Sweeney to Building Trades: ‘Don’t Take for Granted’ the Senate Presidency

Sweeney approaches the stage for Tuesday's keynote address.
Sweeney approaches the stage for Tuesday’s keynote address.


ATLANTIC CITY – Accepting a resolution by his fellow Building Trades members backing his reelection and his reinstitution to the senate presidency of the New Jersey Legislature, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) went to the dais this morning here in the Hard Rock under a hail of brass from an accompanying band.

He assumed the command position in the ballroom at the 116th annual Building Trades Council Convention, which represents 150,000 strong across the state. He took the occasion to remind his audience to never forget their origins as labor organization people.

He also made a pointed entreaty.

“Don’t take for granted that I’m always going to be the senate president and Democrats are always going to be in charge,” Sweeney said. “Your job is to advance the ball farther.”

No one mutters very fervently about any kind of significant challenge to Sweeney’s occupancy of the senate throne, which goes back to 2010, when then-Governor Chris Christie also assumed the oath of office.

If the room in the Hard Rock represented the bedrock of his organizational power, the South Jersey Democratic Party lawmaker has also spent years cementing his caucus strength with a personal touch, the effectiveness of someone with an uncanny knack for herding cats, and labor-centered accomplishments.

For him, it starts here.

“In 1991, it was just Joe Egan and myself, I think [from the Building Trads in the Legislature],” Sweeney recalled. “We were thrilled when we got prevailing wage for hospital construction. For hospital construction! We’ve got prevailing wage for everything now.

“I’m the senate president,” he added. ‘Great. I’m an union ironworker first.”

He challenged anyone to find a stronger Building Trades council in the country.

“Thank you,” Sweeney said. “Do not forget who we are and what we do and all we do is build.”

He received a standing ovation in the crowded room as he descended.

If the occasion underscored Sweeney’s political moves-making that protect him now – days from the Nov. 2nd contest – from the kind of general election collision he had to weather in 2017 (the most expensive legislative race in United States history), he nonetheless must keep one eye fixed on two and maybe three battleground elections.

InsiderNJ spoke with Sweeney after he delivered his speech, wherein – at the end of it, after a significant amount of Building Trades-only reflectiveness and pride – he expressed his support for incumbent Governor Phil Murphy.

Murphy and Sweeney have not been close.

They are at election time.

“The governor, speaker and myself are more attune now than ever, which is always better than fighting,” said Sweeney.

Then he cited those obvious battleground contests where he wants Democrats to maintain an edge:

LD2; LD8 and LD16.

“The three targeted races for the Democrats and the same for the Republicans,” Sweeney said. “I would rather be me than them right now. I always run scared, as if I were 30 points behind.”

Maintaining a focus on building proved a running theme in his remarks and in a speech made this morning by Building Trades President William Mullen.

The main idea was that organization members need to keep focused on that primary objective of construction in order to feed members and members’ families.. Mullen also said New Jersey does not need any new laws.

But might the state need new laws to shape the direction of what Building Trades members build, lest New Jersey merely continue to cater to corporate development interests as a primary means of worker sustenance, not to mention in order to curtail the impact of future floods and disasters and make wiser use of natural resources?

“We have to look at it,” Sweeney acknoweldged.

Post-Tropical Storm Ida, in particular, New Jersey cannot act like nothing’s changed.

“This is not the New Jersey I grew up in,” said the senate president. “We did not have tornados and hurricanes. We’ve got to build smarter and we’ve got to build stronger.

“We’ve got to look at Blue Acres,” he added.

Before he took his leave on the first day of the convention, the day’s first speaker, he told his fellow union workers, “Don’t forget where you come from and what you stand for.”

Murphy is scheduled to occupy the honorary position at Wednesday’s breakfast meeting.

No doubt, he will not receive the same sendup here enjoyed by ironworker Sweeney, celebrated in a specific resolution for sticking by prevailing wage protections, increasing minimum wage, securing the transportation trust fund, paid family leave, adequate funding for higher education construction projects, and making his case for the  Path to Progress.

With a particular bitter pride, the Building Trades members roared in unison when someone mentioned the “scattering of public employee labor organizations [opposed to Sweeney] and the outrageous [2017] campaign waged unsuccessfully against him,” as Sweeney stormed to an 18% margin of victory, before reestablishing working relations – and even doing work for – the same New Jersey Education Association that four years ago spent millions trying to run him out of town.

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