A brief electoral history of Steve Sweeney

Gun Rights

Last month, former Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) did something he’s been wanting to do for a decade: launch a campaign for governor of New Jersey.

Sweeney, a union ironworker from South Jersey, is one of several Democrats who hopes to fill the seat that will be vacated by term-limited Gov. Phil Murphy in 2025. If Sweeney prevails, it would be the culmination of a remarkable political career that has included some tremendous successes and one tremendously famous failure. (There’s a reason that his title has to be preceded by “former.”)

The 64-year-old Sweeney got his start in the 1990s as a county freeholder in Gloucester County, and moved up to the State Senate in 2001 after beating a party-switching incumbent who had fallen out of favor with local bosses. In 2009, he became the Senate President, a role he held for a record-breaking 12 years and crafted into one of the most powerful state legislative offices in the country – until a shocking upset defeat in 2021 brought him down.

Over the course of his nearly 30-year political career, which began when some of his prospective gubernatorial opponents were still in college, Sweeney – a committed political moderate – has fought all manner of political foes, from Democrats to Republicans to Democrats-turned-Republicans. Including his two intra-caucus battles for Senate leadership positions, Sweeney has competed in 14 contested elections, 13 of which he won.

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Now he faces a new challenge: turning the relationships he built and the skills he developed during those 14 campaigns into a coalition that can win a statewide Democratic primary. It will be his toughest challenge yet.

This is the second in a series of in-depth histories of New Jersey gubernatorial candidates. Previous profile: Steve Fulop

Early days

In Sweeney’s telling of his own life story, he didn’t start out as an especially political guy. The son of an ironworker, Sweeney grew up in Pennsauken and became an ironworker himself; after graduating high school, he joined his dad’s union, the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers Local 399.

Then Sweeney’s daughter was born with Down’s Syndrome, which awakened him to the necessity of advocating for disabled people and other disadvantaged groups. Disability advocacy and Local 399, in which Sweeney steadily rose through the ranks, became Sweeney’s two entry points to the world of politics, and the rest is history.

But there’s a key figure missing from that story: a fellow Pennsauken kid named George Norcross. Norcross and Sweeney were boyhood friends, and when Norcross began building a political operation in South Jersey – he became Camden County Democratic chairman in 1989 and only expanded further from there – Sweeney was a natural ally.

Sweeney started small, becoming an environmental commission member in his home of West Deptford and taking a seat on the Gloucester County Solid Waste Advisory Committee. In 1995, he was appointed to the Gloucester County Vocational and Technical Board of Education.

Then, in 1996, a more prominent opportunity arose. Gloucester County Freeholder Joe Manganello, a three-term Democrat who would later tell ghost stories about the Gloucester County Courthouse, decided to leave politics, and Sweeney was tapped to fill his spot on the Democratic slate.

Special thanks to Gloucester County Deputy Clerk Heather Pool for providing archival election results.

Running alongside Sweeney were two incumbents, Freeholders James Atkinson and Raymond Zane II. Their Republican opponents were all local officials spread across the county: Greenwich Mayor Ray Williams, Deptford Councilwoman Beatrice Cerkez, and former Monroe Councilman Frank McGuckin.

Back then – just like today – Gloucester County was highly competitive, and Democrats held just a 4-3 freeholder majority after poor showings in 1994 and 1995. Norcross, who had locked down Camden County and was beginning to expand his empire outwards, wanted a strong Democratic showing to maintain control of the board and set up future wins in 1997 and 1998.

And that’s exactly what he got. With Bill Clinton carrying the county by 20 points at the top of the ticket, the three Democrats held their seats with a combined 58% of the vote, holding the Republican slate to wins in just two of the county’s 24 towns.

Sweeney came in third, ahead of fourth-place finisher Williams by 12,543 votes. As a non-incumbent, he somewhat underperformed both of his running mates – but he’d prove to have much more staying power than either of them.

The 2001 rumble

Within a year of taking office, Sweeney became the freeholder director, an early sign of his ability to move up the ladder impressively fast (thanks in part to his close relationship with Norcross). He ultimately served on the freeholder board for 12 years, winning re-election without much trouble in 1999, 2002, 2005, and 2008 alongside a shifting slate of running mates.

