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Arline M. Friscia, who served eight years as a New Jersey assemblywoman where she sponsored a law top expand the state’s family leave law, died on Wednesday. She was 84.
In 1995, Friscia unseated Republican incumbents who had captured Middlesex County Assembly seats in the 1991 anti-Florio landslide. Her career came to an end eight years later when she lost the backing of the Middlesex County Democratic organization.
After losing the Democratic primary, Friscia switched parties and unsuccessfully ran for re-election as a Republican.
A teacher, Friscia became active in politics in the 1970s as a field representative for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).
Friscia made her first bid for public office in 1987 as a candidate for the Woodbridge Township Council. She ran on a slate headed by Democratic Municipal Chairman Joseph DeMarino, a former mayor and Middlesex County Sheriff, along with James Patten, Patrick DiSanto and Vincent Modano, a former councilman.
DeMarino had been a one-term mayor before losing to Republican Philip Cerria in 1983. In his comeback bid, Cerria faced two councilmen: Pete Dalina and Richard Kuzniak. Kuzniak and DeMarino were bitter rivals for many years.
In a primary that had voter turnout of over 50%, DeMarino defeated Dalina by a 41%-34% margin, with Kuzniak finishing third with 25%.
Friscia and her running mates defeated eight primary challengers, including Martin Martino, the brother of popular Freeholder Vincent Martino.
In the general election, Friscia and her running mates won council seats as DeMarino defeated Cerria by a 49%-45% margin, with independent Vincent Gioffre winning 6%.
Three incumbent Republican councilmembers – Ernie Oros, Louis Nardiello and Kathy Hamilton – lost their seats. Patrick Crowley, seeking an open seat, was also defeated.
Patten with the top vote-getter (12,946), followed by DiSanto (12,842), Mondano (12,658) and Friscia (12,611).
Her margin of victory was 1,503 votes over the top Republican, Hamilton (11,108). Nardiello received 11,050, followed by Oros (10,907) and Crowley (10,894).
The win gave Democrats a 7-2 majority on the Township Council. Friscia became the first Democratic woman to serve on the governing body.
In 1991, freshman Assemblyman James E. McGreevey announced that he would challenge DeMarino in the Democratic mayoral primary.
DeMarino was under indictment for bribery charges, something the 33-year-old McGreevey said turned the mayor into a “paper tiger.”
There was speculation at the time that McGreevey was about to be ousted from his Assembly seat after redistricting put three incumbents in the 19th district. Party leaders appeared ready to back two longtime legislators, George Otlowski (D-Perth Amboy) and Thomas Deverin (D-Carteret). Carteret had been in a Union County district for 18 years and had just been added to the 19th.
Friscia, who had been a political ally of DeMarino, jumped off the incumbent’s ticket and ran for re-election on the McGreevey slate.
DeMarino opted not to run in the primary, where McGreevey had scored the backing of Senate President John Lynch (D-New Brunswick) and Assemblyman Robert Smith (D-Piscataway), the Middlesex County Democratic Chairman. Instead, he chose to run as an independent.
McGreevey defeated DeMarino by a 34%-27% margin, with Republican Tom Scarano, a former school board member and Army veteran, finishing third with 26%. Independent Jean Dato, a veteran Woodbridge Democratic activist, won 13%.
Despite McGreevey’s win, Friscia was defeated for re-election in a race where the Democratic vote was deeply split. Sixteen candidates sought four council seats.
Four Republicans won council seats, with the top vote-getter being Vincent Martino, who switched parties after his 1987 primary defeat against Friscia.
Martino received 9,939 votes, followed by Kenneth Gardner (8,762), Robert Sobieksi (8,510) and John Kimberlin (8,473).
Friscia finished fifth with 8,148 votes, 325 behind Kimberlin.
Incumbents DiSanto (5,583) and Mondano (5,513), running as independents with DeMarino, were also defeated.
McGreevey wound up making the right decision on eschewing an Assembly re-election bid.
In the Democratic primary, Smith decided to dump Otlowski, a nine-term assemblyman, from the organization line and replace him with attorney Jay Ziznewski, an ally of Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas.
Otlowski had been a fixture in Middlesex politics for decades, starting as a lieutenant in the Perth Amboy political machine ahead by David Wilentz. He had served as a freeholder in the 1950s and became mayor of Peth Amboy in 1976.
Facing a recall election in 1990, Otlowski resigned as mayor and was succeeded by Vas, who had come within 350 votes of ousting him in 1988.
Otlowski ran off the line and lost by 2,413 votes to Ziznewski.
The backlash over Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase led to Republicans capturing the 19th district legislative seats.
Republican State Senate staffer Randy Corman defeated Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Laurence Weiss (D-Woodbridge) by a 56%-44% margin. In the Assembly race, Oros and another Woodbridge Republican, Stephen Mikulak, defeated Deverin and Ziznewski.
