Known to many as the conscience of the New Jersey Legislature, State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) is a force in Garden State politics. A proud Jewish grandmother, Weinberg, 79, of Teaneck, has been known to use the Yiddish word kochleffel, which means pot stirrer, to both explain her ethos and exhort others to action. Weinberg stirred it up with PolitickerNJ about a range of issues as only she can.
PolitickerNJ: Are you planning on running again when you are up for reelection [in 2017]?
Loretta Weinberg: I have three years to go in my term, and I’ll make that decision as we get closer. It will depend upon my ability to serve, and it will depend on the issues that I still feel passionate about.
PNJ: What do you think is the most pressing issue that the Legislature must contend with in the weeks ahead?
LW: The Transportation Trust Fund. It’s of extreme importance to the entire state, our economy, our infrastructure and most personally to the people that I represent in my [Bergen County-based] district. Whether it’s fixing the roads or the bridges, it’s putting people’s safety on the line by not paying attention to our infrastructure. I am determined to get the Bergen-Hudson Light Rail to actually come to Bergen County.
PNJ: What are your views on the potential Democratic candidates for president in 2016?
LW: Obviously, Hillary Clinton seems to be the leading candidate in every Democratic poll imaginable. Would I like a woman with the right background and experience to break through the glass ceiling and get to the White House? Absolutely. But it’s a little bit early, and she hasn’t declared yet.
I think [U.S. Senator] Elizabeth Warren has done a terrific job of articulating issues that are important to me and to our party about income inequality, which the Republicans seem to have somehow just discovered, and about who is running the government, Wall Street or Main Street. She has a role to play in the party. I think she moves whoever our candidate is into a more progressive mindset, which I think is good. The fact that a comparatively newly-minted Senator can have that kind of a voice that people listen to and pay attention to is a real tribute to her ability and to her connection with people.
PNJ: What do you think about the possibility of U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) as a U.S. vice-presidential candidate?
LW: Do I think it would be great to have somebody we know, a real Jersey boy, to be the Vice President of the United States? Absolutely. Would I love to see Cory Booker there? Yes. But whoever is our presidential nominee has to pick a vice president that could take over if need be, then somebody who brings the right balance to the ticket. Cory Booker brings lots of things to the ticket, including a terrific intellect, great oratorical skill and government experience.
Certainly, the Latino population is growing in New Jersey and in our country. I’m sure that there are many voters out there where, while having a Jersey boy is great, having somebody who understands the particular issues surrounding you and your family is also important.
PNJ: Where do you stand regarding the potential 2017 Democratic candidates for New Jersey governor? Do you have a favorite candidate yet?
LW: As the Majority Leader serving with state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), I think that our Senate President is gaining the leadership skills and the experience needed to become a really good governor. We’ve got some time. We’ll see how all of this shakes out.
PNJ: While the names most mentioned as potential 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidates include Senate President Sweeney, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, other names have been mentioned as potential candidates, including state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20). Lesniak has in many ways had a progressive voting record matching your own. If Lesniak ultimately enters the race, do fellow progressives like yourself have to support him?
LW: There is no “have to” in this game at all. Ray Lesniak and I have been partners on many issues, most particularly marriage equality and outlawing the death sentence in New Jersey. He is a passionate believer in many of the same things that I am. Having said that, Steve Sweeney became a strong supporter of marriage equality. On the progressive issues litany, such as a woman’s right to choose and the right to collective bargaining, I think so far all of our potential Democratic candidates are in line on those issues. There’s not much divergence between them.
PNJ: You’ve mentioned Sweeney several times. Is there anything Fulop or Murphy can do to win you over?
LW: As I said, it’s a long time between now and the election. We’re probably going to go through a primary. Because I think all of the aforementioned people, including [state Senator and former Governor] Richard Codey (D-27), are on what I consider the correct side of the issues that we in the progressive wing of the party hold dear, we are very lucky.
PNJ: How do you think New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s potential run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is going to affect New Jersey?
LW: The run is already affecting state government. We have several complex problems that need attention. I don’t care how talented you are or how many cell phones you carry. You can’t pay attention to the details where the attention is needed if you’re flying to Iowa and talking to pig farmers. It’s affected us as we’re trying to get to some conclusions on the Transportation Trust Fund, our budget shortfalls and everything else. This administration has been so micro-managed that there are very few people who can make decisions without the governor.
PNJ: Do you think the problems here will ultimately catch up with Governor Christie on the campaign trail, or will nobody outside of New Jersey really care?
