Rosemarie Totaro, a fiery moderate Democrat and self-described feminist who won two elections for the New Jersey State Assembly in a solidly Republican Morris County district, died on March 7. She was 84.
Totaro caused a stir in 1978 when she proposed an amendment to a controversial abortion regulation bill to require “anyone performing the act of intercourse must advise their partner of all the consequences of the act.” She acknowledged the plan as unenforceable, but said she wanted men in the Legislature to understand that responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy was to be shared by both genders.
Totaro became involved in politics in the 1960’s as a member of the League of Women Voters and helped elect Democrat Ann Klein, a former state League of Women Voters president, to the State Assembly in 1971. She served as a legislative aide to Klein and then as deputy campaign manager of Klein’s bid for the 1973 Democratic nomination for governor.
When Marilyn Grant withdrew from the 1973 Assembly race after the Democratic primary, Totaro stepped in as a replacement candidate, running on a ticket with Stephen Wiley for Senate and Gordon MacInnes for Assembly. Ten days before Election Day, President Nixon fired Archibald Cox as the Watergate special prosecutor.
Totaro edged out attorney John Dorsey by 903 votes to win the second seat. MacInnes ran far ahead – more than 4,000 votes ahead of Dorsey and incumbent Assemblyman Albert Merck (R-Mendham), an heir to the Merck pharmaceutical fortune.
During his first term, Totaro introduced legislation to add “woman” or “women” to any male-oriented references in all state statutes and local ordinances. She also sponsored a bill that would create permit planned adult communities and protect the ability for municipalities to zone by age without fear of discrimination lawsuits.
Totaro was no fan of Gov. Brendan Byrne. She voted against his state income tax plan, opposed some of his state spending proposals, and even sponsored a resolution telling the governor not to take his own scheduled $5,000 pay raise until he gets the state out of their economic crisis. Byrne allies once discussed asking Morris County Democrats to dump her from the ticket when she ran for a second term.
In 1975, Totaro nearly won re-election despite the unpopularity of Byrne’s state income tax plan. Republican James Barry, Jr. defeated her by just 591 votes. MacInnes also lost that year, with Dorsey winning the other seat – just 602 votes ahead of Totaro.
Seeking a comeback in 1977, Totaro was the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary. She ran 2,283 votes ahead of running mate Jerome Kessler, who just narrowly won the second slot against two challengers.
Dorsey gave up his Assembly seat to challenge Wiley for the Senate, and Republicans nominated former Rep. Joseph Maraziti (R-Boonton), a former Senate Majority Leader who lost his House seat after defending Nixon as a member of the House Judiciary Committee and a scandal involving a no-show secretary on his congressional staff who did not know how to type.
Barry won re-election by nearly 11,000 votes, but Totaro took the second Assembly seat. She defeated Maraziti 2,530 votes.
She didn’t hesitate to take on legislators of her own party, especially on issues relating to local zoning. Leadership once punished her by having another legislator introduce an identical bill and then passing that one. Totaro also criticized Assembly Speaker Chris Jackman for having no women working in Assembly Sergeant-At-Arms posts.
She lost her seat in the fairly Republican year of 1979 to Arthur Albohn, the Mayor of Hanover, by 3,074 votes.
Totaro made her final bid for public office in 1982. Gov. Tom Kean had named Barry to serve as state Director of Consumer Affairs, creating a special election or Assembly. Totaro didn’t like the candidate the Democrats picked, Rockaway Borough Councilman Robert Johnson, so she ran as an independent. Johnson lost by 702 votes in a race where Totaro polled 3,161 votes.
Rosemarie Garito was born in Hoboken in 1933 and later lived with her husband, Ralph Totaro, in Weehawken before moving to Denville in the 1960’s.