Mikulak and Oros held their seats narrowly in 1993, defeating Sayreville attorney John Wisniewski and Vas. Wisniewski lost by just 400 votes, while Vas ran 2,758 votes behind his running mate.
In that election, McGreevey unseated Corman by a 48%-45% margin, with Leonard Sendelsky, the 1992 Democratic congressional candidate against Bob Franks, winning 7% as an independent.
Wisniewski ran again for the Assembly in 1995, with Friscia as his running mate.
The two Democrats won by a wide margin in Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s mid-term election.
Wisniewski was the top vote-getter with 21,832, followed by Friscia with 20,671. Mikulak received 15,948, with 14,238 votes going to Oros. Two conservative independents received about 1,500 votes each.
Friscia became a full-time legislator and became chair of the Assembly Labor Committee after Democrats won a majority in the Assembly in 2001.
In 1997, she was re-elected to a second term by 16,401 votes over Sayreville Mayor Kennedy O’Brien. Wisniewski ran 2,093 votes ahead of Friscia.
Friscia won her third term in 1999 by a 3-1 margin over Republican Frank Cottone. She avoided a primary when Vas backed off his threat to run and beat Republican Bill Delgado in 2001 by 20,114 votes.
In early 2003, Vas announced that he would run for the State Assembly with or without the Middlesex County Democratic organization line.
Vas picked up the support of Carteret Mayor Dan Reiman, who also endorsed Wisniewski.
Vas went door-to-door to meet county committee members, and leveraged the clout of Perth Amboy Democrats.
Friscia wound up losing support in her hometown. Woodbridge Democratic Municipal Chairman Donna Jago criticized her for now showing up at local party events over the last eight years. Vas had the backing of about 70% of the Woodbridge Democratic County Committee.
At the March Democratic County Convention, Vas defeated Friscia for the organization line by a vote of 175 to 113. Wisniewski won party support with 183 votes.
Friscia immediately announced that she would run off the line, despite efforts by Democratic County Chairman Joseph Spicuzzo to talk her down. He admitted to offering her jobs or appointments, but Friscia turned them down.
She railed against party bosses and effectively ran a campaign to bash Perth Amboy’s political influence in the rest of the hugely blue collar district.
In the June primary, Vas defeated Friscia by just 735 votes, 6,026 to 5,291, with Wisniewski receiving 8,174 votes.
Friscia claimed voter fraud and went to court in a bid to invalidate the primary results and hold a new election. A judge denied her request.
Republicans threw Friscia a lifeline in August when Robert Mauro dropped out of the race.
Friscia announced that she was switching parties and would seek re-election as a Republican.
Democrats went to court, arguing that Friscia was violating the state sore-loser law designed to prevent candidates defeated in primaries from running as independents. A judge ruled that Friscia was eligible to become a replacement candidate for the winner of the Republican primary.
In the general election, Vas defeated Friscia by 3,197 votes. Wisniewski ran 3,512 votes ahead of Vas, and Republican Jeffrey Pino trailed Friscia by 4,592.
Friscia was one of three Assembly incumbents to switch parties in 2003.
Matthew Ahearn switched to the Green Party after losing the support of the Bergen County Democratic organization for a second term in the 13th district. After Rafael Fraguella lost the backing of Hudson County Democrats for re-election in the 33rd district, he switched parties and ran for State Senate as a Republican.
Friscia eventually returned to the Democratic Party.
During her four terms in the Legislature, Friscia championed issues like strengthening job training programs, providing health benefits to low-wage employees, and expedite unemployment benefits for laid-off workers.
After learning that thousands of children each year suffered sports-related eye injuries, Friscia sponsored a law that required children who wear glasses to use protective eyewear while laying sports. She pushed for legislation to reduce chronic absenteeism among New Jersey public school students.
Friscia sponsored a law that would allow law enforcement to prosecute parents who left their children in alone in their cars, and consumer-oriented legislation to protect homeowners from unscrupulous contractors.
She pushed for legislation that sought to reduce the number of fake auto insurance cards.
Her bill to allow family members to sue drug dealers for civil damages was signed into law by Gov. Donald DiFrancesco in 2001.
Friscia was critical of the N.J. Saver tax rebate plan, saying that senior citizens were unfairly excluded from a program passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
She slammed Gov. Christine Todd Whitman for “subjecting disadvantaged youths to notion of low expectations at a tender age,” after the administration sough to meet a State Supreme Court decision requiring pre-school programs in 28 special needs districts by using non-certified teachers.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), who ran with Friscia in 1997, issued a joint statement with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) and Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Perth Amboy).
“Assemblywoman Friscia never stopped working to make New Jersey a better place to live. She was a staunch advocate for the 19th district and her work will not be forgotten. Our deepest condolences go out to the family of Arline Friscia at this incredibly difficult time,” the three legislators said.
A viewing will be held from 2-6 PM on Sunday at Costello Funeral Home in Woodbridge. Funeral services are private
This story was updated at 1:30 PM and again at 2:07 PM.