But because New Jersey lacked prohibitions on dual office-holding at the time, Sweeney’s freeholder seat wasn’t an impediment to pursuing other political opportunities. And in 2001, the perfect chance presented itself.

Steve Sweeney as a young(er) man.

State Sen. Raymond Zane (D-Woodbury), the father of the freeholder with whom Sweeney ran in 1996, had been a powerful Gloucester County politician for nearly 30 years, first winning the 3rd legislative district’s Senate seat in 1973 after two years on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders. But by the turn of the century, his relationship with Gloucester Democrats had gone sour.

Zane, a conservative Democrat who consistently won by massive margins in his otherwise competitive district, had maintained an unwritten nonaggression pact with Assembly Speaker Jack Collins (R-Pittsgrove) and Assemblyman Gary Stuhltrager (R-Deptford), to the benefit of all three men. Zane wouldn’t target Collins and Stuhlbarger for defeat, and in return neither assemblyman would attempt to move up to the Senate.

That detente angered local Democrats, who retaliated by stripping county legal work from Zane’s law firm and demoting Zane’s son on the freeholder board. Zane escalated things further from there, siding with Jon Corzine over South Jerseyan Jim Florio in the 2000 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and running rival county freeholder candidates that year (who lost in a landslide).

The feud got to be bad enough that Gloucester Democratic Chairman Michael Angelini began threatening Zane with a primary challenge, with Sweeney as the likely challenger. But then – in a move recently echoed by former State Sen. Sam Thompson (D-Old Bridge) – Zane preempted his detractors and switched parties in February 2001, becoming a member of the then-majority Republican caucus.

“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, but outgrew it,” Zane said at a press conference announcing his defection. “I really don’t want any part of the hierarchy of the Democratic Party [in Gloucester County] now. It’s not what government should be about. It’s about fund-raising and getting jobs and twisting people.”

Suddenly, Sweeney was thrust into a very different type of election; if he wanted to join the legislature, he’d have to overcome a powerful and popular senator in a general election contest rather than quietly shuffling him off in a lower-turnout primary. Gloucester Democrats, under Norcross’s tutelage, were a formidable organization, but the 3rd legislative district was no slam dunk for Democrats.

In early polls of the race, Zane was up by 20 points; voters in the area were so accustomed to voting for him that doing anything else seemed unthinkable. But with Norcross as the chief money spigot, Sweeney showered the district in ads and mailers, raising nearly $2.5 million between his own account and a joint account with his Assembly running mates; it was the most expensive legislative election in state history at the time.

And that money was used to massive effect. While in the Senate, Zane was the only senator to vote against an obscure bill benefiting police officers’ widows and children. Democratic operatives found that vote, and ran Philadelphia network TV ads slamming Zane over it – a devastatingly effective tactic in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when a failure to support police officers and other first responders was seen as a cardinal sin.

With Zane’s Assembly detente no longer in effect, Democrats were also able to fully target the district’s two Assembly seats for the first time in years. Both Collins and Stuhltrager retired, and Sweeney recruited Paulsboro Mayor John Burzichelli, who had previously run in 1999 without Zane’s support, and former Cumberland County Freeholder Douglas Fisher (D-Bridgeton) to run for their seats.

The end result was a close – but decisive – Democratic sweep. Sweeney unseated Zane 51.5% to 48.5%, while Burzichelli and Fisher won the two open seats with a combined 57% of the vote. Sweeney carried the 3rd district’s core of Gloucester County by four points and also won its portion of Cumberland County, but narrowly lost Salem County.

Ever since it was first created in 1973, the 3rd district had been held by a Democratic senator. Zane’s party switch changed that briefly – but Sweeney made sure the district returned to its roots.

Ascension through the ranks

The campaign against Zane would prove to be the last time Sweeney faced a truly close race for the Senate – until his 2021 loss, of course.

Zane – who despite having been in office for three decades was only 62 when he lost re-election – initially intended on seeking a rematch against Sweeney in 2003. (State Senate elections in years ending in -1 are for two-year terms rather than the usual four years.) He won the Republican primary uncontested and was well on his way to making the 3rd district race into another expensive and competitive contest.

