The defeat of Carmen Orechio for re-election to the Nutley Township Commission seat he has held since 1968 is indeed the end of an era in a town where the Orechio family has dominated local politics for nearly fifty years. A former State Senate President, the 81-year-old Orechio was defeated tonight by Joseph Scarpelli, a former Essex County Freeholder and the son of Peter Scarpelli, who is stepping down as a Commissioner in July.
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.