John A. Rocco, a former nine-term Republican assemblyman from Camden County who seconded Ronald Reagan’s nomination at the 1980 Republican National Convention, died today. He was 83.
He had been in the hospital for heart-related issues, but the cause of death is not immediately known.
A former elementary school principal, Rocco served as mayor of Cherry Hill from 1975 to 1977 an as a councilman from 1977 to 1979.
Rocco was elected to the State Assembly in 1979, ousting Democratic incumbents in the 6th district in Gov. Brendan Byrne’s second mid-term election.
He teamed up with Thomas Shusted, a former assemblyman and Camden County freeholder and prosecutor, to take on incumbents Mary Keating Croce (D-Pennsauken) and Barbara Berman (D-Cherry Hill). Rocco was the top vote-getter with 23,922 and Shusted came in second with 22,627. They defeated Berman (21,294) and Croce (29,912).
Democrats though they could take out Rocco and Shusted in 1981 when Rep. Jim Florio (D-Runnemede), the local congressman from Camden County, was the Democratic nominee for governor. Rocco finished first with 33,535 votes, 381 ahead of Shusted. Their challengers, Camden County surrogate Bruce MacNaul and Haddon Heights mayor Francis “Spike”Orlando, ran 2,903 and 3,619 votes respectively.
Rocco and Shusted defeated Collingswood mayor Michael Brennan and Cherry Hill councilman Bernard Platt in 1983. Rocco outpolled Brennan by 4,360 votes and Platt by 6,114.
In the 1985 landslide re-election of Gov. Tom Kean, Rocco and Shusted won by 15,000-vote pluralities against Democrats Carl Viniar, the mayor of Voorhees, and Harry Benn, a commissioner of the Delaware River Port Authority. They were re-elected in 1987 by wide margins in 1987 over Haddonfield mayor John Tarditi and Patrick Brennan.
With Florio heading the ticket again in 1989, Democrats mounted a full-court press to pick up the two Camden County districts.
Berman sought a political comeback on a ticket with Mary Ellen Talbott, who stepped down from her Superior Court judgeship to run for Assembly.
Rocco finished first with 33,528 votes, but Shusted won the second seat by just 34 votes against Berman. Talbott ran 386 votes behind Berman and 1,489 behind Rocco.
Shusted resigned from the Assembly in 1991 to become Camden County Counsel and was replaced by Lee Solomon, now a state Supreme Court Justice.
In the 1991 anti-Florio Republican landslide, Rocco and Solomon coasted to victories against Lewis Friedner and Leonard Krivy. The won by over 5,000 votes in a race against Jane Kershner and John Philip Maroccia in 1993.
Democrats finally flipped one of the 6th district seats in 1995 when Louis Greenwald unseated Solomon by 1,5618 votes. Rocco finished 1,223 votes behind Greenwald and was re-elected to his 9th term by just 481 votes against Annette Castiglione-Dean.
He served as chairman of the Assembly Education Committee after the GOP took control of the Assembly in 1985 and was also the Deputy Speaker.
Following the death of Rep. Edwin Forsythe (R-Moorestown) in 1984, Rocco sought the Republican nomination for Congress. He lost the primary to State Sen. H. James Saxton (R-Mount Holly), who went on to hold the seat for 24 years.
Rocco’s final campaign came in 1997 when he challenged two-term State Sen. John Adler (D-Cherry Hill). He lost by a 5,134 votes, 53%-45%.
Additions to this obituary will follow.