May 22, 2010 Smithtown Suffolk County New York, USA
Nicholas Barbato, a Smithtown farmer who for 15 years was considered Suffolk's most powerful Republican leader at a time when the party dominated the county's political landscape, has died. He was 87.
Barbato died Saturday at North Shore University Hospital, surrounded by family after complications arising from heart surgery six weeks ago.
At the zenith of his power, Barbato along with Montauk lobsterman Perry Duryea, onetime Assembly Speaker, and Southampton dairyman Edwin "Buzz" Schwenk ruled over the 10 town GOP organizations which often sparred for control.
"It's the end of an era," veteran lobbyist Desmond Ryan said. "The fisherman, farmer and milkman were the triumvirate that ruled the Republican Party with an iron hand." He added that Barbato's seemingly low-key sincerity "masked a shrewd mind where no public works project, municipal contract or a patronage post escaped his attention."
Barbato was also a mentor to former GOP County Executive John V.N. Klein, who as a teen worked on Barbato's 100-acre farm, one of a long line of county commissioners and political hopefuls who showed up at Barbato's Yellow Top Farmstand on Nesconset Highway to talk politics amid cartons of tomatoes.
"He was a public servant in the true sense of the word," said his son Philip, who has his own farm in Jamesport. "When people needed help my dad was the guy who helped them. But he always demanded that people be the best they could . . . that was his gift."
Officially, Barbato was chairman of Smithown Republican Committee, the smallest of the western Suffolk towns. But he ran a highly efficient political operation from 1964 until he resigned in 1979. Known for his "Crash Campaigns," Barbato got hundreds of party activists who Klein recalled "were strongly invited" to show up and go knock on doors on October weekends before Election Day.
"He'd serve people breakfast then they would vector out in every direction," Klein said. "It was an extremely effective way to getting your candidates known."
Barbato, he added, was a strong advocate of Suffolk's landmark farmland preservation program that Klein originated in the 1970s.
However, Klein lost re-election and Barbato resigned under pressure in 1979, amid a scandal over the Southwest Sewer District. The scandal resulted in the conviction of two sewer contractors and two others who paid settlements without admitting guilt. Barbato himself was acquitted after two trials, but in 1982 pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor perjury charges to avoid a third trial. In 1986, he paid $50,000 to settle a civil racketeering suit.
However, Barbato always maintained his innocence. "I just want it over with and get back to my life and farm," he said at the time. Barbato continued farming until the late 1980s, and in recent years split his time between Florida and his Smithtown home, often helping his son on his farm.
Other survivors include his wife Elsie, also known as "Babe," his daughters Jane Chorley of St. James and Florence Beckmann of Los Gatos, Calif., seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.