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Covering All Bases: October 9, 2012

Peter Schmitt (1950-2012)

Nassau County was shocked last week with the sad news of Peter Schmitt’s untimely death. As the presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, Schmitt was a prominent political figure and often the voice of Nassau County Republicans. He was opinionated and often quite blunt about defending his stance on county issues and he frequently sparred with the leaders of Nassau County Democrats. If you are a Republican, you often chuckled at his comments, and if you are a Democrat, you probably have clenched your teeth in anger at something he said. Much like his favorite baseball team, the Yankees, you were either strongly with him or strongly against him, but there was often no room for being in-between.

However, there was a side to Peter Schmitt that most of Nassau County didn’t know, which is how I will remember him. Despite the hard image, which he sometimes portrayed, Schmitt, or simply “Peter”, as he was known around Massapequa, was tremendously approachable and friendly. I often bumped into him in the local stores in and around Massapequa, and he would be quick to strike up a conversation. Recently, the conversation would always turn to his grandchild, who he had recently welcomed into the world. He was a devoted family man who adored his wife Lois, and he was so proud of their daughter, Samantha.

Last December, for an article, I asked elected officials and other Long Island celebrities what they wanted for the holidays and what their favorite holiday memory was. For their holiday wish list, I received responses of health, happiness, peace, an end to child poverty, as well as for some material items such as an iPhone and a Kindle. The two sides of Peter Schmitt are perfectly captured in his responses. His holiday wish list was three words long.

“A new president,” he replied.

As for his favorite holiday memory, that’s where his other side came across.

“My first Christmas with my wife, Lois,” was his response.

Since his passing, it has been said that Schmitt fought hard for his constituents, and that is absolutely true, and not just for Republican issues. If you lived in his district and had a governmental issue, Peter and his assistant, Ginny, would always do their best to lend their assistance. This would be true, even for issues that were not on the county level. If you were in his district, and you needed help with the town, state, county, or any level of government, Peter Schmitt’s office tried to help, even if you were a staunch liberal.

And despite his often harsh criticism of Democrats, he didn’t hold personal grudges. Earlier this year, Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams held an introductory press conference. During it, he criticized some of the proposals of Ed Mangano, Peter Schmitt and the Republicans. I met Schmitt in his office to get his response. I told him that Abrahams had spoken of his strong experience and knowledge in finance and how he wanted to use that to help suggest solutions to the county’s fiscal woes.

“When is he going to start?” Schmitt quipped.

It was a typical Peter Schmitt response. At the end of the interview, I snapped his picture. Schmitt asked me to show it to him. As we browsed through the gallery of pictures on my camera, we came across a picture of Abrahams that I had taken at that press conference. I expected Schmitt to give me another blunt comment. However, he didn’t.

“We disagree, but Kevan’s actually a good guy,” Schmitt said.

It was out of character for the public image of Peter Schmitt, but so appropriate for what Peter Schmitt was really all about. He strongly defended his opinion, but he did so because he really believed it, not because he had a personal issue with his critics.

He was a big Yankee fan but he never bothered me about interviewing him while wearing a Red Sox jacket. In fact, after our interviews about politics were completed, we’d have friendly chats about baseball.

One time I interviewed him about his re-election campaign, and we had lunch in Krisch’s, a popular, old-fashioned Massapequa ice cream parlor and restaurant. I ordered a chocolate milkshake.

“Is that all you’re having?” he asked me. When I replied “yes,” he said to the waitress, “He’s a cheap date.”

Although he could be harsh with his public comments, Peter Schmitt really cared about his constituents. It’s a quality that is much too lacking in politicians – Republican, Democrat, and every other party in between. He will be missed in Nassau County and especially in the Massapequas.

Ron Scaglia is the Special Sections editor of Anton Newspapers.