Nassau County Legislator Peter Schmitt questions the budget director for...

Nassau County Legislator Peter Schmitt questions the budget director for the legislative majority during a public comment session on the proposed Nassau budget. (Nov. 26, 2001) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A life of public service ended too soon Wednesday when the Nassau County Legislature's presiding officer, Peter J. Schmitt, died of a massive heart attack.

Schmitt, 62, was in his ninth term as a Republican legislator. He's a complex man to eulogize: powerful, cantankerous, opinionated, brash, openly combative and, on occasion, contemptuous of those who disagreed with him, a group that often included Newsday's editorial board. But Schmitt was also intelligent, loyal, and determined. His knowledge of Nassau County -- of how it worked, and failed to work, and what levers needed to be pulled and buttons pushed -- was unparalleled.

Then there was that complexity. Schmitt's dedication to all things Republican was rock-solid and lifelong, and his opposition to whichever Democrats crossed his path was almost a given. Yet it was Schmitt, the minority leader in 2000, who began calling out then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta's free-spending and poor budgeting ways. The following year Schmitt, leading the county's Republican legislators, publicly urged Gulotta not to seek another term and said they would not support his candidacy if he did.

Schmitt will also be remembered for his commitment to a public hospital to serve Nassau's neediest. He insisted that the money the county was awarded from the national settlement with tobacco companies be used for the Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.

While his opponents often decried his tactics, they never cast doubt on his intentions. The response to his death Wednesday, even among his rivals, contained respect and sadness.

Most Long Islanders will remember Schmitt for his battles. There is one, in particular, worth recounting. Jo'Anna Bird, 24, was murdered by a man against whom she had several orders of protection. It was determined the department failed to investigate domestic violence calls, but details of the investigation have been kept secret, under court order. Schmitt fought that secrecy, then defied it, and rightfully so. For this he was found in contempt and fined $2,500. It was a tough, aggressive stand, and a fair reflection of the man.

Schmitt was in the first class of Nassau legislators ever, taking office in 1996. He spent a huge chunk of his life tending to business in Mineola, serving the county and its residents. He suffered his fatal heart attack doing just that during a meeting in County Executive Edward Mangano's office. It was an end that came too early. The only fitting aspect, based on Schmitt's devotion to the county, was the location.