wasn’t implicated in the scandal, his backing of the project, which ballooned to a cost of over $1 billion and was beset by graft and dysfunction, was enough to fell him. For a generation, the project’s stench was still blamed for why an affluent suburb of New York City like Suffolk County still relies mostly on cesspools and septic tanks.

"Flush Klein in ’79" had been spray-painted in red on the sides of concrete sewer pipes stacked on Montauk Highway and elsewhere.

Indeed, voters did flush Klein, handing the Republican only his second electoral loss in public life, the first being in 1959, when he lost a race to be Smithtown justice of the peace, by 83 votes.

As Suffolk County executive, he was a fiscal conservative with a taste for austerity in budgeting, and his budgets boasted a surplus when neighboring New York City was teetering on bankruptcy.

Klein, who would advise U.S. presidents in his capacity with the County Executives Association, was praised for working with Democrats, in contrast with predecessors.

One of Klein’s enduring legacies includes the Suffolk farmland program, in which the county purchases development rights for farms to keep the land dotted with animals and crops rather than housing and shopping malls. The owner keeps the title — and can sell the land — but the land can’t be used for any purpose besides agriculture.

"The big disappointment is that one item can undo all that," Klein said at his campaign headquarters, referring to the sewer scandal, upon losing by 20,000 votes, out of 60,000 votes cast in the Republican primary election of Sept. 11, 1979.

He won his home bastion of Smithtown, but barely, by less than a 2-1 margin.

Less than two years later, he had to testify in the criminal trial of his mentor, former Smithtown chairman Nicholas Barbato, denying knowing of any payoffs relating to the sewer project. (Klein had worked as a teenager on Barbato's 100-acre farm.)

Klein's "involuntary career change" at age 48, as he described it while grumbling to a friend at a cocktail party soon after the 1979 loss, wound up making him happier than ever, he told Newsday in 1988.

Klein emerged as a private lawyer, fixer and lobbyist for some of the most powerful forces on Long Island and beyond.

When horse breeder Robert Entenmann — of Entenmann’s cakes — wanted to maintain a barn on property in the county’s farmland program, the bakery magnate turned to Klein. Klein was the man PepsiCo relied on to lobby state and local lawmakers against a controversial bottle-deposit bill. And when client St. Joseph’s College sought to expand its campus, Klein helped clinch a favorable decision from the Brookhaven Board of Zoning Appeals.

"If I have any asset to offer," Klein told Newsday in 1983, "it’s 20 years of experience at all levels of government."

Even some Democrats acknowledged his acumen.

"Former elected officials … who know the pressure points become valuable pieces of property for private interests who want to manipulate government for their own purposes," then-Legis. Wayne Prospect of Dix Hills said at the time. "Being good on his feet and having years of expertise, John is just better at it than most."

Klein became a TV commentator, newspaper analyst, Long Island Association director and managing partner at the powerhouse law firm Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein.

He scoffed at rumors he’d return to public life.

"You mean rising Phoenixlike from the ashes?" he told Newsday in 1988. "Not on your life!"

Klein was born in 1931, during the Great Depression, to Elmira Van Nostrand Klein and W. Royden Klein. He was a descendant of Dutch and German families on Long Island, some of whom dated back to the 1700s. They settled in Little Neck and Floral Park, at the time mostly woodland and farmland, according to a family obituary sent to the Lexington News-Gazette newspaper via the funeral home, Tomlinson said.

"At that time, Mr. Klein’s father, W. Royden Klein, lost $200,000 attempting to bail out a bank owned and managed by his father and uncle. The bank failed anyway. Mr. Klein’s father moved eastward, eventually settling in Smithtown where he opened his own law practice," the obituary said.

John V.N. Klein later graduated from the University of Virginia, both its college and law school. He joined his father’s law practice, applying in 1956 to be Smithtown town attorney three months after being admitted to the bar, then became town supervisor from 1964 to 1969, and chairing the newly created Suffolk legislature, the obituary said. He served two terms as the county executive, a position that only one person held before him, after county government was redesigned.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 62 years, the former Audrey Rowe Klein.

He's being buried at St. John's Episcopal Church Cold Spring Harbor, where several of Klein's ancestors are also buried, said one of his nephews, Doug Klein of Knoxville, Tennessee. Plans for a memorial service are forthcoming.

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