Senator John Russo Remembered

John Russo, Sr. (Photo courtesy Hal Brown and Princeton Public Affairs Group)

TOMS RIVER – John Russo, Sr. was remembered as a politician for the people, and an “icon” of the kind of bipartisan politics that is rare to find anymore.

Russo succumbed to cancer at the age of 84. He had been elected to the state senate in 1973, and was Senate President from 1986 to 1990. He served as acting governor, and ran for that office as well. Additionally he had a career as an attorney and as assistant prosecutor in Ocean County.

Marlene Lynch Ford, who is now the assignment judge for the Superior Court in Ocean County, said they had never met before being on the ballot together in 1983. She ran for Assembly that year, besting Warren Wolf.

“His loss is a public loss, but also a profound personal loss to those of us who knew him,” she said.

“Although our political relationship ended a long time ago when we stopped getting elected,” their personal relationship continued, she said. They were just on the beach together a few weeks ago.

“Even in his very weakened state, his daughter made sure he got his beach time in,” she said.

She said Russo was the personification of the American Dream. Here was a poor kid from Asbury Park, selling clothing out of the back of his car to make money, but he wanted to go to Notre Dame. An alumnus arranged to get him an interview to try to get into the prestigious school. “He was too proud to admit he couldn’t afford the trip,” so he hitchhiked to the interview. From then, he went on to Columbia Law School.

“From very humble beginnings, he overcame that and became a very critical figure in New Jersey government,” she said.

Former Ocean County Freeholder and mayor of Toms River, Paul Brush, said his influence is still being felt today.

“He was an icon in Ocean County politics and also in the state,” he said. Russo worked bipartisanly, under a Republican governor, Tom Kean Sr., and Brush stated that the two worked well together.

“They just did what they thought was right,” he said.

Russo On The Death Penalty

One of Russo’s more public fights was over the death penalty.

In 1982, Russo helped reinstate the death penalty. In 2007, it was being argued before the Senate budget panel on whether to keep it or do away with it.

“If you’re going to have a society that follows law and order, people have to feel that the punishment fits the crime,” he told the Ocean County Observer in 2007. At the time, New Jersey had eight men on death row and hadn’t executed anyone since 1963.

“I don’t look for an execution. I get no satisfaction to see someone’s execution. I just want the penalty to be available,” he said, for the “most unusual and grievous” cases.

Although his father was murdered in Asbury Park by a robber on New Year’s Day in 1970, he had said this did not influence his feelings.

The robber would not have fit the criteria for the penalty, he said. The robber didn’t go there intending to murder.

Ultimately, there was much more opposition to the death penalty, and the punishment was changed to life without parole. People arguing against the death penalty stated that since New Jersey hadn’t actually executed anyone recently, it was essentially life without parole anyway. Additionally, there provided some small measure of closure for the family of the victims, in that they did not have to be dragged into the ongoing appeal process as the accused convict perennially tried to fight their pending execution.

Russo’s Legacy

Although much has been written about Russo’s fight for the death penalty, his legacy was larger than that, Brush said. He started a movement that made all Senate bills be posted. That way, the public would know what lawmakers were deciding.

“That was his mantra: the people should be heard,” he said.

That has since fallen by the wayside.

Another trait that seems to belong to a bygone era was his disdain for dirty campaigning. He used to scream at any local politicians who went negative in their campaigning, he said.

Another piece of his legacy belongs to the caps law, which limited a municipality’s spending, a precursor to the one that governs towns now.

“It was innovative. It set the tone to put the reins on political spending,” Brush said.

Russo, the late Daniel Newman (former Assemblyman and mayor of Brick), and John Paul Doyle (former Assemblyman) opened up a joint legislative committee, with former Pine Beach mayor Russell Corby heading the staff. Their job was to hear from constituents and fix problems.

“It became a model for across the state,” Brush said. “It’s become an accepted practice.”

A lot of ink has also been used to describe his ban on assault weapons. The governor wanted it done, and he rose to the challenge.

“It was not very popular but he thought it was the right thing to do and New Jersey has had a ban on assault weapons for the last 25 years or so,” he said.

“He was an icon and I don’t think we’ll see someone like him again,” Brush said. “We sure miss him.”

About twenty years ago, Russo, as an attorney, represented Berkeley Township to fight a program that would allow sending districts to sever ties with a regional school district. The issue involved towns leaving Central Regional.

Dale Florio, who heads up the Princeton Public Affairs Group, which Russo worked for as an attorney since 1992, wrote on the company’s web site that Russo was a friend and mentor to his colleagues.

“We hesitate to call John a ‘throwback’ when partisanship stayed in the statehouse and you could ‘break bread’ together after the day’s work. To us, John was and will always be an example of how those of us who engage in the science of politics should practice our craft,” he wrote.

Senator and former Governor Richard J. Codey said he valued Russo’s friendship.

“John used his political skills, his breadth of knowledge and his strength of character to address the issues that defined an era and that continue to shape the quality of life in New Jersey,” Codey said in a press release. “He put progress ahead of politics, teamwork ahead of partisanship and shared success ahead of personal achievement. John’s primary goal was always to get things done. As a result, he was both well liked and highly respected.”

Tom Kean Jr., son of the former governor and head of the Senate Republicans, offered his condolences.

“On behalf of the Senate Republicans, I would like to offer our condolences to Bob, Caryl, and their entire family on the passing of Senate President Russo,” he said. “He was a dedicated public servant, a loving father, and a leader committed to improving New Jersey for all its residents.”

A viewing will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday at Anderson & Campbell funeral home, 703 Main Streets, Toms River. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, 685 Hooper Avenue, Toms River.

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Chris Lundy is News Editor at Micromedia. He has covered Ocean County news and features in various publications since 2003. Lundy worked for Gannett with articles in The Beacon, Observer and Asbury Park Press. He's also written for the Community Connection, Patch and ShoreBeat.