Unshakable demeanor earned Bill Lindsay respect

Rick Brand

In an empty Holbrook catering hall after a 2009 political fundraiser, Suffolk's legislative Presiding Officer William Lindsay conducted late-night shuttle diplomacy in a final push to end a budget battle between County Executive Steve Levy and the powerful police union.

Going back and forth between union officials in Villa Lombardi's vacant banquet room and Levy in a nearby bridal suite, Lindsay, once a labor leader, forged a deal that resulted in $12 million in union concessions and averted 60 layoffs.

"If it was not for Bill Lindsay, that agreement would never have materialized," Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo recalled last week. "Ninety percent of it was his demeanor. You felt like he was someone helping you to do what was right to achieve a goal."

That unshakable demeanor earned Lindsay, a Democrat who died of cancer last week at age 67, wide bipartisan respect and a record eight-year tenure as Suffolk's legislative leader. Lindsay, of Holbrook, also had a warm personal touch that won him countless friends, who jammed into a wake in Sayville Saturday and are expected to crowd the legislative building in Hauppauge Sunday to pay their final respects.

"He had empathy, which is the mark of a great leader," said Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "He always understood the other person's position and where they were coming from."

Horsley said that quality helped Lindsay win consensus in an often volatile legislature. "He was a master of how far to go to get what was needed to win approval."

Legis. Lynne Nowick (R-St. James) said Lindsay lowered partisan barriers, giving GOP lawmakers some committee chairmanships and soliciting their views. "He not only called, he listened," Nowick said.

"He was not your typical politician," said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Stony Brook), who once worked as his legislative spokeswoman. "He wasn't about the spotlight and having the TV camera on him . . . He was about what needed to be done and how to get it done."

Lindsay, a former electrician who earned his undergraduate and master's degrees at night, championed the county's community college, shepherding $160 million in campus construction projects.

He overhauled the county ethics commission, and with the help of Republican Comptroller Joseph Sawicki increased oversight of $53 million in annual consultant contracts.

In important legislative debates, Lindsay almost always had the last word.

"He would give everyone a chance to be heard, often more than once, until they exhausted themselves," said Ben Zwirn, a longtime legislative aide who now works for Suffolk County Community College. "Then he would cut through everything, sum up the entire issue and get to the heart of the matter."

Lindsay at times flashed his temper but did not get personal. He once castigated Levy aide Ed Dumas for his remarks just before a proposal to sell the Foley nursing home for $36 million came up for a vote in 2010.

"I don't know who sent you over with that speech, but you didn't move the ball far down the court," Lindsay said. "What are you trying to do, blow up anything we're trying to do here?"

Later, Lindsay called the sale, which he ultimately backed, "the hardest vote" he ever cast after years of battling to keep the complex open. The sale ultimately fell apart.

Lindsay also had little use for long-term feuds.

In 2011, Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle and Levy, who had turned Republican, worked to replace Lindsay as presiding officer with Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon). After his re-election, Lindsay simply dropped D'Amaro as a committee chairman for a year. Several weeks later, Lindsay showed up at a D'Amaro fundraiser.

"He kiddingly asked me if I was switching parties," D'Amaro recalled last week. "I said absolutely not . . . since then our relationship only got stronger and stronger."

The legislative leader also made personal connections with colleagues.

He once gave Republican Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, who is Polish, a flag and sign from Polish Solidarity Leader Lech Walesa. Last week, Lindsay gave Hahn a red and white rubber band bracelet, popular with little girls and made by his granddaughter.

"I want you to have it," Hahn said he told her. "He never said, 'I'm dying,' " but looking back it's like he knew. I'm so touched."