A primer on how Steve Sweeney first got to Trenton

Gun Rights

Steve Sweeney, who will launch his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this morning, spent twenty years in the New Jersey State Senate and became the longest-serving Senate President in state history.

A 64-year-old labor leader, Sweeney became involved in politics after his daughter was born with Down syndrome; he became involved in local politics to help parents of special needs children obtain the needed services.

He became involved in local government in his hometown of West Deptford as an environmental commission member and was later appointed to the Gloucester County Solid Waste Advisory Committee.   He also took on leadership roles at the Ironworkers Local 399 union in South Jersey.

In 1995, Sweeney was named to a seat on the Gloucester County Vocational and Technical Board of Education.  That appointment came with a minor controversy: he had recently switched his voter registration from unaffiliated to Democratic, and his appointment to the county school board would have violated the limit on the number of members from a single political party.  To solve the issue, Democrat Anthony Wilcox switched his registration to unaffiliated.

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After Freeholder Joseph Manganello, a Democrat, announced that he would not seek re-election to a fourth term in 1996, Democrats put the 37-year-old Sweeney on their ticket with two incumbents, James Atkinson and Raymond Zane II.  Democrats were holding on to a friable 4-3 majority on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders after losing races in 1994 and 1995.

Against three Republicans in a controlled election — Deptford Councilwoman Beatrice Cerkez, Greenwich Mayor Ray Williams, and former Monroe Councilman Frank McGuckin – Sweeney won by nearly 9,000 votes.

Within a year, he became the freeholder director and scored a 7,000-vote win when he ran for a second term in the low-turnout year of 1999.

In 1999, Sweeney became the beneficiary of a blood feud between State Sen. Raymond Zane (D-Woodbury) and Gloucester County Democratic Chairman Michael Angelini over competition over government legal contracts they both wanted.

Zane was one of the most popular politicians in Gloucester County.  Elected freeholder in 1971, he ran for the Senate in 1973.

After  Republican State Sen. James Turner (R-Woodbury) got in trouble after being convicted of planting drugs in the car and garage of a hated political rival, Democratic Assemblyman Kenneth Gewertz (D-Deptford), but the tactic went bad after the police detective sensed that the tip he received from Turner might not be entirely altruistic.  An investigation led to Turner’s arrest on charges that he hired three known criminals to plant a large amount of amphetamines in the Gewertz home.  A jury convicted the 44-year-old Turner in less than two hours.

After he was sentenced to five years in prison and removed from the Senate in 1973, Turner refused to drop his re-election bid in the newly-drawn 3rd district.   Since he was appealing his conviction, a judge ruled that Turner could remain in the race.

Republicans, not realizing the magnitude of the anti-GOP Watergate wave that was about to hit, tried to hold onto the seat by running popular Gloucester County Sheriff Walter Fish as a write-in candidate.  Zane defeated Fish, 64%-20%, with 16% of the voters still wanting Turner as their senator.

He won re-election seven times, never getting less than 61% of the vote in a Gloucester-Salem district that was considered competitive.

Democrats became angry over Zane’s refusal to back the Democratic candidate for Assembly in his district, Paulsboro Mayor John Burzichelli, against the Republican incumbents in 1999.  For years, an informal non-aggression pact existed between Zane, Assembly Speaker Jack Collins and Assemblyman Gary Stuhltrager.  Zane didn’t get involved in the Assembly race, and Collins and Stuhltrager didn’t try to move up to the Senate.

In retaliation for Zane’s actions – and because Angelini thought the Senator was too greedy –  Gloucester County government entities stripped Zane of more than $175,000 worth of legal work, and Zane’s son, Freeholder Raymond Zane II lost his position as deputy director of the freeholder board.

The split between Zane and the Democrats widened in 2000 when Zane attempted to switch local party organizations from supporting former Gov. Jim Florio for U.S. Senate to Jon Corzine.  Salem County Democratic Chairman Tom 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.

Zane tried to go to war with Angelini, criticizing Angelini’s alliance with South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross and bringing boss-style politics to Gloucester.  Angelini threatened Zane with a primary challenge in 2001, and Sweeney acknowledged in May 2000 that he was likely to be the candidate.  (That story was first reported by PoliticsNJ, then a three-month-old political news suite.

Greenwich Democratic Municipal Chairman Anthony Velahos and East Greenwich Democratic Municipal Chairman Jeffrey Malinoski , both Zane allies, were stripped of their membership on the Democratic screening committee by Angelini after they endorsed Corzine for the U.S. Senate.

Zane ran two candidates for freeholder in the 2000 Democratic primary, recruiting East Greenwich Mayor Dalyn Currey and former Monroe school board member Willie Carter (on a slate with Corzine) to challenge incumbents Bob Damminger and Bill Krebs.  Zane’s candidates got destroyed – losing by more than 40 points.  Angelini’s sheriff candidate, Gilbert Miller, won 74% of the vote against Zane’s candidate, Peter Villegas.

In early 2001, Zane’s son showed up at his freeholder office to find that the freeholder director, Sweeney, had moved his office to one about one-third of the size.  A few weeks later, Zane announced that he was switching parties and would seek re-election as a Republican.

Zane accused Sweeney of offering paid legal jobs to Zane to get him to drop out of the race, but Sweeney denied that.

With Norcross’ help, Sweeney set the record for the most money spent in a legislative race in New Jersey history up to that point: he raised $1.9 million, plus another $457,000 for a joint campaign account with Burzichelli and Douglas Fisher.  Zane raised $625,000.  Sweeney was on Philadelphia television and did an estimated 30 direct mail pieces.

Zane carried Salem County,  but by just 474 votes.  Sweeney won Gloucester by 1,152 votes and carried the Cumberland portion of the district by 1,057 votes.  That gave Sweeney a 1,735-vote win – 51.5% to 48.5%.

George and Donald Norcross joined Sweeney at the podium when he gave his victory speech.

In those days, Sweeney was a right-of-center Democrat.  The National Rifle Association backed him for re-election in 2003 and contributed to his campaign – and $10,500 total since Sweeney has been in the Senate.

In 2003, Zane sought a rematch with Sweeney.  After the primary, after an ethics complaint was filed against him and following a series of bad news stories about the legal fees he made from local governments during his years as a Senator, Zane dropped out of the race.  Sweeney won re-election by 4,353 votes, 54%-46%, against replacement candidate Phil Rhudy.

He won a third term in 2007 against Republican Mark Cimino by a 57%-40% margin.

After Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken) declined to seek re-election in 2007, Senate Democrats picked Sweeney as the new majority leader.

Two years later, Sweeney assembled a coalition and took out Senate President Richard Codey to hold the second most powerful position in state government.

He won re-election in 2011 with 56% and 55% in 2013.   A frequent ally of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Sweeney had become a target of public employees.

In 2017, the New Jersey Education Association decided to spend about $5 million in a bid to unseat Sweeney in the 3rd legislative district against Salem County GOP Chairman Fran Grenier.  Sweeney won 59% in an $18.7 million race that may be the most expensive state legislative race in American history.

But in 2021, Sweeney spent much of his time in North and Central Jersey laying the groundwork for a 2025 gubernatorial run. In what may be the most significant legislative upset in state history, Sweeney lost his Senate seat to Ed Durr, a truck driver with no money or organization.  Durr prevailed by 2,199 votes and ousted Sweeney by 3.4%.

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