LW: I think they have caught up with him in New Jersey, as shown by the poll numbers. When he’s out on the national stage, people are going to be looking at how people in New Jersey feel about him. Wouldn’t that be the first place you would look? And if you look at the name of his PAC, it shows you what I mean about paying attention to detail.
PNJ: Two of the most prominent names mentioned as potential Democratic candidates in the Fifth Congressional District are Roy Cho, of Hackensack, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) in 2014, and Josh Gottheimer, a business executive and former adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Out of these two potential candidates, who do you support?
LW: Roy Cho ran an absolutely great campaign. The only problem was is that he still didn’t have enough to get across what Scott Garrett’s voting record is really like and how it is not reflective of the average person in the Fifth District. I was a great supporter of his, and I think he put together an army of volunteers unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time. Having said all of that, I think that Roy and Josh and anybody else who might be willing to put their name forth in this very tough environment will have to sit down and work out who is the best candidate. But if Roy wants to run, I could not not support him, for all of the reasons I’ve just mentioned.
PNJ: Have you given any thought to who would succeed you as the state Senator in the 37th Legislative District?
LW: I guess everybody thinks about that. I have two great Assembly colleagues, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson. They represent diversity, a woman and an African-American. If I decide not to run again, and it’s one of them, then there would be an Assembly opening, so there’s a lot of things that would be considered. Together, we’ve established a pretty impressive record, whether it’s speaking up for disabled people, women’s rights, minority issues or about the Port Authority. I’m proud of all three of us.
PNJ: Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato is riding high after helping Jim Tedesco win last fall’s Bergen County Executive election. How do you think the Bergen Democrats under Stellato’s leadership can avoid the problems experienced when former Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero, who was convicted on corruption charges in 2009, was in control of the party?
LW: First of all, Lou Stellato is not Joe Ferriero. Second of all, Lou Stellato is not an attorney, so he’s not looking for contracts, which was the kind of thing that helped the undoing of his predecessor. He’s just a different kind of person. We always have to be wary, because there are a few of the Ferriero acolytes who are still around and who have important positions in the party. I’m always watching to make sure that they’re not following the lessons that they learned under the Ferriero regime. They’ve grown and matured, hopefully. We have to work on transparency and inclusion. It’s not easy. But Lou has done a great job, and Jim Tedesco is going to be an amazing county executive. In his first few weeks in office, his first responder experience and instincts served him well during the Edgewater fire. He is very inclusive.
PNJ: Regarding the Edgewater fire, has the investigation turned up anything that needs to be dealt with on the legislative end?
LW: I assume that the building codes need to be dealt with. The building codes in our state have to be investigated and looked at.
PNJ: Is the state Legislative investigation into the Bridgegate affair now stalled?
LW: The Legislative investigation has done a great job of turning up documents, and putting out there the kind of environment that led to this bizarre action by people who think that’s what you do if you’re mad at somebody. All of that is now out there, and it’s only out there because we had some persistence about it.
Now the ball is in the U.S. Attorney’s court. Just like everybody else, we’re waiting to see when and if something comes out of what has been a very lengthy criminal investigation. We can’t interview the main cast of characters, for obvious reasons. We don’t want to be in a position where we’ve granted them immunity. And unlike his predecessor, [U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman] doesn’t call the press before he knocks on someone’s door.
PNJ: Out of all of the party chairs in New Jersey’s 21 counties, there are only three who are women. One of these women chairs, Democrat Liz Muoio of Mercer County, is potentially on her way to a state Assembly seat. Do you think that Mercer must put in another woman to replace her as chair?
LW: I think that one of the reasons that women have always had a problem moving ahead in politics in New Jersey is because the county leaders are a male dominated group. I’m not going to speak for Mercer County, I’m not a county committee member there. It’s an internal party decision. But if you’re asking me would I like to see Liz Muoio replaced with another woman, absolutely.
PNJ: What do you want your legacy to be?
LW: New Jersey keeps a lot of things on my mind. What keeps me going is the myriad of interesting issues that come across my desk. I am never bored. Every so often if we get a snow day and I can stay home in my flannel bathrobe. I’m delighted.
I spend a lot of time encouraging young women to put their toes in the water and run for office. In what other endeavor can you affect so many ripples that eventually make their way to the ocean? I want more women to become good legislators on any level and shrewd politicians at the same time, where they can stand up for progressive values and know how to get things done.
This life is interesting, sometimes frustrating, but by and large I wouldn’t trade it for anything other than my family.