Monday, August 14, 2017

Former NJ Senate President John Russo dead at 84

John Russo
Credit: Princeton Public Affairs
By Steph Solis of the Asbury Park Press:

Former Senate President John Russo, a man who defined Ocean County politics for two decades, died late Saturday night after battling an illness. He was 84.

Russo, a Democrat, was arguably Ocean County's most powerful politician, rising to the ranks of Senate president in 1973 and launching an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1985. He served five terms in the state Senate before stepping down in 1991.

"Ocean County lost a legend last night," said Russell Corby, who worked as Russo's director of legislative services.

Russo, who served 18 years in the state Senate, was known as a law-and-order legislator. He was known as the father of the state's death penalty law and sponsored the state's ban on assault weapons. In an interview with the Press in 1991, Russo said his greatest regret was never getting a ban on handguns passed in the state Senate.

"Hopefully, I leave - not with any statues in the park, but just maybe with a feeling of respect that I did the best I could," Russo told the Press at the time.

Russo was also the architect behind New Jersey's cap on state spending, the first such law in the nation. He cited that as one of his two proudest achievements in the Legislature; the second was a law that exempted senior citizens from paying income tax on their first $10,000 in earnings.

As a Democrat, Russo defied the odds, winning five terms in heavily Republican Ocean County. Once Russo left the scene — with the exception of the 1991 legislative race to succeed him — Democrats have never again won a statewide race in Ocean County.

John F. Russo is pictured on the front page on Nov. 7, 1973, the morning after he won his state senate race. (Photo: ASBURY PARK PRESS ARCHIVE)

Former Assemblyman John Paul Doyle was Russo's running mate and served with him for 18 years.

"It's kind of hard to think that there ever were Democrats elected to more than a municipal office in Ocean County," he said. "In 1973, the stars were aligned."

Doyle and Daniel Newman ran for the General Assembly with Russo in 1973, forming the Russo-Newman-Doyle trio. They created a joint constituent services office so residents had one place to go to meet their legislators.

Russo led the operation, determined to work 110 percent, Doyle said. He reached out to constituents and knew how to connect with the working man.

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