You Say Fighting, She Says Discipline and Focus: Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg: The InsiderNJ Interview

Weinberg in Teaneck.

TEANECK – The ultimate Trump base antagonist, a feisty female with a foothold on both coasts – her home state of New Jersey and California, where her grandkids live – Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) appropriately and unsurprisingly finds herself in a Liberty Leading the People vanguard position now as the women’s movement mobilizes in New Jersey with national implications.

Her critics say all the 83-year old progressive Bergen brand name wants to do is fight.

But she prefers another choice of words.

“I don’t create fights, but it sometimes takes a fight,” said the majority leader. “I don’t call it fighting. I call it discipline and focus. These things don’t happen by themselves.”

Even as President Donald J. Trump gives life to Democrats in New Jersey, Weinberg sees ominous signs of organizational disrepair, and a party that is still slow to absorb more women, even in this environment. “I don’t think the Democratic Party is building a bench,” she said, sitting with InsiderNJ in her office in the downtown commercial district just east of the Hacksensack River.

She noted, for example, Democrats’ decision to replace Department of Insurance and Banking Commissioner Marlene Caride with Clinton Calabrese, a man in his early 30s, the scion of a local political family in Cliffside Park, who’s never held elected office. “I’m sure he’s going to be a good legislator but it just sort of happened,” Weinberg said.

Then there was state Senator Nick Scutari’s (D-22) defeat of Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr for the chairmanship of the Union County Democratic Party, and – just yesterday – former assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski’s beating of Weinberg pick Weber for the CD7 seat.

“I don’t think the Democratic Party is doing such a great job,” the Bergen Senator said.

At the moment, she is heartened by Parkland, Florida young people driving the national gun control debate in the aftermath of killings in their school.  “I didn’t know that I would see traction of this kind for the issue in my lifetime,” Weinberg told InsiderNJ “I’m very encouraged.”

Progressive issues always drove Weinberg.

When she moved to Teaneck in 1964, she immediately immersed herself in the cause to integrate the school system, a local battlefront of the larger landscape of 1960s activism. She found those opportunities all the time, like protesting the local sale of grapes as a way of aligning with the fruit pickers’ strike. Those issues – those organizing progressive principles – would become the touchstones of her elected official itinerary. First appointed to the Assembly in 1992, Weinberg and then-Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-22) worked across the aisle with Governor Christie Todd Whitman to pass into law the so-called 48-hour bill, which requires insurers to pay for a second day of hospital care for mothers and their newborns.

But it was her political fight with the machine that probably best defined her politically, as she outdueled Bergen County Democratic Organization Chairman Joe Ferriero choice, former Assemblyman Ken Zisa, for a vacant senate seat in 2005 and ever after burnished the independent Democratic tag. “No one handed me anything,” Weinberg said, a political orientation that served her well when she famously sought answers in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey case pertaining to the lane closings at the New Jersey entrance to the George Washington Bridge.

“I couldn’t get any answers, and so I went to the Port Authority,” she said, “to a subcommittee meeting chaired by Pat Schuber. Pat had called me when Christie chose him for that position and I told him I was delighted that someone from Bergen County will chair the Port Authority. I walked into that hearing room. [Deputy Executive Director of the Port] Bill Baroni was there. In the past, we would hug each other whenever we saw each other. But he was sitting along the wall of the committee. He couldn’t even look at me, and I knew at that moment something was wrong.”

In the aftermath, Weinberg – a dedicated public opponent of Governor Chris Christie going back to when she ran on the statewide Democratic ticket opposing him in 2009 – was proud of the work of the joint legislative committee on Bridgegate, which she co-chaired, which helped to uncover the infamous plot and led to a federal investigation.

“This was a serious violation of public trust that came from the very top levels of state government and from the governor’s own office,” the senator said last year. “We still do not know all of the details and what the governor knew of the planning and execution of this act. What we do know is there was a culture of retribution within the governor’s office that created an environment where abuses could occur. And they did. I was in the courtroom during much of the trial and to personally hear the details of the scheme laid out, and the plan to ignore the Fort Lee mayor’s repeated calls for help, was nauseating.

“The public should be able to trust that those serving in government are doing so in their best interest,” she added. “I can only hope this entire saga serves as a warning to those who serve the public and as a reminder that this kind of conduct at any level of government is unacceptable and rarely goes undiscovered despite the best attempts at a cover up.”

Now, despite the entrenched toxicities of New Jersey politics, the inevitable tensions between machines and individuals, and the less than robust organization in some of its key party apparatchik, she said she feels an energy on the ground, among real people, as a progressive anti-Trump movement builds in New Jersey.

“I went to four meetings in the period following the election and inauguration,” the senator said. “These were meetings of spontaneous women’s groups. At one of these – at a synagogue – there were 250 people in attendance at holiday time in December. That told me something was going on.”

Weinberg was surprised when Trump defeated her candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“I was at a county Democratic Party in a crowded suite watching TV, and everyone else was celebrating a big win in the county,” she said.

But the television broadcast told another story.

Weinberg had a history with the Clintons.

“I met her when we passed the 48-hour bill done,” she said. “I took the bill to the White House and got a minute with the President. I said. ‘We just passed this in New Jersey.’ A few months later, Bill Clinton gave a speech and brought up that New Jersey bill, and said we need to pass this federally. I later shared that story with Hillary Clinton. [Former Senator] Bill Bradley put the bill in and it passed and President Clinton signed it into law. Asking which bill is one’s favorite is like asking about a favorite child, but that’s the bill I think about, that 48-hour bill. And if it weren’t for women, we never would have gotten that passed. Women are generally caregivers, and that’s the value of a woman’s perspective in government and politics.”

Going forward, she sees her own public policy priority in the areas of pay equity, women’s health, and earned sick leave. She backs a $15 minimum wage, which is one of new Governor Phil Murphy’s priorities. She sees opportunities for Congressional wins this year, on the strength of Trump’s implosion in New Jersey. “I believe when you look at SALT and the Gateway Tunnel,  this President has turned his back on all of us.”

Weinberg expects a hard-fought reelection win for U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5), and backs Mikie Sherrill in CD11 and Linda Weber in CD7. She doesn’t appear willing to go against state Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1), who’s running for the seat currently occupied by retiring U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2) in a Democratic Primary with retired school teacher Tanzie Youngblood. “We’ve got Van Drew and they’ve got [state Senator Kip] Bateman,” said the senator, referring to Van Drew’s conservativism and Republican Senator Bateman’s progressivism.

Regarding early obvious acrimony between Murphy and Weinberg ally Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Trenton perceptions of First Lady Tammy Murphy, Weinberg said, “It’s different. The First Lady’s a full partner. It will take time for people to figure out that Tammy Murphy is a full partner.” Of the administration generally, she added, “I think they have to strike a balance. It’s only two months. Every time I go there I have an argument with staff about where the Governor’s Office is actually located. The geographic dislocation hasn’t helped. With Christie, you could just pop in.”

At the moment, she’s just happy that Murphy signed in to law her bill to restore $7.5 million in health clinic and Planned Parenthood  grants – and happy for the opportunity to practice – in this particularly galvanized environment – discipline and focus.

She backs Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato for another tour of duty – if he wants the job come June, and her reasoning goes to the heart of the Teaneck Democrat’s stature as someone pragmatic enough to  work the angles, but who got to this leg of the dance despite the machine.

“He let’s us do we want to do,” Weinberg said, eyes twinkling.

 

 

 

 

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