WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Tuesday was supposed to be a high profile day for Governor Chris Christie. Half-way through his first term, Christie, now a national household name, was all set to give an agenda setting State of the State.
But fate had another narrative.
Instead Governor Christie found himself before a joint session of the legislature eulogizing Assembly Republican Minority Leader Alex DeCroce. The 75-year-old veteran Morris County legislator died of natural causes after falling ill in an Assembly bathroom just before midnight, at the end of a marathon legislative session.
For Christie, DeCroce was not just another well regarded colleague but a kind of elder guide in the rough and tumble world of contentious Morris County Republican party politics.
DeCroce, who was also a real estate agent, was elected as a Morris County Freeholder in the 1980s. Acting on DeCroce's advice, Christie got involved in politics himself and won a seat on the Morris County Freeholder Board, like DeCroce had.
Christie went on to challenge an incumbent Republican for the Assembly and lost. Then in the what 'comes around goes around' world of local politics got defeated in a primary for his own Freeholder seat.
Through all of that roller coaster ride Christie could count on the support and counsel of Alex DeCroce.
The gruff and straight-forward Christie was visibly shaken, telling legislators DeCroce "passed doing what he loved."
"He helped me get my start in politics," Christie recalled, adding that DeCroce remained "an unshakeable ally."
Christie echoed sentiments expressed by legislators throughout the difficult day. "He was one of the kindest and most gentle people I knew. You could not find anyone on any side of this aisle who did not like him," Christie said.
DeCroce had planned to deliver an address as part of the perfunctory introduction of the Governor's State of the State which was scheduled for Tuesday. Christie took the liberty of quoting from the prepared remarks.
"We will solve more problems working together than working apart. We owe our constituency nothing less," Christie read.
Christie told the joint session he hoped DeCroce's death would help spark a recommitment to the bipartisan camaraderie DeCroce exemplified in life.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said she had actually gotten to know DeCroce through his wife, Betty Lou and their shared interest in advocating for crime victims' rights. Weinberg said New Jersey's legislature is the right scale for members of both parties to relate as people and not just as political partisans.
"Once people know another and get to sit across the table and share a sandwich or share a common interest, like helping victims of crime, it is very hard to be nasty to each other," Weinberg said.
Democratic Assemblyman Herb Conaway, who is also a physician, had the difficult task of declaring DeCroce dead at the scene.
Dr. Conaway told WNYC he was actually driving from the chamber when he got a call from the State Police to return. Upon his arrival the Burlington County Democrat found the State House nurse and the State Police administering CPR to DeCroce which Conaway joined in.
Conaway had nothing but words of praise for DeCroce, who he said had complained earlier in the evening of not feeling well.
"I reflect on his life and the work that he did and the fact that even though he was not feeling up to par he stayed at it, working his job as he has so many years leading his caucus and advancing the interests of New Jersey," Conaway said.
Governor Christie has re-scheduled the State of the State for next Tuesday.