Joseph A. DeMarino, a colorful and often popular former Woodbridge mayor and Middlesex County sheriff, died on May 31. He was 85.
DeMarino launched his political career as a candidate after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War, and as a Woodbridge Township police officer and detective assigned to the Middlesex County Public Defender’s office, for sixteen years.
As a police detective, DeMarino once spent several nights sleeping in a local cemetery to catch a person who had been stealing bronze urn and brass grave markers. He once used his own physical strength to overturn a vehicle and save a woman pinned underneath it.
He was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Woodbridge Board of Education in 1968 and was elected to a full term in 1969. He was also elected Fire Commissioner in Port Reading.
In 1971, at age 36, DeMarino received the backing of the Middlesex County Democratic organization to run for sheriff, picking him over former sheriff Robert Jamison.
In the general election, DeMarino ousted incumbent John J. Flanagan, a Republican, by over 22,000 votes, a 57%-43% margin. He carried 18 of 25 municipalities in Middlesex County and won Woodbridge was 61%.
Flanagan’s 1968 election was the last time the GOP won a sheriff’s race in Middlesex.
DeMarino was easily re-elected in 1974 and 1977.
From 1977 to 1991, DeMarino was the Woodbridge Democratic Municipal Chairman.
DeMarino ran for mayor in 1975, but lost the Democratic primary to insurgent Laurence Weiss by 17 votes in a race that went to a recount.
He refused to back Weiss in the general election and instead endorsed independent John Cassidy, who was elected mayor by 19 votes.
Weiss won a State Senate seat in 1977 after ousting incumbent John Fay (D-Woodbridge), a DeMarino ally, in the Democratic primary.
DeMarino ran for mayor again in 1979 and easily won a three-way race against Cassidy and Republican Councilman Phil Cerria by 2,490 votes, a 40%-32% win over the incumbent, with Cerria receiving 28% of the vote.
He resigned as sheriff and was succeeded by Spotswood Mayor Joseph Spicuzzo.
In 1983, DeMarino lost re-election to Republican Phil Cerria by about 3,200 votes, a 56%-44% margin.
In that race, Cerria won big margins in the Woodbridge and Iselin areas of town and held DeMarino to narrow wins in the Port Reading, Fords, Hopelawn and Keasbey setions.
A fourth consecutive DeMarino vs. Cerria mayoral race took place in 1991 when DeMarino defeated Cerria by a 49%-45% margin. Independent Vincent Gioffre won 6%.
He beat Cerria in the 2nd, 3rd and 5th wards. Cerria won his 4th ward base by a large margin, but was not able to build a significant plurality in the 1st ward
DeMarino was indicted on bribery charges after prosecutors alleged that he paid a former Carteret councilman $5,750 to get Woodbridge Township Engineer Stephen DePalma hired there.
Jury deliberations lasted less than six hours before DeMarino was acquitted, but the verdict came just weeks before the 1991 general election.
A onetime DeMarino protégé, Assemblyman James E. McGreevey (D-Woodbridge), decided to challenge DeMarino in the Democratic mayoral primary.
Middlesex Democrat had denied DeMarino the organization line for re-election and instead of taking on McGreevey in a primary, he decided to seek another term as an independent.
McGreevey won the race by about 2,600 votes, 34%-27% against DeMarino. Republican Tom Scarano finished third with 26%, followed by independent Jean Dato with 13%.
McGreevey wound up making the right move. Backlash over Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase led to Republicans winning a State Senate seat and both Assembly seats in the general – something that might have ended the future governor’s political career.
After his defeat, DeMarino remained active in local politics and forged a coalition with Cerria in an unsuccessful attempt to oust McGreevy’s successor as mayor, Frank Pelzman, in 2003.
“To call former Mayor DeMarino a legendary figure in Woodbridge could not cover all he did across decades of public service,” said Gov. Phil Murphy. “He proudly gave to his community and wasn’t afraid to lose a fight so long as he was fighting for what he believed in. His wife and family are in our thoughts and prayers, as is the great community of Woodbridge that he loved so much.”
He is survived by his wife, Lorraine, four children, and three grandchildren.
This story was updated at 7:56 PM to include comment from Murphy.