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Alex DeCroce, New Jersey Assembly’s Republican Leader, Dies at Statehouse

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.

DeCroce was to have appeared at the Trenton War Memorial today for the Legislature’s reorganization with members elected in November, and then at Christie's State of the State address in the Assembly chamber. Christie, a first-term Republican who said DeCroce helped give him his start in politics, postponed the speech after his mentor’s death. Lawmakers were sworn in at scaled-back ceremonies in the Statehouse.

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.

Leadership Post

Conaway told reporters today at the Statehouse that DeCroce wasn’t feeling good prior to his death. Some lawmakers reported that “he didn’t seem himself and he wasn’t feeling well,” Conaway said.

Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, a Republican from Westfield, told reporters that DeCroce wasn’t feeling well yesterday and had been working more than 12 hours. He called DeCroce a friend and “one of our most dedicated public servants.”

“He was a model statesman who led our caucus with grace and integrity,” Bramnick said in a statement. “Alex was a mentor to many of us, and his wisdom and kindness made this state a better place.”

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.

Victims’ Rights

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 have controlled both of New Jersey’s legislative houses since the 2001 elections, 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.

Pensions Bill

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.

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.”

Born in Morristown

DeCroce is survived by his wife, Betty Lou DeCroce, deputy commissioner in the state Department of Community Affairs. He also has three children and two grandchildren, according to a biography on the the Assembly Republicans’ website.

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.

‘Dear Friend’

Rather than update the Legislature on the condition of the state, a requirement of the New Jersey constitution, Christie planned to make public remarks about DeCroce to lawmakers in the Assembly chamber at 1 p.m., said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor. No new date was immediately set for the State of the State speech.

Christie, in a statement, called DeCroce “a dear friend, colleague and mentor” for almost 20 years.

“He was one of the most kind, considerate and trustworthy people I have ever had the pleasure to know,” Christie said. “He was an enormously accomplished legislator and a tremendous servant to the people of New Jersey.”

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.

The Assembly began today’s 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.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton at tdopp@bloomberg.net; Elise Young in Trenton at eyoung30@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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