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Former Suffolk Republican Party leader John Powell has died at the age of 51.
Former Suffolk Republican Party leader John Powell has died at the age of 51.

John Powell, who rose from being a wheel loader driver for the highway department to becoming one of the state’s most powerful Republican politicians until he was convicted of federal corruption, died Wednesday at his home in Medford from complications of a stroke.

Powell, 51, was found unconscious in bed by his daughter, Alexandra, family members said. He was taken by ambulance to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead around 11:30 a.m.

“He was a towering figure in Suffolk County politics,” said John Jay LaValle, chairman of the Suffolk Republicans. “He was a brilliant politician.”

The hospital declined to comment on Powell’s cause of death. Powell’s cousin, Betty Manzella, the city’s GOP vice chair, said Powell “had some heart problems. He went to see a cardiologist.”

The death of the charismatic political leader marked the end of a life full of ups and downs.

Nicknamed “Mugsy” after actor Leo Gorcey’s character in the Dead End Kids movies, Powell was chairman of both the Brookhaven Republicans and the Suffolk Republican Committees at the height of his power. No one has had such far-reaching political influence since the late Kingsland Macy in the 1940s and 1950s.

Powell earned his dual role by taking a political risk. Against the wishes of then-Suffolk Republican Party leader Howard DeMartini, Powell endorsed George Pataki, then a little-known senator, for governor in 1994. Suffolk later gave Pataki the largest majority of any county in the state when Pataki defeated Democratic incumbent Mario M. Cuomo.

The new governor returned the favor by appearing at the Republican National Convention in Suffolk the following year to nominate Powell to succeed DeMartini as county chairman.

Friends and colleagues remember Powell as a politician who could unite the party troops behind him.

Suffolk Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Caracappa, a former legislature chairman and a Powell protégé, said Powell “had the ability to bring the bikers and the bankers together in a room and make them feel so good that they could march together in the same direction.”

“He had tremendous political instincts that were unparalleled,” LaValle said.

Powell’s downfall came in 1998, when he was arrested and led away in handcuffs by federal investigators. The following year, he was convicted in U.S. District Court of extorting $20,000 from a garbage hauler who wanted to give him access to the Brookhaven landfill. He later pleaded guilty to additional charges related to his involvement in an illegal truck-wrecking operation.

Powell spent two years in a federal prison and said after his release, “I got involved with the wrong people and made a mistake. But I fought back like a man and took my punishment. … I learned my lesson.”

“He was a supernova that died far too soon,” said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Republican lobbyist.

Powell’s political career began when he volunteered at the Brookhaven GOP headquarters in Farmingville, where he sealed envelopes, operated a campaign sound truck — and even helped tile the floor. He later became a street worker and founded a 500-member citywide Heritage GOP Club, made up mostly of other city workers who became his political army.

In 1988, Powell ran for the State Assembly and won a surprise victory over Democratic incumbent I. William Bianchi, who had served for 16 years.

But a year later, the tragic death of his two-year-old son, who was hit by a mail truck in front of his house, prompted Powell to leave Albany and run for city council. He became city manager in 1991 and later county manager.

After his release from prison in 2002, Powell entered the paving business and later joined Michael Dawidziak in his political consulting firm. In 2009, Powell played a key behind-the-scenes role in electing LaValle as chairman of the county GOP.

Some officials believe Powell was seeking a return as city or county chairman, something Powell denied in the weeks before his death.

In addition to Powell’s daughter Alexandra, he is survived by Powell’s mother Theresa, his brother George, his sons Anthony and John, and his daughter Mia, all of Medford.

A wake will be held Sunday and Monday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Ruland Funeral Home, 500 North Ocean Ave. in Patchogue. A funeral mass will be celebrated Tuesday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church in Patchogue. Burial will follow in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram.

With Mitchell Freedman, Paul LaRocco and Sandra Peddie

Politicians react to the death of former Suffolk Republican Chairman John Powell:

Jesse Garcia, chairman of the Republicans in Brookhaven

“A master chess player in politics – he used the political arena to improve communities.”

Suffolk Legislature. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches)

“Suffolk will be a different place without John Powell. He had a talent for winning elections and promoting good people. … He made a mistake in life and that was a shame because he had a lot of talent.”

Former Senator Alfonse D’Amato (RN.Y.)

“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of John Powell. He was a great campaign strategist and organizer. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Republican and former Governor George Pataki

“John Powell was a friend, a leader and a man who took responsibility for his own actions, right or wrong. I will miss him.”

Suffolk Undersheriff Joe Caracappa, Republican and former chairman of the county legislature

“People just naturally wanted to follow this man. Regardless of what you think about John Powell, because of his ups and downs, there are many people in Suffolk County and beyond who owe him a tremendous amount.”

Suffolk Republican Party Chairman John Jay LaValle

Referring to recent reports that he was concerned about a possible political comeback by Powell, LaValle said, “Although some of our recent disputes were widely known, I will always remember him as a brilliant politician and charismatic leader who was a good family man.”

State Senator Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley)

“Hopefully, when his legacy is defined, his charisma and passion will be properly recognized. … You never knew exactly what he was going to do next.”

State Senator John Flanagan (R-East Northport)

“He was obviously a very talented person and was a key factor in the election of Governor Pataki.”

Former Brookhaven Supervisor Felix Grucci

“John Powell was probably one of the smartest and most skillful politicians of his time. … He made some bad decisions and paid for those decisions.”

Compiled by Paul LaRocco

By Isla