Angelo J. Errichetti Jr. is on the small side, physically. But at the peak of his power, his shadow was huge.

In the 1970s, the 5-foot-9 son of Italian immigrants became the Democratic "boss of all bosses" - his phrase - in Camden city and county by playing politics the way he had played Camden High football: fast, tough, and with a winning charm he hasn't lost.

"I'm 81, but I feel like I'm 18. No bull-," the former Camden mayor says from across a table at Ponzio's in Cherry Hill. "I'm lucky to be here."

Last year he underwent successful surgery for cancer in both lungs. There's been heart surgery, too. But he detonates f-bombs and fires (mostly) off-the-record zingers with a young man's zest.

"President Obama," he says during our 90-minute conversation, "is leading this country to be the next France."

In his five-packs-a-day heyday, Eric - as he was known - not only was voted mayor of Camden twice but also was elected to the state Senate.

"I was a political leader second to none at that time," he says with matter-of-fact bravado.

But in 1980, a federal jury found Errichetti guilty of bribery and conspiracy charges arising out of a controversial sting operation known as Abscam. FBI agents masqueraded as sheikhs seeking political support for development projects, and elected officials, including Errichetti, were videotaped accepting cash.

One of 19 convicted defendants, including U.S. Sen. Harrison "Pete" Williams Jr. (D., N.J.), Errichetti claimed entrapment by a politicized FBI. When the verdict was upheld on appeal in 1983, he served three years ("an absolute waste of time") at a federal corrections facility in Connecticut.

"The thing I said publicly 30 years ago was, 'I'm guilty of stupidity,' " says Errichetti, who still contends the feds set him up. "That's about as simple as I can put it. The whole thing was political. It had nothing to do with my performance as mayor."

He came home to his wife, Dolores ("Dodie"), and daughter, Michelle, in the city's Whitman Park section in 1986. He was 57 and unemployed, and it was "a real kick in the backside."

Yet Errichetti had more than a few friends left around town. One of them, businessman Mickey Rubin, helped him start a career as a freelance business consultant. In recent years Errichetti has specialized in energy-related enterprises.

"I'm a master entrepreneur in the sense of putting people together," he says. "I'm not a technical expert, but I know places and know things over the course of many years. I know that this person would fit here and that person would fit there, and how you can put together something that can be successful."

While in office, the eminently quotable Errichetti enjoyed a good relationship with the press. But since 1986 he has granted only a handful of interviews and declines to comment publicly about the people who run the city he once commanded.

(For the record, Errichetti says Al Pierce, the reformer who brought him into politics in 1961, was the best mayor in his lifetime.)

Since leaving Whitman Park for Cherry Hill in 1990, "I spend very little time" thinking about Camden, Errichetti says.

"One door closes, another opens. If you dwell on the past, you'll die in the past."

Errichetti moved in with Michelle and her family in Ventnor, N.J., after Dodie died five years ago - a loss he says is the toughest thing he's endured. Recently, his elder grandson, Nicholas, created a video tribute to his grandfather for a class at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. It's loving, it's nostalgic, and it doesn't mention Abscam.

"He got an A on that one," Errichetti says. Nicholas and his 14-year-old brother, Tyler, "are why I do the things I do today. They're going to benefit from my endeavors, from my trust fund."

Errichetti "feels great" and isn't planning to "throw any sevens" anytime soon, he assures me.

"I'm not a Holy Roller, but I am honestly, honestly a believer in God," he says. "I was born and reared that way. . . . My mother said to me when I was a kid that I have angels on my shoulder.

"Whatever it is, I have survived. So I can't be bitter," Errichetti adds. "If you want revenge, you're digging two holes . . . one for yourself, one for the other person.

"I'm blessed. I had a beautiful wife, I've got a beautiful daughter and two wonderful grandsons. It's been a good ride."

Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan
at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.