Celebrated by his colleagues for his intelligence, gentility and dedication to public service, Assemblyman Eric Munoz (R-Summit) diedthis eveningfollowing heart surgeryearlier today.
He was 61.
"It is with deep regret that we announce the death this evening of Assemblyman Eric Munoz, M.D. following cardiac surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)," read a statement issued by the Office of AssemblymanMunoz."Funeral arrangements will be forthcoming."
Apracticing trauma surgeon and administrator at UMDNJ, Dr. Munoz first became an assemblyman in 2001, fulfilling a lifelong dream to enter politics.
Of Puerto Rican descent on his father's side, Munoz was born in the Bronx and grew up in Colts Neck, where his parents owned and operated a country general store on Route 537, which served the surrounding farming community during his youth.The one-room family store had a potbelly stove and for years wasmany area residents' main food shopping source.
Tonight, the accomplished doctor credited as a driving source behind UMDNJ's trauma center and veteran lawmakerleaves behind a wife and five children.
“He was phenomenal,” said Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), Munoz’s 21st district-mate. “Eric cared passionately about his family, his friends and about public policy in New Jersey. He was a loyal friend who saw his job asserving people. This man had a five-page resume but it was all about him helping people. His time was spent as a legislator, doctor and family man. There won’t be a man of his caliber for a long time.”
Dr. Munoz began his political career in his hometown of Summit, where he chaired the local Republican Party, helped keep it financially solvent, and inspired younger party activists like Peter Kane, who would go on to serve as the Mike Huckabee for President New Jersey campaign manager and chair of the Summit Housing Authority.
“My most enduring memory will always be of Eric joyously navigating his antique Lincoln Continental, crammed with children (his own and others) honking its unique, musical horn, through downtown Summit to the delight of passersby (Republican, and Democrat alike),” Kane said.
The doctorlaunched his career in state politicsafter conducting succcessful heart surgery on Steve Adubato, founder of Newark's North Ward Center. Adubato prevailed on state Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R-Cedar Grove) to help Dr. Munoz break into the game. O'Tooledid, running at the top of a ticket with Munoz in the old 21st, prior to redistricting.
“We have lost one of our own,” said O’Toole. “Our hearts go out to his wife and children. I was proud to serve with him. He was the ultimate public servant. He could have made millions but he wanted to serve people as a trauma surgeon in Newark.
“New Jersey lost its finest public servant,” O’Toole added. “In my family’s time of need, Dr. Munoz was always there. Whether it was my sick son, father or mother, or father-in-law, Eric was by their bedside. I was proud to select him as my running mate in 2001. It was his dream to serve as an assemblyman. He was New Jersey’s very best. We are heartbroken.”
Assembly Minority WhipJon Bramnick (R-Westfield) lamented the loss of his 21st Districtrunning mate. They first ran together as a team with Kean in 2003.
“When you sit next to a guy for six years and there’s not one bad day, there’s not one moment when there was a negative time – not one – you think, it's hard,” said Bramnick. “He did a lot. He ran himself hard. What a warm, nice guy. No one had a bad thing to say about Doc Munoz.”
A major proponent in New Jersey of the Jessica Lunsford Act, promoted to protect children and vulnerable adults from sexual predators, Dr. Munoz was also the prime mover behind the get-tough Christopher’s Law, named for Christopher Williamson of Cranford, a child who died when an unlicensed driver ran him down.
“In Christopher’s case, the driver of the van did not have a license and could only be issued a traffic summons because of a loophole in existing law,” Dr. Munoz said in his 2005 testimony before the Law and Public Safety Committee. “This measure would make an individual who has never had a driver’s license and is involved in a fatal accident, subject to a crime of the third degree.”
Christopher's emotional and gratified parents watched as Dr. Munoz- and Bramnick, a co-sponsor and a member of the public safety committee – successfully pressed the bill forward into the Assembly.
Veteran Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Parsippany) issued a statement this evening following his receipt of the news, emphasizing those three features of Dr. Munoz's life that most of his colleagues on reflectionquickly identify.