But then, after the primary, Zane got hit with an official ethics complaint and a wave of negative stories about legal fees he earned during his Senate career. Zane dropped out of the race in September; his replacement, Harrison Township Mayor Phil Rhudy, was never able to really rise up to the challenge of taking on the South Jersey Democratic organization, and Sweeney won 54%-46%.

Fisher, Burzichelli, and Sweeney with feline friends in a 2007 campaign mailer.

As it turned out, Sweeney’s opponents from then on turned out to be much more like Rhudy than like Zane. He won 57%-40% against attorney Mark Cimino in 2007, 56%-44% against attorney Michael Mulligan in 2011, and 55%-45% against Harrison Township Committeewoman Niki Trunk in 2013.

Notably, at no point did the moderate Sweeney, who took several thousand dollars from the National Rifle Association in 2003 and 2007, ever face a primary challenger. Given the South Jersey Democratic organization’s iron grip on the region, beating another Democrat in a primary election is not a muscle Sweeney has ever had to exercise.

Sweeney also made sure that he didn’t lose his hold on the 3rd district’s two Assembly seats, which were more vulnerable in years that he himself wasn’t on the ballot. Burzichelli remained on Team Sweeney for a full 20 years, while Fisher left in 2009 to become the state Secretary of Agriculture and was replaced by Bridgeton Councilwoman Celeste Riley; when Riley was elected Cumberland County Clerk in 2014, Gloucester County Freeholder Adam Taliaferro (D-Woolwich) took her place.

In 2007, Sweeney got the chance to substantially increase his sway in the Senate. With Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken) retiring, Sweeney ran to take his spot – and he had the increasingly powerful South Jersey Democratic bloc, which increased to six members after the 2007 elections, to back him up.

Opposing Sweeney was State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), a fellow moderate Democrat who had only been in the Senate for a few years. Sarlo had the support of Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland), but it was Sweeney who assembled the larger coalition; he beat Sarlo 14-9 in an internal caucus vote.

And he wouldn’t be satisfied with second for long. Just over a year after becoming Majority Leader, Sweeney began agitating to replace Codey, who had been in command of the Senate since Democrats took complete control in 2003 but whom Sweeney recognized as vulnerable.

The pro-gun, labor-focused Sweeney was among the Senate’s more moderate Democrats at the time, which put him to Codey’s right – but the race between the two men wasn’t an ideological one. Instead, it came down to the ultimate currency in politics: relationships.

Sweeney’s coalition began with the six South Jersey senators, each of whom had their own quirks but all of whom were deeply tied to the Norcross orbit. They alone got Sweeney nearly halfway to a majority of the caucus, and from there it was about building connections farther north: with most of the senators from Middlesex and Union Counties, who had also supported his Majority Leader campaign; with State Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City), a burgeoning power player in Hudson County; and with Sarlo, his erstwhile foe.

On September 30, 2009, Sweeney officially announced that he had the support of 13 of his fellow senators for the Senate Presidency, enough to oust Codey. Two others, State Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), weren’t officially part of that coalition but were also on Team Sweeney. Codey tried to hang on, but the math wasn’t there anymore.

When Sweeney took office, he cleaned house, with many of the Codey loyalists who had occupied the Senate’s upper rungs suddenly finding themselves out of favor. (One of them, State Sen. Shirley Turner, finally got back into the chamber’s good graces when she became Senate President Pro-Tempore this year – 14 years after she had been removed as Education Committee chair.)

The contest cemented Sweeney as someone loyal to those loyal to him, regardless of ideology; he made Weinberg, the liberal lion of the Senate, the Health and Senior Services Committee chair and eventually the Senate Majority Leader despite their hugely differing views. With a new Republican governor arriving at the same time as he became Senate President, that proved to be an important quality.

The Christie and Murphy eras

When Chris Christie unseated Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009, he entered office with a sizable mandate, but it didn’t extend very far in the legislature. Democrats held solid majorities in both the Senate and Assembly (Republicans had gained only one Assembly seat on Christie’s coattails), requiring the new governor to cut deals across the aisle to accomplish much of anything.

