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Editorial: Owen Johnson served Long Island wisely

In an undated photo, State Sen. Owen Johnson

In an undated photo, State Sen. Owen Johnson is at work during a Senate session in Albany. Credit: Newsday/Dave Oxford

Owen Johnson, the longest-tenured state senator in Long Island history, died on Dec. 24 of natural causes. Johnson, 85, of West Babylon, represented a Babylon-Islip district from 1973-2012 as one of the "Long Island Nine," a moniker for the all-Republican Long Island delegation that had powerful influence over state spending on schools, transportation and other key issues, Newsday reported.

Johnson decided not to seek re-election in 2012 after 20 terms in office. This is the editorial we printed when he retired.

In a highly political year, with control of the State Senate once again at stake, it's not surprising that Sen. Owen Johnson's decision not to run for re-election has set off an avalanche of horse-race speculation: How does it affect Republican chances of retaining control, now that a GOP stalwart is leaving?

But it's worth putting the speculation on hold for a few minutes and saluting the steadfastness and staying power of a man who served his Islip-Babylon district in the Senate for 40 years.

Johnson, a conservative, small-government Republican from West Babylon, first got elected in 1972, the year of Richard Nixon's landslide re-election. Every two years since, he has won re-election handily, lately without a serious Democratic opponent.

This page has criticized the county Democratic leader, Richard Schaffer, for depriving voters of a choice, out of loyalty to Johnson. But that loyalty has a certain logic.

It goes back to Schaffer's first tour as Babylon supervisor, in the 1990s. Johnson got a bill passed in Albany to help the town avoid bankruptcy. And he did that despite pressure from GOP leadership to let Schaffer, a Democrat, fail.

In a way, that's typical of Johnson's service. Despite his fear of big government, he used government's powers to help his district, in ways ranging from funding for the stadium where the Long Island Ducks play, to saving the Oak Brush Plains State Preserve at Edgewood, plus many smaller acts of constituent service.

Johnson also led on some key environmental initiatives. One was the creation in 1993 of the Environmental Protection Fund, which the state uses to pay for environmental initiatives. He also shepherded 2006 legislation that created a sound policy on our state's vital waters -- and set up the New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council to carry it out.

There's plenty of time to figure out what his departure means for control of the Senate. For now, it's enough to say that Johnson, always a gentleman, made a difference for his district and, in some important ways, for the whole state.