That was the most widely used word uttered in response to the sudden passing Wednesday of nine-term Nassau County Legis. Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), the legislature’s presiding officer who led the 10-9 Republican majority. Even political rivals with whom he bitterly argued reflected on the lesser-seen side of the outspoken lawmaker as a husband and grandfather. He was 62.
Schmitt collapsed as he joined a meeting with County Executive Ed Mangano and County Comptroller George Maragos. Details of what was being discussed at the time were not released.
“He was coming into the meeting with the county executive and myself as he collapsed,” Maragos tells the Press, adding that he was “shaken up” by the experience. “I held him in my arms until help arrived. It was terrible.”
Schmitt’s death leaves a 9-9 tie between Republicans and Democrats just as tense budget negotiations get underway before the Halloween deadline. Mangano will set a special election for Schmitt’s replacement within 30 to 60 days.
“I had the privilege of serving closely with Peter in the Legislature since its creation in 1996, where he distinguished himself as an outspoken advocate for the residents,” Mangano said in a statement, ordering flags half-staff through Oct. 9.
Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs called Schmitt a gentleman and devoted family man.
“While we disagreed on most issues and our politics differed, I respected his leadership and his commitment to his principles and values,” Jacobs said in a statement. “Peter was a strong advocate, and a formidable political opponent.”
Nassau County Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead) called Schmitt “an iconic leader” who left an “indelible mark” on the county.
Legis. Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick) tells the Press that despite their frequent feuding in the chamber, he and Schmitt got along.
“Peter and I were worthy opponents who spent much of the time being combative with each other but on a personal level I know we shared a mutual respect,” he says.
Union leaders who have battled with Schmitt—among other lawmakers—over layoffs, wage freezes and other recent concessions also offered condolences.
“There is a man beside the political side,” Nassau County Police Benevolent Association President James Carver said. “Away from the political scene… it’s a tremendous loss for his family.”
Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association Local 830, said in a statement: “Although we did not always agree with Peter, he certainly stood up for what he believed in and was always a hardworking legislator.”
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state fiscal control board that oversees the county’s finances, expressed grief, too. The board said it is “saddened by [Schmitt’s] untimely passing.”
Known for his no-nonsense demeanor, Schmitt represented the 12th district, which encompasses Massapequa, Massapequa Park, parts of Seaford and North Massapequa.
He served as deputy presiding officer from 1996 through 1999, minority leader for the decade that followed when Democrats had the majority, and took the top spot in 2010 when the GOP regained control of the chamber.
Schmitt is survived by his wife, Lois, and daughter, Samantha. Funeral arrangements were not available as of press time.
Carver urged lawmakers to use the moment of reflection to end the partisan gridlock.
“What I would hope right now in light of Peter’s death is that the legislature will regroup and understand what the real priorities in life are beyond politics and work towards fixing whatever problems the county might have instead of fighting with each other,” he said. “Life’s too short.”