He wasn’t a politician or government official. He probably would have hated those jobs. But few people were as plugged in to the weird, wild world of New Jersey politics as Nick Acocella.
He spent more than two decades running a must-read, insider newsletter about Garden State movers and shakers that subscribers used to receive via fax machine.
And he was as colorful and crusty as the misunderstood state he lovingly covered.
Acocella, the longtime journalist and editor of Politifax and one of the Garden State’s top political experts, died this weekend at age 77.
He leaves behind a legacy of neatly and bluntly recapping a week’s worth of news, intrigue and insight about the often crazy, sometimes corrupt politics that New Jersey is famed for. He wrote about governors, lawmakers, freeholders, mayors and little-known locals from all across the state’s 565 municipalities.
“I like that it is a really small community and that everybody knows everybody else,” Acocella told the New York Times in 2003 about Garden State politics.
He was also an avid Yankees fan who wrote 20 books about baseball. Acocella loved them both: politics and America’s pastime.
“They are the two best spectator sports I know,” he told U.S. 1 last year.
Gov. Phil Murphy referenced Acocella’s love of baseball in a statement Sunday.
“No one covering Jersey politics was more Jersey than Nick Acocella,”Murphy said. “He was that rare breed who could handicap all the important races, share his favorite pasta recipe, and analyze the Yankees’ lineup — all within the same chat. He will be deeply missed.”
State Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick also said he will greatly miss Acocella.
“We’ve lost one of the most astute observers of New Jersey history and politics,” Bramnick, R-Union, said in a statement. “I hope they have pasta in heaven. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Numerous others honored Acocella on social media:
Acocella was fittingly born in 1943 at Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City — named after the city’s famed former mayor, Frank Hague.
“When you’re born in Hudson County, you don’t veer into politics — you’re born with it,” Acocella told NJTV in 2018. “It’s in the blood.”
He grew up in nearby West New York, where he was a teenager at the same time as future mayor Tony DiFino.
“I met him when he stole my basketball and kicked it across the park,” Acocella told NJTV in 2018.
After graduating from St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, Acocella went to LaSalle College in Philadelphia and spent a year studying abroad in Vienna, Austria.
He went on to study English literature at the University of California at Berkeley, just in time for the Free Speech movement.
“I thought I was the only one in the English department who owned shoes,” Acocella later said.
He then taught at Indian Hills High School in Oakland — New Jersey, that is — and went back to graduate school for a while at Stony Brook and the University of Delaware. But Acocella had no appetite for moving halfway across the country to continue a teaching career.
His life changed when he landed a job writing a book about the 1969 baseball season.
“I never looked back,” Acocella said. “I’ve been a freelance writer ever since.”
While living in New York, he talked about starting a newsletter about the state’s politics. But he didn’t know much about the printing and mailing businesses. Plus, he said, no one in Brooklyn cared about what was going on in Buffalo.
New Jersey, though, is different. And he got the idea of a Garden State-centric newsletter after returning home in the early 1990s.
But it was all talk until a friend who ran a marketing firm promised to help him design it and market it — on one condition.
“‘Either shut up or do it,‘” Acocella recalled the friend saying. “So my bluff got called, and here I am.”
Politifax was born in 1997 as a fax service. In recent years, it switched to email, with subscribers paying more than $400 for a total of 46 issues annually.
The newsletter’s design — simple white background, with letters in simple black font — never changed. And don’t look for it on social media.
“I don’t even carry a cell phone,” Acocella said.
In 2015, he started hosting his own TV show, “Pasta & Politics,” on NJTV. He welcomed guests like U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney to make Italian food and chat about their trade.
“I love politics. I love pasta. The combination was inevitable,” Acocella said of the idea.
But the newsletter was his calling card.
“It’s more fun than I’ve ever had in my life,” Acocella said in 2018. “How can you not love the follies of what the people we cover do?”