The power of Nutley and the old Orechio machine

A town of 27,362 people in northeastern Essex County, Nutley has a long tradition of clout and influence in state and county politics — largely through power of a bi-partisan local political machine run for more than thirty years by Frank Orechio, who leveraged a chain of weekly newspapers in Nutley, Belleville, Bloomfield and Glen Ridge to help deliver votes to the candidates of his choice. Critics had long complained that the Orechio media empire — for a time in the 1970’s and 1980’s it included a cable television station — was a blatant conflict of interest because of the positions the Orechio family held at different levels of government.

Frank’s youngest brother, Carmen Orechio, launched his political career in 1968 when he won his first of ten elections as a Nutley Commissioner. He became Mayor in 1972 and ran for State Senator in 1973 — as a Democrat — and unseated two-term GOP incumbent Michael Giuliano. Always in a highly competitive district that often sent split legislative delegations to Trenton, Orechio held the seat against GOP Assemblyman Jack Dennis (the owner of the Annin Flag Company) in 1977, very narrowly against Bloomfield Councilman (later Mayor) John Crecco in 1981 (Crecco’s wife, Marion Crecco, later spent sixteen years as an Assemblywoman); attorney Ralph Salerno in an enormously expensive 1983 campaign; and future Superior Court Judge Thomas Zampino in 1987.

He served as Senate Majority Leader when Joseph Merlino was Senate President in the late 1970’s, and when Merlino left the legislature to run for Governor in 1981, Orechio became the Senate President. He held the post for four years. When legislative redistricting moved Nutley into the 36th district in 1991, Orechio retired from the Senate rather than take on another incumbent, Gabriel Ambrosio, in the Democratic primary. Ambrosio wound up losing his seat to Republican John Scott.

Carl Orechio, the oldest of the three brothers, was elected to the State Assembly as a Republican in 1971, and survived a Democratic landslide two years later against an opponent who ran on a ticket with his brother, Carmen. He spent ten years in the Assembly, ran unsuccessfully for Essex County GOP Chairman in 1977 (he lost to John Renna, whose campaign was managed by a young political operative named Bob Franks), and retired from the legislature in 1981. Governor Thomas Kean named him Chairman of the North Jersey Water Commission in 1982, a position he held until several months before his death in 1991 at age 77. As an Assemblyman, Orechio was known for the quantity of bills he sponsored — usually more than any other legislator.

For nearly thirty years, candidates for state and county office made pilgrimages to Nutley to pay homage to Frank Orechio, whose endorsement often meant votes in a politically competitive region of Essex County. Regardless of which party was in control, the North Jersey Water Commission was long considered Orechio turf, and Kean later named Frank Orechio to serve as Chairman of the state Racing Commission. In 1998, the newspaper chain was sold to Macromedia, the parent company of The Record, for an undisclosed amount. He died in 1999, at age 81.

Nutley has elected a favorite-son to the New Jersey Legislature since 1971, when Carl Orechio went to the Assembly. His brother Carmen Orechio,went to the Senate two years later. When Carl retired in 1981, the Nutley seat went to John Kelly, a popular local Bank President who had never run for office before. Kelly lost his seat in 1983 against Stephen Adubato, Jr., a 27-year-old political science professor whose father was one of Newark’s most powerful political insiders. (This resulted in a rare uncle/nephew combination in Trenton – Michael Adubato represented a neighboring district in the Assembly from 1974 to 1992.)

Kelly mounted a comeback bid in 1985, and with Governor Thomas Kean heading the ticket, he won easily. Kelly and Marion Crecco, unseated Adubato and four-term incumbent Buddy Fortunato. After redistricting pushed Carmen Orechio into retirement in 1991, the Senate seat was held by Scott, a Bergen County Republican; Scott lost in 1997 to Garry Furnari, who had won election as Mayor of Nutley a year earlier. Nutley picked up a third legislative seat in 2000 when Paul DiGaetano, then the Assembly Majority Leader, moved there from Passaic with hopes of securing a more Republican district after the next census. Kelly held his Assembly seat until 2001, when he ran a close race for Senate against Furnari. He was succeeded by a Bergen County Democrat, Paul Sarlo. Furnari left the legislature in 2003 to become a Superior Court Judge; Sarlo moved up to the Senate and his Assembly seat was taken by Democrat Frederick Scalera, Nutley’s Deputy Fire Chief. Kelly lost a rematch against Sarlo in 2003, but Scalera held on to win a full two-year term and was re-elected easily in 2005 and 2007.

The power of Nutley and the old Orechio machine