"Last night, he fought the good fight on this floor right to the very end of his life," said a somber Christie, choking up at times during the 10-minute eulogy. "That's so often said metaphorically about people in this business, but for those of you who were here on this floor last night, you know that it was literally true about Alex."
Christie's annual State of the State speech, in which he outlines his plans for the new year, was postponed until next week. A brief swearing-in of legislators was held because it is constitutionally mandated.
Christie said DeCroce, of Parsippany, Morris County, helped him get started in politics nearly 20 years ago when Christie ran for freeholder. Christie "had no more loyal friend in Trenton," he said.
Legislators had one of their longest days of the year Monday, and for those in leadership positions like DeCroce, the job involved tracking hundreds of bills and amendments. As the Republicans' leader, DeCroce was in charge of holding closed caucus meetings to count votes and maintain party unity.
As the day dragged on, DeCroce uncharacteristically shed his jacket and sweated. He was coughing and appeared ill, colleagues said, and he complained about pain in his arm. But he stayed on the floor until the end.
The last vote dealt with perhaps the most controversial bill of the day - shipping wine directly from vineyards to customers.
Before the vote, DeCroce asked Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver (D., Essex) for a quorum call. "Are all the members in this house sitting in their seats?" DeCroce asked, frustrated that one legislator had a staff member casting votes for him.
DeCroce ultimately voted "yes" on the bill, which passed.
Moments later, Conaway, an internist and the Assembly's only doctor, was driving from the Statehouse when he got a call "that Alex was having a problem," he said.
Reports differ on whether DeCroce was found in a bathroom or in a hallway, and Conaway declined to specify. DeCroce had no pulse, and Conaway estimates that 20 minutes could have passed before someone found him.
A visibly emotional Christie returned to the Statehouse around midnight, wearing a sports jacket over a T-shirt and loafers but no socks, the Associated Press reported. The governor was seen breaking down while embracing legislative leaders.
On Tuesday afternoon, Assembly members returned to their chamber for the swearing-in ceremony, with some crying and hugging one another. Oliver, whose strong and sometimes stern voice typically calls for order, stood silently at the head of the chamber as a hush settled over the room. Bagpipes and drums echoed outside the front door, and then three pipers and five drummers entered playing "God Bless America."
When the ensemble finished, Oliver, fighting back tears, spoke in a halting whisper: "We all know that last evening, we all lost a good friend, a leader, and a great public servant."
Oliver asked for a moment of silence. Then the Newark Firefighters Pipe Band played "Amazing Grace."
DeCroce's wife, BettyLou, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Community Affairs, watched from the front row with family members. The couple had three children.
DeCroce's name was read by the Assembly clerk in a list of all the members, and then, to usher in the new two-year legislative cycle, oaths of office were administered en masse. Lawmakers, particularly new ones, had invited friends and family to watch the ceremonies, but those plans were scrapped.
A few legislators made brief remarks - including Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), who rose Tuesday to majority leader, the second highest position in the Assembly. He had expected to spend the morning celebrating his new post with his family.
Instead, he stood somberly across the aisle from DeCroce's empty seat, where two pink roses wrapped in white ribbon lay.
"It's very surreal," he said. "This is somebody who I've worked closely with, and to see him walk out of caucus and not come back -," Greenwald trailed off.
Greenwald said he met with DeCroce before the final vote. It had been an intense night of negotiations, and DeCroce had been fighting to ensure the bill included what the GOP caucus wanted while also trying to compromise.
When they returned to the chamber, DeCroce shed his jacket, revealing a bright red shirt underneath.
"I knew then that something was wrong," Greenwald said. "No jacket? That wasn't Alex."
Congressmen and former governors - including Jim McGreevey in a rare appearance - attended Tuesday's session.
Christie walked into the Assembly chambers holding hands with his wife, Mary Pat. He did not shake hands with lawmakers, as is the custom for speeches to joint legislative sessions, and instead went directly to hug the DeCroce family.
In his remarks, Christie cited DeCroce's work on transportation issues and his advocacy for crime victims. He described DeCroce as a "fierce competitor in the political arena."
"He knew how to wage a good battle, but unlike many in this business today, waging that good battle didn't prevent Alex from inviting you out after that battle was waged for steak and a drink," Christie said. "He was a representative of an era that is slipping away."
A Realtor, DeCroce was elected to the Assembly in 1989 and represented parts of Morris and Passaic Counties. Deputy speaker from 1994 through 2001, DeCroce became Assembly GOP leader in 2003.
Former Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, a Democrat from Camden, said that for the eight years in which they led their respective parties in the Assembly, they had a tradition in which Democratic and Republican lawmakers would dine together.
"You could strongly disagree during the session, but be friends after the session," said Roberts, who was in the Statehouse Tuesday. "That's what's missing in Washington, and that's what Alex created here."
To that end, at the close of his remarks, Christie read the last paragraph of the speech that DeCroce had intended to deliver at Tuesday's ceremonies:
"It is in the best interest of the people of New Jersey that Republicans and Democrats put aside party labels and reach across the aisle to work cooperatively to solve our greatest problems. Our constituents deserve nothing less."
Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, email@example.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.