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Facing cancer, Lindsay dives into record 8th term as legislative leader

Newly installed Suffolk County Legislature presiding officer William

Newly installed Suffolk County Legislature presiding officer William J.Lindsay is confronted by Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino just after the legislature session ended. (Jan. 3, 2006) Credit: Newsday / Michael E. Ach

On Jan. 2, Bill Lindsay was unanimously re-elected to a record eighth term as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, as his wife and children looked on. Colleagues showered the Holbrook Democrat with such high praise that Lindsay joked his head would get so big, "I won't get out of the room."

Later that afternoon, Lindsay drove to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan for the results of his latest CT scan in a yearlong battle with mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer. Months of chemotherapy last year, plus the removal of his right lung, hadn't worked: the disease returned, doctors told him.

"And so we went from an extreme high to an extreme low," Lindsay said later, sitting in his Hauppauge office.

Last week marked another turning point: Lindsay was admitted to an experimental treatment trial at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.

Big issues on the table

As he enters his final year in office because of county term limits, Lindsay, 67, is facing his health challenge while trying to hold together the legislature's 13-member majority coalition of Democrats and minor-party allies. Big issues are on the table, including the stalled sale of the county's John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank and a budget deficit of $100 million or more.

He says he will remain as presiding officer as long as he is physically able.

"I'm committed to fight this disease with everything I have and to be here as long as I'm capable," Lindsay said. "If I get to a point where I don't think I'm doing the job properly, I will step down. There's no ands, ifs or buts."

Lindsay, a former electrician and labor leader, already is spending less time at the legislature's "horseshoe" than he would prefer.

When lawmakers debated and passed a bill to increase monitoring of convicted sex offenders this month, Lindsay was undergoing evaluation for the NIH treatment trials. He had to skip County Executive Steve Bellone's state of the county address last week, in which Bellone described him as "indisputably, the best presiding officer in the history of this county."

Lindsay said that his new treatment plan, which will unfold over the next two months, gives him a chance to return, full-time, by late spring. Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) will lead the legislature in the meantime.

"Reality is, even when he's gone, he's always in the background," Horsley said. "I've always had a guiding hand."

A lifelong Long Islander raised in Glen Cove, Lindsay became an electrical apprentice at 14. He spent years in the electrical trade on construction sites for local hospitals, colleges and factories, and suspects that's where he was exposed to the asbestos that led to mesothelioma.

He said it was "ironic," since as a longtime official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 25 in Hauppauge, he developed programs to determine whether his members had encountered asbestos on their worksites.

"You try to protect your members from this disease, and then you end up getting the damn disease," he said.

Lindsay was IBEW's business manager when he joined the legislature in March 2001. Then-Presiding Officer Paul Tonna, a Republican, described him as a "seasoned veteran when he started."

"When he makes a commitment he keeps it," Tonna said. "I'm amazed at how well he's led that body, especially now, with how he's suffering. He's kept his priorities as he tries to survive."

Levy a critic

Lindsay hasn't been immune to criticism -- most of it from former County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat turned Republican who fought him on ethics reform and efforts to close the nursing home. Levy criticized Lindsay for his move to block Foley's closure in 2011 while spending savings it would have created. But Lindsay says Levy avoided compromise, even keeping a scoreboard in his office of his legislative vetoes later overridden: "I tried to stay to issues. If a policy didn't make sense, we were going to overturn your veto. It was nothing personal."

Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works mostly with Republicans, said Lindsay's leadership was impressive in light of the battles with Levy and the legislature's previous infighting. "They traditionally fought with the county executive and with each other," he said. "For Bill to have the kind of run he's had, being a calming force, is miraculous."

In 12 years, Lindsay said he's never faced a tougher vote than one in 2011 to sell the nursing home to a private operator, who later backed out: "That was one that kept me up."

But that vote, and one last year that again OK'd the sale of the facility to a new buyer, pales with his cancer fight. Recovering from chemotherapy, Lindsay recalled "fatigue like you wouldn't believe. You never wanted to wake up."

By summer, he had immersed himself again in county issues, despite being out of the office. Lindsay said he played a crucial role in crafting the county's new eight-year contract with Suffolk police officers, and recalled meeting with Bellone.

"I called them 'pajama meetings,' " Lindsay said. "Steve would call up and my wife would say, 'Come over. He's on the couch, in his PJs, but he'll be happy to talk.' "

Bellone noted the presiding officer's "fighting spirit. To be able to continue while he's dealing with this, shows just what kind of character he has, and dedication."

Lindsay returned to the legislature last August, declaring himself cancer free. His pupil, Horsley, was at his side.

"He allows everyone to speak their piece, and often times he may come in with the last word, but he doesn't try to bully people into agreeing with his direction," Horsley said. "He lets you go in your direction. Usually at the end of the day, you find out he's right."

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