Former Islip Town Supervisor Peter McGowan, who was lauded by fellow Republicans for holding the line on property taxes but who resigned from office after pleading guilty to bribe taking and money laundering, has died after a brief illness. He was 83.
His death on Tuesday morning was confirmed by Barbara O'Connor, his companion of 41 years.
McGowan was "in recent declining health" and passed away in a nursing home near Hilton Head, S.C., where he and O'Connor had retired.
"He was a force to be reckoned with that's for sure," said O'Connor, 72, a former human resources professional. "He was a dynamic person who was successful in his own right."
McGowan, a Depression-era son of Irish immigrants who was born in the South Bronx, started working full time at the age of 16, and rose to become one of the most powerful Republican figures in Suffolk County.
He considered himself a businessman first and a politician second, friends recalled. He owned popular watering holes — P.J.'s in Farmingdale and The Pumphouse in Islip — where he hosted charity events and large gatherings, connecting people and "celebrating life," O'Connor said.
He was a crisp-dressing, opinionated man who valued loyalty above all else, friends said.
"As a lawmaker and a person you could always rely on his word," said Vincent Messina, a former Islip Town attorney and McGowan's longtime friend.
"He was always a straight-shooter and he was dedicated to the taxpayers of Islip who he served with great pride. He was respectful of the fact that public office was a privilege."
But after serving for 14 years as Islip supervisor, McGowan pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribe taking, laundering $52,000 in kickbacks and witness tampering, and had to resign.
He was charged with stealing from his campaign fund to pay for restaurant meals, vacations and visits to spas.
He served three months in the Suffolk County jail and later performed community service. His campaign fund was returned to donors.
McGowan began his political career on the Islip Town planning board in the 1980s.
After an unsuccessful bid for Suffolk County Legislature, McGowan, an Islip Town Board member, was appointed supervisor in March 1993, replacing Republican Frank Jones, who stepped down to head Suffolk Off-Track Betting.
McGowan focused on cutting town taxes and was reelected by wide margins on that platform. Under McGowan, homeowners saw no town tax increases for 13 years.
"All I'm interested in is protecting the people in the Town of Islip, and giving them the best bang for the buck," McGowan once said in a Newsday interview. "I'll support anybody that I believe will do that, and I'll fight anybody that doesn't do that. That's why they put me here."
McGowan played a key role in Southwest Airlines' decision to expand service to Long Island in the 1990s. That helped spur the growth of Long Island MacArthur Airport, which is owned by Islip Town.
Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter, a Republican, said she believed McGowan will be remembered primarily for turning MacArthur airport into an economic engine for the town.
Because of his efforts to recruit Southwest Airlines as a tenant, McGowan "put us on the map as a regional airport and gave us a base from which to grow," Carpenter said in an interview Wednesday.
"That airport was his baby — he just loved that airport," Carpenter said.
Carpenter drew criticism when she included MacGowan among former Islip supervisors invited to her swearing-in in January 2016.
Carpenter called it a "nice gesture," but then-Islip Republican Party chairman Frank Tantone said, "I was actually flabbergasted. Whoever’s idea it was should have really thought about it. It was really questionable. I certainly wouldn’t have done it."
McGowan was the son of Mary Waters McGowan, a native of County Mayo, Ireland.
His mother immigrated to the United States as a teenager after her father was caught carrying messages for the Irish Republican Army. McGowan's father, also Peter, was a New York City police detective.
McGowan is survived by two sisters, Patricia and Mary, both Florida residents. A memorial service is being planned for early December at the Church of St. Mary in East Islip, with burial in Mount Saint Mary Cemetery in Flushing, Queens.