It has been 26 years since John Russo served in the state Senate so there are many Ocean County residents who know little or nothing about a man who was one of the most powerful figures in New Jersey government.

Russo, who died this past weekend following a lengthy illness at the age of 84, lost his first bid for political office in 1971 when he ran for the state assembly. An assistant Ocean County Prosecutor at that time he was back two years later seeking a senate seat and teamed up with assembly candidates John Paul Doyle and Daniel Newman.

While the county was and still leans heavily in favor of Republicans there was plenty of backlash from Watergate that spilled into local races.  Russo’s team won that 1973 election and five more before he stepped down in 1991.  In 1985 the Asbury Park High School graduate ran unsuccessfully for Governor in the Democratic primary and the following year was elected Senate President.

While he may have been small in stature Russo was a political powerhouse and a force for the 18 years he served in the senate.  He wrote the bill that reinstated capital punishment in New Jersey and spearheaded a cap on state spending.  Along with Doyle and Newman the trio were highly visible around Ocean County and easily accessible to their constituents.

I would be lying if I said I knew him well because I did not.  We bumped into each other on occasion and debated college football a time or two.  Russo was a graduate of Notre Dame and I of course am a Penn State fan.  Ironically one of his daughters and a few grandchildren earned degrees from Penn State and another is a current student.

As the GOP dominates the local political scene Russo’s passing will likely bring fond memories to many Democrats who for a brief time held their own.  While he may have been helped with the political climate in 1973 the fact he was re-elected five times, often by large majorities, was a testament to his work ethic and service.

John Russo truly was a political giant.

A viewing will be held Friday from 4 to 8pm at Anderson & Campbell Funeral Home on Main Street in Toms River with a funeral mass scheduled Saturday at 10am at St. Joseph’s Church in Toms River.