(Updates with former lawmaker’s comment in final paragraph.)
Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Alex DeCroce, the highest-ranking Republican in the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature and a mentor to Governor Chris Christie, collapsed and died last night at the Statehouse. He was 75.
DeCroce, the Assembly minority leader who represented Morris County for 23 years, was found in a first-floor mens bathroom after lawmakers finished their final voting session of the legislative year. A cause of death hasn’t been issued, State Police Captain Frank Davis said today in an interview.
Christie, a first-term Republican who said DeCroce helped him break into elective politics on Morris County’s governing board, postponed his annual State of the State speech after his mentor’s death. Lawmakers elected in November were sworn in at scaled-back ceremonies, after which Christie addressed them in the Assembly chamber, with DeCroce’s widow, Betty Lou, and other family seated before him.
“Alex was a fighter,” Christie said. “He knew how to win and lose in this arena gracefully. He knew how to wage a good battle, but unlike many in this business today, waging that good battle did not prevent Alex from inviting you out, after the battle was waged, for a steak and a drink. He was a representative of an era that is slipping away.”
‘Didn’t Seem Himself’
Last night, DeCroce had been working with his colleagues in the chamber where Christie delivered the eulogy.
A trooper who responded at 11:20 p.m. to a report of an unconscious man found DeCroce slumped over, not breathing and without a pulse, Davis said. State police used an external defibrillator and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., a Burlington County Democrat and doctor who had served with DeCroce since 1998, pronounced DeCroce dead at 11:30 p.m., Davis said. The Mercer County Medical Examiner’s Office removed the body from the Statehouse.
Conaway told reporters today at the Statehouse that DeCroce wasn’t feeling well prior to his death. Some lawmakers reported that “he didn’t seem himself and he wasn’t feeling well,” Conaway said.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Republican from Morris Plains, addressed the crowd before Christie arrived and called DeCroce “my mentor and running mate.”
“Assemblyman DeCroce had many gifts,” Webber said. “Perhaps most compelling were his generosity, his compassion, his good old-fashioned political instincts.”
First appointed to the Assembly to fill a vacancy in January 1989, DeCroce was elected to a full term that November, and won the leadership post in 2003. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the Democratic State Committee, said DeCroce was the longest-serving member of the Assembly at the time of his death.
At the start of his legislative career, DeCroce successfully sponsored a proposal for a constitutional amendment, ratified by voters in 1991, to update crime victims’ rights, said Brigid Harrison, a professor of politics and law at Montclair State University. Democrats at the time controlled the Legislature and the governor’s office.
“That made Republicans stand up and take notice” of DeCroce, Harrison said in a telephone interview.
In the most recent legislative session, DeCroce was sponsor of a bill to update victims’ rights.
Democrats captured control of New Jersey’s 80-member Assembly in the 2001 elections, followed two years later by the 40-member Senate, according to Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney. Christie was the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997. Democrats in the reorganized Legislature will lead the Senate, 24-16, and the Assembly, 48-32.
DeCroce was among the Republicans who voted for changes to pensions and health benefits for New Jersey’s public employees, a bill that Christie signed June 28. Christie has said the changes, including a later retirement age and higher employee contributions, will save taxpayers $120 billion over 30 years.
Last month DeCroce issued a statement urging Democrats to support limits on payouts to public workers for unused sick and vacation time, a taxpayer liability of $825 million, according to the Christie administration. The legislative session expired without approval of the bill.
DeCroce also was a sponsor of legislation to renew New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund, the state’s main financing source for roadwork, whose bonds are backed by sales and fuel taxes. The $900 million the trust receives each year goes entirely to paying $12.5 billion in debt.
Born in Morristown
Sponsorship of those bills is “sometimes a heavy lift,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville.
“People have to figure out where the money’s coming from,” Dworkin said in a phone interview. “You have to get both parties behind it.”
DeCroce’s widow is deputy commissioner in the state Department of Community Affairs. He had three children, according to a biography on the Assembly Republicans’ website, and three grandchildren, according to Christie’s remarks.
Born June 10, 1936, in Morristown, DeCroce graduated from Boonton High School and attended Seton Hall University in South Orange. He married the former Betty Lou Bisson in 1994, according to the biography.
DeCroce was a member of Morris County’s governing body from 1984 to 1989. He also served on the county’s elections and taxations boards, and as chairman of the County College of Morris board of trustees.
DeCroce was president of a real-estate company, ERA Gallo & DeCroce in Parsippany-Troy Hills, where he lived. His late business partner, Dean A. Gallo, also had been Republican minority leader in the Assembly before he won election to Congress in 1984. Gallo died in 1994 of cancer.
Rather than update the Legislature on the condition of the state, a requirement of the New Jersey constitution, Christie addressed lawmakers in the Assembly chamber after new members were sworn in. The State of the State speech will be early next week, he said.
“For today, it’s enough to say the state of our state is getting better,” Christie told the audience.
New Jersey’s constitution requires the governor to address lawmakers on the first day of each new session. The last time a New Jersey governor postponed a State of the State speech was in 1996, when Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman rescheduled because of a blizzard.
Christie called DeCroce “a close family friend and a mentor for almost 20 years.” He read from a statement that DeCroce had planned to deliver today to the Assembly, calling for bipartisan cooperation.
“We will solve more problems by working together than apart,” Christie said as he read DeCroce’s statement. “We owe our constituents nothing less.”
The Assembly began the swearing-in ceremony with a moment of silence for DeCroce. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from East Orange, called DeCroce “a great friend and leader.”
Joseph Roberts, a Democrat from Camden who served as Assembly Speaker from 2006 to 2010, said he remembers dinners he and DeCroce would sponsor after legislative sessions. As many as 70 lawmakers from both parties cycled through, said Roberts, now retired.
“It was mostly to get to know each other, to sit with somebody you don’t know and to figure out that even though you might have a D or an R next to your name you do have a lot of things in common,” Roberts told reporters at the Capitol. “He was that kind of a person.”
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