By Matt Friedman | December 6th, 2007 - 6:16pm
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After serving in the Legislature since 1983, Republican Assemblyman John Rooney calls himself the Dean of the Assembly, having been there longer than any other current member.

But a combination of health issues and weariness of the way he says business is done in Trenton today has led Rooney to consider retirement, even after he won a solid victory in last month’s hotly contested election. Rooney, who at 68 is the youngest of the three 39th district legislators, will evaluate his political future after undergoing hip replacement surgery later this month. Depending on how his recovery goes, he may decide to retire early or not to seek another term in 2009.

Reflecting on his legislative record over the last 25 years, Rooney admitted that the current state of Trenton politics had him dispirited. And he had already been dealt a painful blow in 2006, after a well-funded Democrat tossed him out of the Northvale’s mayor’s office – a seat that he had held from 1979-1986, and again from 1991 until his defeat.

“It was a lot different then. It wasn’t all about money,” said Rooney about the Assembly when he started there in 1983. “You did things for the right reasons. Today it’s all about money. It’s about the lobbyists, the pay to play stuff.”

Rooney used the passage of a bill he sponsored in the 1980s that transformed the Division of Mental Retardation into the Division of Developmental Disabilities as an example. It brought as many as 80,000 non-retarded disabled New Jerseyans under the division’s umbrella.

“It was amazing that someone with that short of an experience span was able to put a major bill in like that. That still is my finest hour, as they say,” said Rooney, who also recalled his record on protecting watersheds and the Firefighters’ Right to Know bill.

But things started to turn south in the 1990s, he said, when campaign finance rules changed and wheeling of donations became the norm. Rooney said that too much money is spent on elections without enough transparency. This last election cycle, his own slate spent $1.1 million in its reelection effort to the Democrats’ $1.6 million.

“I’m disgusted at the amount of money we had to spend and raise,” said Rooney, who blamed his Democratic opponents for negative advertising and raising the issue of him once having his children on his legislative payroll.

But perhaps the most hard hitting negative attack from this year’s campaign came from his running mate, state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, over Democratic state Senate candidate Joe Ariyan’s law partner’s connection to a group he said was sympathetic to terrorist organizations.

That was Gerry’s choice. No other comment than that,” said Rooney.

If Rooney does retire, there would be a host of Republicans and Democrats vying to take over his seat. He could help Republicans by retiring early rather than declining to run again, allowing them to hold a convention and put somebody in his place, maintaining the power of incumbency.

But Rooney doesn’t think that a retirement would make the seat any more vulnerable to a Democratic takeover, since even though Democrats clearly covet a legislative seat in one of Bergen County’s few Republican bulwarks, he still beat his closest Democratic challenger, River Edge Councilwoman Esther Fletcher, by 6,000 votes.

“I even saw (Democratic Bergen County Executive) Dennis McNerney at some function and he said ‘No, we’re not going to do that again,” said Rooney.

The top Republican prospect to replace Rooney is Township of Washington Council President Bob Schroeder, a wealthy defense contractor who told PolitickerNJ.com yesterday that he will probably run if an Assembly seat opens up. Other potential Republican successors include former Freeholder Lisa Randall, Old Tappan Mayor Victor Polce, Norwood Mayor James Barsa and Ramsey Mayor Chris Botta.

Meanwhile, Fletcher said that, whether or not Rooney retires, she plans to run again for an Assembly seat. Her running mates in last month’s election, Joe Ariyan, an attorney, and Carl Manna, a Dumont Councilman, said that they hadn’t thought about the prospect but wouldn’t rule it out.

“I’m looking to get effective leadership for our district, and I don’t believe that that exists currently in John Rooney as an Assemblyman,” said Fletcher.

Other potential Democratic candidates include the district’s three freeholders: James Carrol, Tomas Padilla and Julie O’Brien.

“We feel confident that no matter who the Republican candidates are in 39, the Democratic Party would have an excellent chance at capturing both seats,” said Bill Maer, a spokesman for the Bergen County Democratic Organization. “We view the 2007 election as loosening the jar.”

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