Sometime around midnight on Nov. 2, the tectonic plates beneath South Jersey shifted ever so slightly, the earth cracked open and swallowed up Senate President Steve Sweeney.
A burly ironworker, Sweeney became a larger than life figure in the state’s politics: Elected to the Senate in 2002, Sweeney toppled Senate President Dick Codey in 2009, became the longest serving presiding officer in history, was prominently mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate, and was widely expected to pursue that office in 2025.
The seismic cataclysm on election day ended it all.
Sweeney was brought low by a 58-year-old commercial truck driver from Logan Township named Edward Durr who pulled off arguably the most stunning upset in legislative election history.
Durr said he was moved to take on the hopeless task of running against Sweeney because he was unhappy with the state’s restrictive laws on carrying a concealed weapon.
He spent, he said, $153 on his campaign, a sum equal to a Saturday afternoon shopping trip to Costco for most people.
When the 2022 session of the Legislature opens in January, for the first time in 12 years someone other than Sweeney will gavel the Senate to order.
It will be an ignominious end for the force of nature Sweeney who went toe-to-toe with Gov. Chris Christie for eight years, swapping insults and criticisms, reaching deals and accommodations that benefitted both and generally dominating the political landscape.
Precious little is known about Durr’s political or policy beliefs. He describes himself as a conservative who supports tax cuts, opposes abortion and is upset over what he calls the all too cozy relationship between establishment figures like Sweeney and political bosses like longtime power broker and Sweeney confidante George Norcross.
Bringing down Sweeney, though, is about more than tax cuts and abortion.
His ascension to the level of political power appears to have come at a cost, a price paid to a novice like Durr as a penalty for losing touch with the district and the mood of the people in it.
Encompassing all of Salem County and portions of Gloucester and Cumberland counties, the Third District has historically tilted decidedly to the ideological right, although not irredeemably so, having routinely supported Democrats at state and local levels.
Four years ago, for instance, Sweeney barely broke a sweat in rolling to re-election by 18 points despite the New Jersey Education Association dumping $5 million into the campaign of his Republican opponent.
It was a given that Durr would suffer a similar fate in a contest which drew virtually no media attention or any outside private interest financial involvement.
Durr was just another in a long and rather forgettable parade of sacrificial lambs. The South Jersey political machine would deliver as it always had.
What very few recognized or was dismissed as of little impact was an underlying bubbling discontent on the part of people who were increasingly convinced that government was indifferent to their concerns, that those in authority were preoccupied with remaining in authority and catering to highly vocal groups who held views inconsistent with theirs.
It was in microcosm eerily similar to the environment that produced Donald Trump in 2016.
Did Sweeney so badly misread the mood of his district that he ignored whatever warning signs were flashed before him?
Did he grow estranged from his constituents and fail to recognize their growing distrust and frustration with government and, by implication, those — like him — who controlled it?
Did his rise to near the top of the power pinnacle produce a “too big for his britches” persona?
Did he forget his roots and from whence he came?
In the well-worn cliché, did he start to believe his own press clippings?
Whatever took hold in the minds of Third District voters, a great many channeled their anger, disappointment and frustrations into sending a message via the ballot, handing a person most had never heard of a 2,000-vote plurality over someone most knew quite well.
Sweeney’s loss was not so much an expression of deeply felt dissatisfaction with what he had accomplished or failed to accomplish in office in terms of serving his district or attending to its needs and best interests.
Rather, it was a visceral response from those who needed someone to identify and blame for an environment they felt had spiraled out of control and their cries went unheeded.
Sweeney became a target for the collective wrath of a population who felt ignored and their concerns minimized.
It is a lesson which should not be lost on Sweeney’s soon to be former colleagues or on the party they represent lest the tectonic plates shift beneath their feet as well.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.