Twisted Sister’s anthem used to drown out top N.J. Democrat as he pitches plan on cutting pensions and health benefits

Posted May 16, 2019

They booed. They shouted. They blew whistles at him. They even tried to drown him out with a 1980s hair-metal anthem.

Dozens of angry — very angry — public workers berated New Jersey’s most powerful state lawmaker Thursday night, just hours after he unveiled a controversial package of bills that would scale back government employee pensions and benefits to reduce costs to the state and local governments.

It all started with the audience — packed with public-worker union members — booing as Sweeney took the stage.

“Millionaires tax! Millionaires tax!" they chanted.

One man was decked in a crown and burgundy robe, calling himself King George III — a nod to South Jersey power broker George Norcross, Sweeney’s ally.

Another blew a whistle as Richard Keevey, a former state budget officer that Sweeney brought onstage, stepped to the podium to defend the bills, saying they’re needed to save taxpayers money.

“Don’t touch our pensions!" the whistle-blower yelled.

It was almost like the often-tense town halls Gov. Chris Christie used to hold — but maybe more hostile.

 “How many people here have been in the military?” asked Keevey, who also served as a former U.S. undersecretary of defense. “Because if you were, you’d have the decency to shut up.”

“Shame! Shame!” the crowd yelled back.

Keevey insisted that Sweeney’s pension plans would not affect anyone currently vested in the system.

“Why don’t you listen?” he asked them.

Many in the audience shook their heads, to signal they didn’t believe that argument.

Then, as Sweeney took the microphone, a recording of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” mysteriously began playing. Crowd members sang along.

The music came from a speaker hidden underneath the stage. Police officers found it and dragged it away.

Sweeney stayed seated.

“You can yell all you want,” he told the audience. “You’re not shutting me down. The people of this state need a solution.”

“I’m gonna stand up and fight for the taxpayers of this state,” the lawmaker continued. “Do you think this is scaring me?”

Sweeney has long been a pariah with some public employees for working with Christie, a Republican, to enact a series of pension and benefit reforms in 2011. But, Sweeney says, more is needed.

Above him Thursday was a screen with a slideshow arguing the state would face a $4 billion budget deficit if pension and benefits don’t get another overhaul.

The presentation got only two slides in before Sweeney shut the event down.

“We look forward to seeing you at legislative hearings,” he said before walking off the stage to more jeers.

Sweeney later told reporters that union leaders are “not telling the truth” to members about his proposals said it was “beyond disappointing” the audience wouldn’t let him talk without interrupting.

Earlier in the day, Sweeney said at a news conference in Trenton that the 27 bills he introduced would collectively save New Jersey taxpayers billions of dollars and provide a chance to lower property taxes.

He said he’s preparing a contingency plan to ask voters to amend the state Constitution and bypass Murphy if the measures can’t get through the Democratic-controlled state Legislature.

It comes as Murphy is calling on the Legislature to pass a millionaires taxto increase funding to education, transportation, and more.

Sweeney is staunchly against it. If Murphy and lawmakers can’t reach an agreement by July 1, when a state budget must be enacted, the governor could shut down state government until a deal is made.

The already strained relationship between Murphy and Sweeney has gotten worse in recent weeks as a task force convened by the governor investigates whether tax breaks handed out to businesses — including those with ties to Norcross, the power broker and Sweeney ally — were misused.

Sweeney told reporters Thursday night he believed the Murphy administration sent protestors to the town hall — though he did not back up the claim with evidence.

“These are his supporters,” the Senate president said. “Where do you think they came from?”

Murphy’s office declined to comment.

Murphy responded to Sweeney’s bills Thursday by saying he prefers “partnership and collective bargaining rather than confrontation."

“I will carefully review the bills introduced today to see where we can find common ground, but the bottom line is that savings alone will not help us meet the entirety of our obligations,” the governor said in a statement.

Murphy is steadfastly pro-labor, often saying the state abandoned public workers during the Christie administration and vowing to fully fund the state’s pension system.

Many audience members Thursday night were wearing red Communication Workers of America T-shirts. That’s the largest state employees union, which is strongly opposed to Sweeney’s new plans.

Hetty Rosenstein, head of the New Jersey branch of the CWA, said Thursday that Sweeney’s proposals “pit those who dedicate their entire lives to public service against the public."

“That is shameful," Rosenstein added.

Sweeney did have support from some private-sector union workers Thursday. A row of people with lime green International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers T-shirts cheered him on from the second row.

Afterwards, Sweeney said he welcomes the protestors to come to the Statehouse in Trenton.

“I’m not going away,” he said. “They can’t shut me down in committee rooms. They had their night tonight.”

 

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