Durr: Today Sweeney, Tomorrow Coughlin: InsiderNJ’s Interview with the Blunt, Outspoken LD3 Senator-elect

Durr

Republican LD3 Senator-elect Ed Durr said he doesn’t need an inside game. He beat the ultimate Trenton insider without it, and plans to dutifully dedicate himself to listening, not dictating; meeting with people, not backroom bosses; and focusing on LD-3 instead of statewide politics.

In the New Jersey upset of the year, Durr leveled Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) by 2,199 votes last month as part of what the stunned Democrat described as a “red wave.” Durr mildly takes issue with that interpretation of his victory. He didn’t just let a red wave carry him, he said. The former self-employed carpenter who roofed, repainted, and remodeled before focusing on a full-time truck driving job – which he’s held for 25 years – said he worked for it. “If you talk to my wife, I was never home [during the campaign season],” Durr told InsiderNJ. “I was either working or campaigning and I was rarely home. It became a little bit of an issue with me working a 12-hour-day and then campaigning for two hours after that. Every Saturday and every Sunday I found time to get out there.”

The senator-elect said he was never politically active or even aware before 2016-2017. “I always felt it was my duty to vote,” he said. “Ronald Reagan was the first president I voted for. Coming from Gloucester City, my parents were Kennedy Democrats.”

Durr takes particular issue with Governor Phil Murphy over mandates and masks, and admits the governor did not help the senate president’s reelection prospects in South Jersey. But finally, Durr had specific issues with the incumbent senator, who himself never got along with Murphy and routinely fought him on policy and through the channels of party politics. “I think it was a culmination of everything,” he said of his win. “Governor Murphy, the lockdowns and mandates, and the fact that Senator Sweeney did nothing for the last two years. In 2017 and 2018 Murphy and Sweeney had some run-ins and differences of opinion. They actually butted heads.  But after the pandemic hit it seemed like he shut down. He was just totally missing in action. It was not just Governor Murphy. Yes, there was voter anger toward Murphy. But I heard from many voters I reached out to in this area about Sweeney’s lack of availability to the district.

“That is something that I will greatly make a change in,” Durr added. “The voters reached out and contacted me. It wasn’t just an anger they harbored. There were multiple issues going on. We [Sweeney and I] do have differences of opinion. He’s been seen as a working-class man in his tenure, but he lost that long ago. He’s always in Trenton and as a result, he forgot his district. I am a conservative. I believe in the free market. Sweeney wants more bureaucracy, and I want less government. He had no knowledge of what was going on in the district. His arrogance because of the senate presidency put him in a position where he never took me seriously. He lost touch with the base. He definitely did not know what his own district was thinking or feeling.”

InsiderNJ asked Durr if regional Republicans took him seriously, reminding him that during the Chris Christie years especially the GOP’s state apparatus appeared to neglect Sweeney challengers in order to keep intact a leadership sharing arrangement between the Republican governor and Democrat senate president. Did this strategy again impact the political dynamics of LD3? “I don’t think there was any collusion between Democrats and Republicans,” Durr said. “I didn’t receive a lot of help from the state party. But that was more them not seeing this as a viable win. They were putting their resources into true wins, like Jean [Stanfield] in LD8. My chair [Gloucester County GOP Chair] Jacci Vigilante was with me from the beginning. She came to me to take on this task. She believed in me and availed me of [veteran GOP operative] Steve Kush, who’s very wise. I had all my fellow candidates working with me, including Jonathan Sammons, successful Republican candidate for Gloucester County sheriff. It was a group effort, and I appreciate it. Finally, all of this is not about me. It’s about people. What the election said was that the common man, the little guy, can win if you do the work. If you motivate the people to come out to vote you can get that win.”

Republicans over the course of the past two years have strengthened their position in the southern part of the state, gaining LD1, welcoming U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s party affiliation change from democrat to Republican, and this year adding seats with sweeps in LD2, LD8, and, of course, LD3. “I do think it is a new day in South Jersey,’ said Durr. “As Senator [Mike] Testa said, ‘We have built a red wall in 1, 2 and 3 and in the 8th. We are going to keep moving until we are able to turn New Jersey around. We’re a team here in South Jersey, and we’re going to work the Republican base. People say New Jersey is a blue state. I don’t think it ever was. I think stronger pockets of blue came out, and now we’re seeing stronger pockets of red coming out. We just took out the senate president. Maybe we can take out the speaker next time.”

Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-24) has a close relationship with Sweeney, and the Building Trades that form Sweeney’s base. Durr said he doesn’t worry about that.

“I don’t know nothing about what Senator Oroho and Senator Sweeney have,” said the senator-elect. “Steve Oroho called me. I’ve gotten to know him a little bit. I met him in the reorganization session, and he seems like a very pleasant gentleman. He’s congratulated me. If their goal is to do better for citizens, I’m there to work with everyone, Democrat or Republican. If you’re out to line your pocket and your boss’s pockets, it will be a different story. This whole thing with ‘leaders’ I don’t like. I don’t like that word. We are elected representatives, not kings and rulers.”

Even as he spoke, the ongoing redistricting process – where Sweeney occupies a commission seat for the Democratic Team – conceivably threatens to chop up the district to make Durr’s 2023 reelection chances thornier.

Durr said he does not feel endangered.

“I have no control over what takes place in redistricting,” said the Republican senator-elect. “They will decide and I will see the map when it is decided on. I will speak to my adviser and we will set a game plan. A lot of people didn’t think I would win this year. But we went into West Deptford anyway. I was told we won Woodbury Heights, which has been going blue for a long time. We won Cumberland County, which had not happened in a very long time. I don’t have any awareness of them trying to make the district more Democrat. If you work hard for the people, they will remember you. If you are helping them in ways that make their lives better, they are  going to support you if what you do helps them. I’m going to listen to the people. I’m going to come out to each town and hear their problems and work for solutions. I’m not arrogant.

“If the people vote, if they get motivated, I think every district is a possible win,” Durr added. “If you engage people, I think Republicans can win Newark. I don’t think it’s a lost cause at all, if you go in there and talk to the people. In the end, everybody wants to be left alone. They don’t want to pay higher taxes. They don’t want government taking their money.”

A union ironworker by trade, Sweeney’s core positions routinely pitted him against public sector labor. To what extent did the fight between public and private sector labor – at least its philosophical dimensions – dominate the district and perhaps contribute to a suppressed vote among non-labor voters in past years, InsiderNJ asked Durr, a nonunion trucker.

“I don’t want this to sound anti-union,” he told InsiderNJ. “I’ve been part of unions. I think unions have their place, just like nonunion work. Everyone should have a right to choose. Some unions wield a little more power and that needs to be addressed. It shouldn’t be about union but the people.”

A day after Murphy decried Republicans as “idiots” for barging into the statehouse without proof of vaccination, the senator-elect from LD3 fired back a testy counter-offensive.

In some ways, the situation hasn’t changed.

The senator from LD3 still doesn’t like Murphy.

Now, he’s a Republican and much more vocal, as opposed to trying to dissect the governor behind the scenes, from within the Democratic Party. “The Governor decided to basically rule as a king,” said Durr. “He’s chosen to decree things without a broader picture. He lacks answers as to what took place in the nursing homes, for example. I’m not making an accusation. I’m trying to find an answer.

“Again, I dislike that word ‘leaders,’” Durr added. “They are the elected representatives. Don’t tell the people what they want to do. They’re supposed to go in there and fight for the people.” Headed to Trenton next month, the senator-elect from LD3 said he has no other plan when he assumes the oath of office to succeed Sweeney.

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