TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — As the long and busy final day of New Jersey's legislative session was coming to a close, most lawmakers were preparing to head home for a few hours of sleep before the new session got under way.
But in a matter of moments, everything changed.
The Assembly and state Senate members, along with their aides and other staffers, stood stunned as they learned that Assembly Republican leader Alex DeCroce had collapsed and died around 11 p.m. Monday in a men's room at the Statehouse. They had been working with the 75-year-old lawmaker all evening as the Legislature wrapped up its session with a flurry of last-minute bills, and one of his final acts as the GOP leader was to accuse Democrats of casting votes for an absent member.
The death threw into turmoil the Legislature's reorganization plans for Tuesday and caused Gov. Chris Christie to delay his annual state-of-the-state address. The Assembly and Senate greatly scaled back swearing-in ceremonies for new members. Christie planned to deliver remarks about DeCroce on the floor of the Assembly in lieu of his scheduled address.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, the Legislature's only physician, attended to DeCroce at the scene, but it was too late. DeCroce was soon declared dead, and Christie, a fellow Republican and personal friend of DeCroce for 20 years, confirmed the death 2 ½ hours later.
A cause of death was not immediately known.
"Tonight I lost a dear friend, colleague and mentor," Christie said in a statement. "He helped to give me my start in elective politics in Morris County in 1993. He was one of the most kind, considerate and trustworthy people I have ever had the pleasure to know. This is an enormous loss for our state and for me personally."
An obviously emotional Christie returned to the capital around midnight, wearing a sport jacket over a T-shirt and loafers but no socks. The governor was seen breaking down while embracing Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and other legislative leaders.
DeCroce, who lived in Parsippany-Troy Hills, served in the Assembly since 1989 and became the GOP's leader there in 2003. His district includes parts of Morris and Passaic counties.
His wife, Betty Lou DeCroce, is a deputy commissioner with the Department of Community Affairs.
DeCroce's death comes on the heels of the passing of another GOP assemblyman, Peter Biondi, on Nov. 10 — two days after he was re-elected to an eighth term.