TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie postponed his State of the State address to the Legislature on Tuesday, delivering in its place a eulogy for the Republican Assembly leader who collapsed at the end of a lengthy session and died the night before.
A somber Christie appeared before the Legislature about 14 hours after Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, a mentor and friend, died on the last day of the 214th session. He said he would present his annual message to lawmakers next week.
"For today, it's enough to say that the state of our state is getting better," Christie told the joint session. "Today our hearts are full of sadness."
Wearing a dark suit and royal blue tie, Christie walked from his office into the chamber without his usual entourage of senior staff. He was accompanied only by his wife, Mary Pat, who held his hand as they walked, and state troopers.
The GOP governor credited DeCroce, 75, with helping him get started in politics.
"He helped me get my start in elected office as a freeholder in Morris County back in 1994, and ever since he was a valued adviser, an unshakable ally, and a source of all that is good in politics and public service," the governor said.
State police spokesman Stephen Jones said a preliminary medical examination found that DeCroce suffered from heart-related medical issues.
On what was to be a day of pomp and circumstance with the swearing-in of new lawmakers followed by Christie's annual address, the Legislature largely abandoned its plans in favor of a somber, low-key installation.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver broke down as she described DeCroce as a career public servant of the highest caliber.
The Assembly observed a moment of silence for DeCroce as lawmakers were sworn in for a new term. Bagpipes played before the ceremony, and a small bouquet of flowers rested on the late legislator's empty desk. His widow, Betty Lou DeCroce, a deputy commissioner with the state Department of Community Affairs, and four children were seated in the front row.
DeCroce's name was read along with the 79 other assemblymen and women who had been elected in November. His name was still on the electronic board used to record and tally votes.
DeCroce died after a busy night of voting that closed out the previous session.
He was found in a restroom unresponsive — not breathing and without a pulse — about 11:20 p.m., Jones said. Troopers were notified and tried unsuccessfully to revive the northern New Jersey lawmaker, using a defibrillator and administering CPR.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, the Legislature's only physician, said he was driving away from the Statehouse when he was called to turn around. He helped the troopers with CPR, but it was too late, and he pronounced his colleague dead at 11:30 p.m. Conaway was still wearing a stethoscope around his neck when the governor, obviously shaken, returned to the Statehouse around midnight.
Conaway, a Burlington County Democrat who had served with DeCroce since 1998, said DeCroce complained to other lawmakers during the day of arm pain and feeling ill.
"Even at a time when he wasn't feeling well — not well at all — he stayed at his post, he continued to work, continued to lead his caucus, continued to serve the people of New Jersey," Conaway said. "And I think that is testimony to what he has been doing his entire life."
Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick also said he noticed DeCroce didn't seem to feel well on Monday during the marathon lame-duck session that started at 10:30 a.m. for some lawmakers.
"But there was no indication that it was the result of anything other than it being a long day," Bramnick said. "It was 11 at night and no one was feeling too well."
DeCroce, who owned a real estate company and lived in Parsippany-Troy Hills, served in the Assembly since 1989 and became the GOP's leader in 2003. His district includes parts of Morris and Passaic counties.
In neighboring New York, state Senate leaders in 1997 vowed to make every effort to avoid grinding, end-of-session marathons after a senator died of a heart attack. The death occurred the day after an all-night session was convened to complete a months-late state budget. At the time, there was recognition that the grueling schedule could be hazardous to a number of aging lawmakers.