TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — For the first time in over a decade, New Jersey's state Senate is beginning a new session this week without Senate President Steve Sweeney, the ironworker and union executive who's shepherded major laws through the Legislature including a phased in $15 an hour minimum wage and recreational marijuana legalization.
Sweeney, a Democrat, lost reelection to little-known Republican and Donald Trump supporter Ed Durr in November, sending state government into upheaval and ending the tenure of the state's longest-serving Senate president.
On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Nicholas Scutari is set to take over as the new Senate president, a change that carries the Legislature into uncertain territory just as Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy's administration embarks on a second term.
Sweeney's departure caps a decade of major legislative initiatives spanning Republican Chris Christie's two terms and Murphy's first term, and raises questions about whether he'll pursue higher office since he says he's “not going anywhere.”
Just after his defeat, Sweeney cast the outcome as the result of a “red wave," but now, two months after the loss to Durr, Sweeney also sees the defeat in part as a failure to focus on affordability: New Jersey has among the highest property and business taxes in the country. People want politicians to take a practical approach to improve their lives, he said.
“My election is proof positive of how angry people are," he said. “They’re just frustrated and angry.”
That's leading him to consider a potential run for governor in 2025.
“There’s an interest there,” he said.
But in the meantime, as he weighs running, he is also planning to create a bipartisan, university-based think tank that will focus on making the state more affordable, though details are still being worked out, he said.
The legislation Sweeney has sponsored or pushed through the Legislature has transformed the state: a phased in $15 an hour minimum wage that will be indexed to inflation; paid sick leave; a $2 billion transportation trust fund; higher taxes on the wealthy; hundreds of millions of more dollars in school aid; an overhaul of the state's pension and retiree benefits system; and countless other bills.
Sweeney's allies and friends — including some Republicans — have said he stands out in politics because he does not go back on promises.
“If he told you he was going to be with you then that was something you never had to go back and revisit,” Democratic state senator and incoming majority leader Teresa Ruiz said. “That’s critically important in this space that you give someone your word and you stick by it.”
He had his detractors, as well, especially left-leaning groups that say he maintained an unfair party system that benefited insiders and the well-connected. Sue Altman, the head of New Jersey Working Families, celebrated Sweeney's ouster, calling it a “glorious day.”
Sweeney famously clashed with the state's biggest teachers’ union in 2017 after he pulled his support for a constitutional amendment that would mandate pension payments into the deficit-laden fund. At the time, he cited concerns over the state's finances as an explanation for the about-face. The feud led to a costly reelection campaign for Sweeney, with the union bucking tradition and backing Sweeney's Republican opponent. Sweeney prevailed in that contest.
Sweeney's close relationship with George Norcross, the Democratic power broker and insurance executive from southern New Jersey who is also a childhood friend, is a longtime focus of that frustration.
Sweeney brushes aside the criticism.
“My father taught me the most important quality is loyalty. I’m never gonna disavow my friends," he said.
Norcross said in an email that Sweeney deserves to be in a “Living Hall of Fame.”
“There has been no elected official in the history of southern New Jersey who has done more for the benefit of his community and the entire region than Steve Sweeney," Norcross said.
Loretta Weinberg, who served alongside Sweeney as majority leader, also countered progressive criticism, saying that the liberal policies Murphy campaigned on last year never would have gone to the governor's desk without Sweeney.
He is also known for his high-profile reversal on opposition to gay marriage. Sweeney said in 2011 that he made the “biggest mistake of my legislative career” when he opposed marriage equality.
Though Sweeney was a fellow Democrat, he fought Murphy at the start of his administration over raising income taxes on the wealthy and worked closely with Christie over his eight-year term in office ending in 2018.
Murphy on Monday acknowledged Sweeney's departure during an unrelated event, calling him a “great leader” even though they didn't always agree.
A deal he worked out with Christie to overhaul public worker pensions put Sweeney at odds with public sector unions, who would go on to become key supporters of Murphy.
Sweeney was elected in 2002 from the 3rd District, which includes Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, and became Senate president in 2010.
He won't return when the new session starts Wednesday, but he remains a commissioner on the panel tasked with drawing new legislative districts.
Mike Catalini, The Associated Press