Sweeney loses re-election, upending Trenton power structure

By: - November 4, 2021 3:15 pm

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney speaks to a colleague prior to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivering his budget address for fiscal year 2016 to the Legislature, February 24, 2015 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

This article was updated with comment from Senate President Steve Sweeney at 2:17 p.m.

Senate President Steve Sweeney has lost his bid for a seventh term, the Associated Press projected Thursday, ending a 20-year career in the Legislature that saw him become a dominant force in New Jersey politics.

Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat, was defeated by Republican Edward Durr, a truck driver from Logan who raised roughly $10,000 for his longshot campaign against the state’s most powerful legislator.

The incumbent did not concede Thursday, saying he would remain in the contest until all ballots were counted.

“While I am currently trailing in the race, we want to make sure every vote is counted. Our voters deserve that, and we will wait for the final results,” Sweeney said in a statement.

Durr beat the Senate president 32,742 to 30,444 in the biggest upset of the year. Durr previously ran unsuccessfully for Assembly and local office in Logan.

There do not appear to be enough uncounted mail-in ballots for Sweeney to bridge the gap, nor are late-arriving mail ballots expected in large enough numbers to change the result of the race.

The incumbent’s defeat is a blow to power broker George Norcross, a longtime friend and Sweeney ally, and the South Jersey Democratic bloc, which finds its power in the Senate much diminished. Durr’s victory, meanwhile, has made him a celebrity of sorts in New Jersey and nationwide among Republicans, who believe losses like Sweeney’s portend trouble for the Democratic Party in 2022 and beyond.

Sweeney, a leader in the Ironworkers Union, is the longest-serving Senate president in state history, his tenure characterized by a control of his caucus that rarely faltered.

Special education programs and funding emerged as a key issue for Sweeney, who has a daughter with a developmental disability. Bills he sponsored shifted the onus of proof in cases over special education issues to districts and, among other things, boosted state special education aid to nearly $1.2 billion.

Progressive Democrats often found a foe in the Senate president, seeing him as an avatar of machine politics they abhor and as a roadblock to their agenda. They have been gloating since late Tuesday, when it became clear Sweeney’s political career was in peril.

Their opinion that Sweeney is a roadblock for progressive policies is a view not reflected among many of Sweeney’s colleagues.

“Whether you’re talking about restoring money for Planned Parenthood or earned sick leave or family leave or the millionaire’s tax — you name it — it was Steve Sweeney who got us to 21-plus votes,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Most of these were not an easy lift in our caucus.”

In more recent years, the Senate president has urged municipal and school district consolidation in an effort to cut down on the ever-growing cost of living in the Garden State.

Those reforms earned support from some Republicans, including newly elected Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), but the so-called Path to Progress never really got on its way. It was variously waylaid by the pandemic and, before that, the Democratic infighting that colored the first two years of Gov. Phil Murphy’s term.

Sweeney’s tenure as Senate president was characterized by an iron-fisted control of his caucus. Members were expected to cast difficult votes when needed or risk losing committee assignments and leadership money used to bolster legislative staffing.

Still, some votes failed. A push to eliminate oft-abused religious exemptions to public school immunization requirements failed after thousands of anti-vaccine activists assailed the Statehouse for days, and efforts to legalize marijuana legislatively continuously fell to opposition from older Democratic senators.

The race to replace Sweeney as Senate president is still in its nascency, but his successor will have an uphill climb in a Senate with a diminished majority and a greater share of unpredictable Democrats.

“I’m assuming that some of my more liberal and progressive allies are not sorry to see this happening. I think there’s going to come a day where they’re sorry for what they wish for because they got it,” Weinberg said.

Sweeney joined the Senate in 2002 after ousting longtime Republican state Sen. Raymond Zane by about three points. At the time, he had spent five years on the Gloucester County Freeholder Board, a seat he would retain even after joining the Senate.

His margins grew in proceeding years, swelling to their largest in 2017, when Sweeney defeated Republican Fran Grenier by 18 points despite a major push by the New Jersey Education Association to defeat him.

He became Senate majority leader after just six years in office, with his rise to Senate president coming two years later, in 2010.

That ascent left bad blood in its wake. A coalition of Senate Democrats from North and South Jersey, formed through negotiations undertaken out of the public eye, handed Sweeney a leadership victory over then-Senate President Dick Codey (D-Essex).

Asked to comment on Sweeney’s election loss, Codey, a frequent foe of the Norcross wing of New Jersey’s Democratic Party, wasn’t inclined to twist the knife.

“He had a hell of a career,” he said of Sweeney. “Who knows, maybe he comes back.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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