Loretta Weinberg, ‘conscience of the Legislature,’ will not seek reelection



Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said Wednesday she will not seek reelection when her current term ends.


State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a self-proclaimed “feisty Jewish grandmother” who pushed for same-sex marriage, open government reforms and helped expose a sexist culture in Trenton, said Wednesday she will retire when her term ends in 2022.

The 85-year-old Bergen County Democrat, who has been a prominent progressive voice in New Jersey politics for nearly three decades, made the much-anticipated announcement during a tearful Zoom call.

“For the first time in over 30 years, I will not be running for reelection. Maybe this is a bit more than we’re used to for what is a fairly simple statement," Weinberg said. "But then again, this is a very unusual time, and I’ve never been a standard politician.”

Weinberg said the pandemic played a role in her decision by limiting what she could do but that, ultimately, "I’ve accomplished a lot. I had a little more I wanted to do, and it added up to this is the right time for me personally."

Weinberg began her political activism shortly after she moved to Teaneck from Manhattan in the 1960s and attended a council meeting to ask that more trees be planted along Cedar Lane, a main thoroughfare in the township. After serving on the council beginning in 1990, she entered the General Assembly in 1992.

She was elected to the state Senate in 2005 despite waging a long political battle with Joe Ferriero, the onetime Bergen County Democratic political boss who would later be imprisoned on corruption charges. But she also forged an alliance with Senate President Steve Sweeney — one of the leaders of the South Jersey Democratic machine — that in 2012 propelled her to majority leader, the second-highest-ranking position in the upper chamber.

Weinberg has been a leading advocate for LGBTQ rights, open public records and open meetings laws, anti-smoking legislation and NJ Transit reforms. She ran for lieutenant governor in 2009 as Jon Corzine's running mate in his unsuccessful bid for a second term. He called her the “conscience of the Legislature.”

Around the same time, Weinberg revealed that her life savings had been wiped out in Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme.

Displaying a political ability few in Trenton possess, Weinberg was grandmotherly, making her a tricky target for criticism, but with a wit that effectively cut down her political opponents. Chief among them was former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who could easily dispatch younger male opponents with his harsh rhetoric but who stumbled when criticizing Weinberg.

Facing criticism over a political ally’s “double dipping" for receiving a pension after “retiring” from the job he still held, Christie pointed out that Weinberg was doing the same thing by beginning to take a $41,000-a-year pension earned over her political career because she had lost her life savings.

“I mean, can you guys please take the bat out on her for once?” Christie famously said to reporters during a 2011 press conference.

Christie’s criticism put him on the defensive and Weinberg moved quickly to drive the point home.

"Considering I’ve devoted my entire legislative career to fighting for the rights of women, including battered women, I think his words continue to show the level of insensitivity and poor judgment that the governor has demonstrated on women’s issues since getting elected,” she said at the time.

During the Corzine administration, Weinberg sponsored a law allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. She also pushed for full marriage equality for LGBTQ people but was rebuffed first by a failed Senate vote at the end of Corzine’s term and then by a Christie veto and failed attempts to override it. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court in 2013 legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey.

Weinberg’s clashes with governors didn’t end when Christie left office. Her relationship with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has been tense, and she was one of the most vocal critics of complaints from women during Murphy’s 2017 campaign and subsequent administration.

Weinberg chaired hearings in which Murphy staffer Katie Brennan gave hours of gut-wrenching testimony alleging that another staffer, Al Alvarez, had sexually assaulted her during the campaign but that top Murphy officials did not act quickly to remove him from the administration after becoming aware of the allegation.

Weinberg expanded the issue to the culture of New Jersey politics in general, soliciting testimony from women about the decadeslong history of misogyny in Trenton.

She was also a frequent critic of NJ Transit, both under Christie and Murphy, as the agency suffered from frequent delays and outdated infrastructure. She authored pending legislation to make the agency’s customer advocate more independent and require its chair be elected.

Murphy on Wednesday said Weinberg "has proven herself as a strong advocate and equally tough adversary depending on which side of the aisle or which side of the issue you find yourself on — and I’ve been on both by the way — but she’s all heart."

Added Murphy: "I think she’s got a case to be made as the most consequential legislator in the history of our state.”

Weinberg praised Murphy in her retirement announcement and took some friendly jabs at Sweeney, who she said was both her most valued colleague and, at times, her most "annoying" one.

"I’m not sitting here and performing my own eulogy, Steve Sweeney," Weinberg said as Sweeney watched, smiling. "Don’t think that I’m becoming complacent or compliant. I still have plenty of important priorities in the coming year."

Some of Weinberg’s work on her pet issues so far remains unfinished. Two bills that would update the state’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act — limiting some exemptions state and local governments often make to deny access to records — remain stuck in legislative limbo.

Weinberg said her first priority in her remaining year in office will be to help get the pandemic under control, after which she wants to focus on combating misogyny, women's equality and NJ Transit reform.

Weinberg’s departure leaves no immediate favorite to run for her Senate seat. Assemblymembers Gordon Johnson and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (both D-Bergen) are both jockeying to replace her. Weinberg said she would make no endorsement.

Democrats have a year to choose who will succeed Weinberg as majority leader, though one lawmaker who asked for anonymity while describing internal politics said Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) are likely the leading candidates.

"I have two worthy people in the Assembly who are behind me and I’m sure others out there," she said.

Weinberg acknowledged she's had some failures.

"They haven’t really succeeded in getting more trees on Cedar Lane," Weinberg said. "So it wasn’t one of my finest hours."

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-01-14 02:55:56 -0800