How Sweeney got to Trenton

Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who was elected Senate President today, went to the Senate eight years ago after prevailing in an internal political war in South Jersey.

There was political unrest in a deeply divided Gloucester County Democratic organization in early 2000 amidst a feud between Democratic County Chairman Michael Angelini and eight-term State Sen. Raymond Zane (D-Woodbury).  Angelini was backing former Gov. Jim Florio in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senator, while Zane was supporting a political newcomer, a mega millionaire Wall Streeter named Jon Corzine.

The feud between Angelini and Zane began during the 1999 general election.  Democrats were angry with Zane’s refusal to back Paulsboro Mayor John Burzichelli in his campaign to oust two Republican Assemblymen: Speaker Jack Collins (R-Elmer) and Gary Stuhltrager (R-East Greenwich).  Political observers had long believed that an informal arrangement existed between the three District 3 legislators; they have not become involved in campaigns against the other for several years.

In retaliation for Zane’s actions, some Gloucester County municipalities stripped the Senator of more than $100,000 worth of legal work, and Zane’s son, Gloucester County Freeholder Raymond Zane III lost his position as Freeholder Vice President.

The split between the two widened in 2000 when Zane attempted to switch local party organizations from Florio, a former South Jersey Congressman, to Corzine. Zane was heavily criticized when Salem County Democratic Chairman Thomas Pankok went public with allegations that Zane offered campaign contributions to Salem Democrats on behalf of Corzine in exchange for dropping their support of Florio.

That June, Zane recruited East Greenwich Mayor Dalyn Currey and former Monroe Board of Education member Willie Carter to challenge two incumbent Freeholders, Robert Damminger and William Krebs, in the Democratic primary. Florio carried Gloucester County with 67% of the vote against Corzine, and Zane’s Freeholder candidates suffered a similar defeat.

Two Zane allies, Greenwich Democratic Municipal Chairman Anthony Velahos and and East Greenwich Democratic Municipal Chairman Jeffrey Malinoski were stripped of their membership on the Democratic screening committee by Angelini after they endorsed Corzine, Currey and Carter.

The Zane faction of the party had criticized Angelini’s connection to the Camden County Democratic machine, and to South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross.  Zane’s bid to oust Angelini as County Chairman was a total failure; Corzine, not wanting to anger the establishment, declined attempts by Zane to back a challenge.

By the summer, Angelini and Norcross had made a final decision: county Democratic organizations in Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties would not support Zane for re-election in 2001.  Instead, they endorsed Sweeney, a 42-year-old ironworker who had won two elections for Gloucester County Freeholder.  Sweeney had been anxious to run.

Zane decided to skip a Democratic primary battle against Sweeney, and instead switched parties and sought re-election to a ninth term as a Republican.  Norcross raised huge amounts of money for Sweeney, but Zane had the benefit of Senate President (and Acting Governor) Donald DiFrancesco’s war chest.  Corzine, a new U.S. Senator, backed Sweeney politically and financially.

Sweeney ousted Zane in a close 51%-49% contest, a margin of 1,735 votes in a district that gave Democratic gubernatorial candidates James E. McGreevey an 8,604 vote plurality over Republican Bret Schundler.  Zane carried Salem County by 474 votes, but Sweeney won Gloucester by 1,152 and Cumberland by 1,057. 

Burzichelli went to the Assembly on 2001, running on Sweeney’s ticket.  Collins and Stuhltrager did not seek re-election.

Zane filed to run against Sweeney again in 2003, but dropped out of the race when the state GOP refused to guarantee that they would finance his campaign.  Sweeney has had a relatively easy time getting re-elected; he won 59% of the vote in 2007.

How Sweeney got to Trenton