Morris County lost a powerful ally last Monday when Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce died suddenly at the end of the long last day of the lame duck session.
DeCroce, 75, had been in the Assembly for almost 23 years, rising to the position as head of the GOP in the lower house in 2003. He was deputy speaker of the Assembly when the Republicans were in power between 1994 and 2001.
At the time of his death, DeCroce was the most senior Assembly member and the sixth longest serving member of the Legislature.
Before heading to Trenton, DeCroce was a Morris County freeholder for five years and served as its director in 1986.
These almost 30 years in politics gave the Parsippany Realtor the experience and savvy to negotiate deals when appropriate. And his knowledge, personality and connections in the governor’s office commanded the respect of his members, so he could deliver votes—either yes or no—when necessary.
One of the last bills he worked hard to get passage of last Monday was an amended bill that would allow New Jersey wineries to ship a limited amount of wine directly to consumers. There were mixed feelings about the bill in both parties, and DeCroce himself had misgivings, but he worked to get GOP amendments adopted on the floor and the bill passed with bipartisan support.
DeCroce was a champion of victims’ rights, having sponsored the 1991 constitutional amendment guaranteeing victims certain rights within the justice system.
When the Republicans were in the majority, DeCroce chaired the Assembly Transportation Committee. He was instrumental in the renewal of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund and in getting the motor fuels tax dedicated for road and other transportation construction projects. He was even on the short list to serve as state transportation commissioner at one time.
More recently, DeCroce was often working on larger issues of interest to Gov. Chris Christie and the Republican cause, and was a sponsor of the public pension and health benefits reforms passed last year.
He didn’t forget his specialties, though, posting legislation to revamp the motor fuels tax law and provide enhanced rights for crime victims in the last session.
He also never forgot to look out for the 26th District. In the last session, he sponsored bills seeking to repeal much of the Highlands Act and the state conservation of Troy Meadows Natural Area in Parsippany.
His are tough shoes to fill.
Sometime by mid-February, a convention of Republican delegates from the towns that make up the district—Butler, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Lincoln Park, Montville, Morris Plains, Parsippany and Rockaway Township in Morris County, as well as Fairfield, North Caldwell, Verona, West Caldwell and West Milford—will choose his successor.
It used to be—as when DeCroce won his seat—that freeholders were first in line to fill a vacant Assembly seat, and Assembly members would move up to fill a vacant Senate seat, but that line of succession no longer necessarily holds. Consider the cases of DeCroce’s district mate, Assemblyman Jay Webber (never held public office); as well as 25th District Assembly members Michael Patrick Carroll (first public office) and Anthony Bucco Jr. (served on the Boonton Board of Education).
The word in Republican circles is DeCroce’s widow, Betty Lou, may be interested in his seat. If she is, and if she is successful, she would become the third widow in recent years to take the late husband’s place.
In April 2009, Nancy Munoz won the convention for her late husband’s Assembly seat representing the 21st District that now includes portions of Morris, Somerset and Union. Though she did not directly ascend, Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-31, won her husband’s seat three years after his death. (Former Speaker Joseph Doria won it in the interim.)
Betty Lou DeCroce has some political skills of her own, being a former longtime municipal clerk in Roxbury before being named an assistant commissioner in the Department of Community Affairs in the current administration. If she gets the Assembly seat, she will take a substantial pay cut.
Nancy Munoz, who brought nursing credentials and a stint as a PTA president to her campaign, won the convention for her husband’s seat by a wide margin.
Republicans are already saying Alex DeCroce would have wanted his wife to take over for him. It will be interesting to see whether other Morris Republicans who may have been waiting for a shot at higher office are willing to proffer a challenge.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.
This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris and Sussex Counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.