"I am deeply saddened to report that we have lost a great friend in Assemblyman Eric Munoz," said the minority leader. "Those who worked with him in the medical profession and in the New Jersey Legislature know the dedication and commitment Eric had for making people's lives better. His selfless devotion to his work, whether as a surgeon or legislator, was remarkable. But even more than that, Eric was a great husband, father, and friend. He will be sorely missed. On behalf of the entire New Jersey Legislature, we offer our condolences to his wife, Nancy, and their five children."
An urbane – and oftenbow-tied – Republican stalwart who was known for his sunny demeanor on the campaign trail and in the Statehouse, Dr. Munoz assumed the role of happy warrior in those 21st District campaigns he ran with Kean and Bramnick.
“Trenton’s taking your money,” he cried to commuters at the Summit train station when the trio campaigned in 2003.
His almost boyish enthusiasm for politics belied his storied career as an exacting, Yale-educatedtrauma surgeon who held an MBA in finance from Columbia University, but the common demoninator was his quality of caring, according to those who knew him.
“We did toy drives and other community-conscious programs,” said O’Toole. “Eric was destined to serve the public. He literally saved lives. How many of us can say that? New Jersey is in mourning. We lost a favorite son. We lost one of our very best. He was the longshot to be the assemblyman (in 2001). As he did in life, he overcame long odds and succeeded. He was a dedicated family man and loved his wife and bragged about his children. He was a proud father.”
His colleagues applauded his dedication to Newark, where he served as a trustee to Adubato’s North Ward Center in addition to his seemingly unending professional duties at the hospital.
The Assembly’s only other medical doctor, Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Delanco), said he would miss his colleague’s “ardent advocacy” as the pair strove to deliver health care servicesto all New Jerseyans.
“Health care was his passion and his unique skills as a lawmaker, trauma surgeon and professor were invaluable as we debated health care issues,” Conaway said in a statement.”He was a joy to work with and a friend devoted not just to public service but to caring for those in need. …My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
A procession of calls and emails followed news of Dr. Munoz's death. The proud Republicanimpressed lawmakers on the other side of the aisle – and specifically urban lawmakers. If he was achampion of trickle downeconomics with an innate distrust of government, he earrned respect amongNewarkers because of his own personal dedication to uplifting the city, whether through his work at the hospital or at Adubato's charter schools.
“The Assembly lost a genuine person today,” said Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Newark). “Dr. Munoz made that trauma center what it is. He did good work.”
"The passing of Assemblyman Eric Munoz is a shocking and tragic loss that suddenly robs the Assembly of one of its most expert and passionate health care advocates," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts. "As a trauma surgeon and professor of surgery, Assemblyman Munoz was tirelessly devoted not only to public service and his constituents, but to caring for those in need at their most desperate moments."
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), the Democratic State Chairman, called Munoz a "great legislator…who spent a lifetime doing everything he could to help others.
"Eric was a voice for those who couldn't speak. All my thoughts and prayers are with his Nancy and their five children," Cryan said.
New Jersey lawmakers at all levels mourned tonight, from the Statehouse to the Union, Essex, Somerset and Morris CountytownsDr. Munozserved.
“We’re very fortunate in Chatham Township in that we have Eric Munoz, Tom Kean and Jon Bramnick,” said Chatham Township Mayor Kevin Tubbs. “I just saw Assemblyman Munoz two weeks ago at the North Star Club in Madison. He was very personable, a class individual who always had a smile. This was a Renaissance person: a successful surgeon who had a successful political career. To have that balance and then to be as dedicated to his family as he was – he always had his wife or another family member with him. It’s tough enough to do one of those things. Medical doctor. Politics. Family. He did three. He was obviously a talented individual. Of course, we relied on him for medical issues, but also on a lot more than that.
“I consider him a friend, and an advocate. He was special. We’ll miss him in Chatham Township, and I will miss him personally,” the mayor added. “There will be a void without him.”