PARSIPPANY — About a week into her last term in Trenton, BettyLou DeCroce sat in her kitchen contemplating her political future while reminiscing about where it all began.
The political gene passed down a generation in her family, from grandparents Edward and Lulu Gleckler to her.
“I grew up involved in politics in Rockaway Borough,” said DeCroce, who lost her 26th Borough Assembly seat in last year’s GOP primary. “My grandmother was county committee chair and chair of the Republican Club for 35 years. My grandfather served on the Rockaway Council for 30 years.”
The politics gene also skipped most of her generation.
“I was the only one of her 10 grandchildren who went campaigning and knocked on doors with my grandfather,” she said. “When I was 18, my grandmother signed me up as a poll worker.”
DeCroce, 69, admits the primary loss was a hard blow and still holds grudges against some leaders of the Morris County Republican Committee, who she said tried to discredit her. But anyone who thinks her political career is over will be surprised.
“Government is what I do,” she said. “Government is what I love, what I know best. I know it inside and out.”
DeCroce also had early successes in the private sector. As a mother of two, she was already running her own roofing business at the age of 20 before surprising her with a seat on the local council of her hometown of Mine Hill in 1981.
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“No one helped me,” she recalls. “I made my own campaign, set up my own campaign account, made my own brochures. I loaded the car with my kids to go door to door.”
A move to Roxbury ended her first chapter as elected office, but Roxbury’s leadership was quick to capitalize on her talents, first with an appointment to the planning committee and then with an invitation to take over as parish clerk and later as assistant manager. She stayed there for 21 years.
love and politics
Along the way, she met Alex DeCroce, who was running for Morris County Freeholder. She campaigned for an opposing candidate, but politics eventually took a back seat.
“We just met and went out for a cup of coffee,” she said. “We haven’t taken it seriously for a while.”
They married in 1994. By that time, Alex DeCroce had moved from the Freeholder Board to the New Jersey Assembly in 1989, where he rose to become Republican leader in 2003. BettyLou DeCroce was recruited by incoming governor Chris Christie, also a former Morris Freeholder, in 2010 to become an assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
The sudden death of Alex DeCroce at the New Jersey Statehouse in January 2012, shortly after the 214th
She broke down in tears as she related how she was at home that evening, preparing to arrive in Trenton the next day to be with her husband, who was being sworn in for another term.
“I spoke to him the night before,” DeCroce said. “Alex never complained but he did tell me he wasn’t well. I told him not to stay up late and not to be woken up early. I texted his staff and told them our man was not well. and take care of him. But they didn’t get it because they were at the Statehouse.
By the time they got the lyrics, it was too late. He was found collapsed in the Statehouse bathroom. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
“Two guys from the governor’s office came to my house at two in the morning,” she said. Her son Paul arrived around the same time, already devastated by the news.
“I just fell on the floor,” she said. “They told me I was there for about 20 minutes. Then the reporters came. TV truck. The house began to fill up with people.”
As soon as she got off the floor, she was told that Christie would sit out his scheduled state of the state address later that day to instead praise her husband and that she needed to be there with her sons.
“They told me, ‘The statehouse was broken and you’re the only one who can show the strength to face it.’ I was asked this at 3 a.m. after my husband died.”
She took the call wearing a bright pink pantsuit that her husband had just bought her for Christmas because he thought she “would look good in it.” Her sentimental fashion choices drew criticism and derogatory comments from the political opposition.
“The person who stood up for me that day was Sheila Oliver,” DeCroce said, referring to the then-Speaker of the Democratic Assembly, who is now in her second term as Lieutenant Governor under Phil Murphy. “She really loved Alex. She put an end to this garbage immediately.”
DeCroce had little time to grieve when she was faced with another difficult decision: whether to run for her husband’s seat in the Assembly. They gave her two days to make up her mind.
“Alex has always told me the plan is that he retires and I run,” she told party leaders, who pressed for a response. “But not like this.”
Despite the prospect of losing her husband’s income and forgoing a $150,000 annual DCA salary, DeCroce decided to run. She won the spot and the $48,000 salary that came with it.
“I thought my husband would want it,” DeCroce said. “That he wants me to carry on his beliefs, which are the same as mine. Fiscally conservative and moderate on social issues. I’m sure that over time in this district he would move more towards the middle than that’s where the district will go.”
Like many Republicans in recent years, party members who have taken the moderate path have opened up to criticism and opposition from conservative supporters of former President Donald Trump.
DeCroce said she managed to navigate those waters but accused some members of the Morris County Republican Committee of trying to discredit her for “more personal reasons.”
DeCroce said committee chair Laura Ali actively sought to discredit her after she failed to support the district line committee’s new proposal to lead the top line of the primary ballot with its approved candidates.
She also claims Ali, committee vice-chairman Louis Valori, and attorney Peter King were “angry” after their son Paul turned down an invitation to run for Parsippany council last year because Valori, who runs for running for mayor, had a ticket.
She said that although Ali had been nominated to her by the secretary of state for the top group of primaries, along with his counterpart Jay Webber, she denied her the line.
Former Pompton Lakes councilman Christian Barranco eventually shared the head of the ballot with Webber, at least in the Morris County portion of the district, which includes parts of Essex and Passaic counties, where GOP committees supported them.
She won the Essex and Passaic primary, but lost the Morris County and primary, finishing third. Webber later latched onto Barranco and they finished first and second respectively. DeCroce was third.
“I lost straight away,” she said. “Only a small percentage of people came out, probably partly because of COVID. But I can’t help but feel like if these were normal times and we didn’t have a party line, I’d still be in the legislature. “
“I wish her well and thank her for her service,” Ali said. “She just lost. I had nothing to do with it. I’ve always liked her but since she lost she’s been a little crazy and she blames me.”
Valori also wished her well and said he adored her husband, adding that he worked as a legislative adviser in Alex DeCroce’s office for five years. He also denied recruiting their son Paul to run with him.
“I never had a conversation with BettyLou or her son like I ran along,” said Valori, who lost his lead bid for Parsippany mayor to James Barberio. “I don’t know who would have even suggested that. If anything, I told her as she ran that she needed to get a lot more involved with the committee because she had no idea who the committee people were in our town.”
“Sometimes people just lose,” Ali said. “Not because anyone was out to get her. There is no drama behind the curtain.”
DeCroce is proud of her accomplishments and hasn’t ruled out running in 2023 to reclaim her seat.
She cited highlights of her Statehouse service, including the 2012 update of New Jersey’s 1985 Crime Victims Bill of Rights, which was named in her husband’s honor.
Other notable accomplishments included serving children with disabilities and facilitating transportation problems such as dredging ports in New Jersey and other efforts to accommodate modern oversized freighters.
Will she walk again?
She will wait to see how the district is redrawn before deciding whether to run for her old seat in 2023.
“The biggest thing for me has been working with constituents, working with mayors, and helping make a difference in the community,” DeCroce said.
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @wwesthoven