MOUNTAIN LAKES – An exceedingly low-grade GOP civil war ended predictably tonight at the Zeris Inn when a brace of big names towered in the vicinity of Betty Lou DeCroce like a circle of human klieg lights signifying the area’s reinforced center of political power.
A retired Roxbury clerk who serves as a deputy commissioner for the state Department of Community Affairs, DeCroce defeated fellow contestant Larry Casha in a head-to-head to fill a vacancy caused by the death of her husband, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-26).
The final vote tally was 120 votes for DeCroce and 67 votes for Casha.
“No one will fill Alex’s shoes,” DeCroce told county committee members. “I entered this race because I have deep roots (here). My experience is unmatched in this race. Contrary to what some would have you believe, I have served as a councilmember, board of adujustment member, clerk, etc.
“As the former chair of the Morris County Joint Insurance Fund, I worked to reduce costs. I know how to balance a budget and meet a payroll. I believe in lower taxes, less spending, and smaller, less intrusive government. This is the only way we can grow our economy here in New Jersey.”
There was DeCroce confidence early.
“We’re going to be fine,” said ally Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26), Morris Plains, the nearest recognizable face on a receiving line with the lady of the hour.
From the start, the Republican establishment infrastructure protected DeCroce from Casha, a past-casualty Montville-based attorney from Kinnelon vying for the LD26 Assembly seat.
An expected four-way contest never happened.
Kinnelon attorney Gary Steele withdrew his candidacy before voting started. He didn’t have anyone to second his nomination. Rockaway Township Mayor Lou Sceusi also bowed out before the voting process, to applause.
Decidedly the underdog in this crowd of Morris County power players – and the villain in the eyes of DeCroce’s fiercest supporters for challenging a widow – Casha got trampled by Webber in a GOP Primary four years ago and came back for seconds tonight amid heavy pre-convention whispers that he didn’t have a prayer.
Tonight he campaigned in a room adjoining the DeCroce-fest and tried to single-handedly counterweight Betty Lou’s big shots.
“I’d rather not be here tonight because the only reason we’re here is God took Alex from us,” Casha told county committee members when he eventually gripped the podium just prior to voting.
“I grew up in the 26th District,” he added. “My wife put me through law school and I returned the favor a few years later. Thirty years of experience standing up to the rich and powerful, regardless of the consequences. I have the experience.
“You’d think by now I’m an insider, but Lord knows, I’m not. Our hearts cry out Betty Lou, but our hearts should not cloud the decision we have to make tonight.”
It proved a quixotic candidacy.
Running against the widow of a beloved man buried earlier this month – it’s tough. Everyone gave PolitickerNJ.com some version of that assessment.
“Good luck, Larry,” a woman had said on her way over the carpeted corridor of the Venetian-appointed banquet hall.
She kept moving.
It was like that tonight for Casha.
He did have some well-heeled friends.
“His work ethic, his sense of integrity, his sense of loyalty are unsurpassed,” said Morris County Freeholder John Murphy when he nominated Casha.
But in the widow’s corner stood the command center of Gov. Chris Christie, undisputed statewide party leader – and also a Morris County brand.
This is, after all, his back yard.
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, (R-13), Middletown – the GOP establishment’s 2012 U.S. Senate candidate – huddled up with Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, (R-21), Westfield. State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., (R-21), Westfield, simultaneously worked the room.
“Hey, governor,” someone shouted at a fast-moving figure near the bar.
The man turned around. It was a beaming former Morris County Freeholder John Inglesino, famously Christie’s close friend.
Ever the youthful standard bearer, Webber was the evening’s most public DeCroce backer amid optics that put DeCroce on the inside of the fortress of power and Casha on the outside; and that’s how it would go down tonight, and so it did – and so did Casha.
“No,” was the blunt text-messaged response to PolitickerNJ.com to the question of whether Casha had a chance.
“Too many candidates dilute the field, giving Betty Lou the advantage,” another insider muttered.
That turned out not to be an issue.
Of course, it wasn’t simply Christie muscle binding county committee members.
The DeCroce name endured.
“Alex left a long and meaningful legacy,” said an emotional state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-26). “As a leader, Alex was principled, tenacious and caring. He would drive all around the state for candidates he knew did not have a chance of winning.”
By the way, Pennacchio prevailed in his bid for an assembly seat at a convention ten years ago in some respects not unlike this one.
This time, Casha wouldn’t rule out running in a primary. After the contest, DeCroce reached out to him and said she looked forward to working with him.
Casha wouldn’t talk about the future.
“I don’t make any decisions in an emotional state,” he told PolitickerNJ.com. “I need to sleep on it.”
DeCroce’s supporters were dogged.
“In the end, the best qualified candidate won,” said Essex County GOP Chairman Al Barlas.
“I’m just really pleased,” said Webber. “Betty Lou did a wonderful job tonight.”
PolitickerNJ.com told him Casha hadn’t yet ruled out a primary salvo.
“I think it would be a mistake,” said the assemblyman. “I’m really pleased Betty Lou’s my new partner.”
The crowd thinned fast.
Outside in the nearly empty Zeris parking lot, a lone sport utility vehicle idled in darkness, where behind the wheel sat a thoughtful, somewhat fragged looking man.
It was Casha.