Sweeney, as it turned out, was an amenable partner. He and Christie would often spar in public on issues like gay marriage, on which Sweeney himself went through a public evolution. But in private, they both knew it was all just words, and they were perfectly happy to work with one another on things like the state budget, controversial pension reforms, and an overhaul of the bail system.

Sweeney, Christie, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto in the governor’s office. (Photo: Office of the Governor).

Their relationship was good enough that Christie never bothered trying to unseat Sweeney back home in the 3rd legislative district. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield), in pursuit of the Senate Presidency, wanted to target Sweeney, whose district remained competitive on paper. But Christie, who got along better with Sweeney than he did with Kean, had no intention of getting involved.

The result was two fairly easy victories for Sweeney in 2011 and 2013. In the latter year, Sweeney won by 10 points even as Christie was carrying his district by a 29-point landslide at the top of the ticket.

In his second term, Christie began making more overtures to the right, with the intention of giving himself conservative bona fides to show off in his 2016 presidential campaign. Sweeney, in turn, started making somewhat of a shift to the left, in preparation for his own next step: as a 2017 gubernatorial candidate.

With Christie term-limited out, Democrats were optimistic that they’d be able to flip the governor’s office back (and perhaps hold it for longer than the repeated stunted terms of previous Democratic governors). They had two immediately strong contenders to do so: Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, another rising star from the opposite side of the state.

Sweeney started off with two very strong points in his favor: the presumptive backing of the far-reaching South Jersey Democratic organization and the unswerving loyalty of the state’s powerful building trades unions, which had been enthusiastically supporting their ironworking Senate ally ever since his first election.

But then a former Goldman Sachs executive named Phil Murphy arrived on the scene and radically changed the calculus. Murphy launched his campaign in May 2016, when every other candidate was still operating behind-the-scenes, and quickly began to win over state party chairs with his robust campaign operation and deep pockets.

In September 2016, Fulop said he wouldn’t run for governor after all, endorsing Murphy at an unexpected press conference in Jersey City. Sweeney, recognizing that he had been backed into a corner, bowed out a week later, saying that “it has become clear that Phil Murphy has been able to secure substantial support from Democratic and community leaders that would make my bid all but impossible.” (Sweeney eventually endorsed Murphy in January 2018.)

For some of the progressives and labor unions whom the moderate Sweeney had alienated over the years, though, denying him the governorship was not enough. They wanted to make sure he didn’t return to Trenton at all.

Thus was born one of the oddest political alliances in recent New Jersey history: between the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), a progressive teachers’ union furious with Sweeney over deals he cut with Christie, and South Jersey Republicans, who had been trying unsuccessfully to oust Sweeney for years.

For Sweeney’s seat, Republicans ran Fran Grenier, the chairman of the Salem County GOP. He became the avatar for a colossal campaign to unseat Sweeney; the NJEA spent more than $5 million attacking the Senate President, and total spending in the district topped $24 million, dramatically more than has ever been spent on a single legislative race before or since.

In theory, their plan could have been a sound one, since Sweeney’s district had supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. It certainly seemed easier to oust him in a general election than try to dislodge his hold on the Senate Democratic caucus, where he had a deep bench of allies who would stand by him. (There were even a few Republicans – “Sweeneycans” – willing to step in and save his Senate Presidency if things went south in his own conference).

But Sweeney proved to be far more resilient than his opponents had hoped. With two decades of experience winning elections in his part of the state – and a hugely powerful leadership role to help him bring money back home – Sweeney beat Grenier 59%-41%, nearly his largest Senate margin ever. (His 2007 victory margin was 0.2% larger.)

Following their drubbing, the NJEA tried to put a positive spin on things: Grenier’s “insurgent campaign” had “electrified New Jersey politics and energized NJEA members.” But the reality was that Sweeney had emerged from the campaign electorally stronger than ever.

The NJEA did get a big victory at the top of the ticket, though, with their endorsee Phil Murphy easily flipping the governor’s office from Republicans – setting up a turbulent relationship with Sweeney that defined the governor’s first term in office.

Murphy and Sweeney found many policy issues on which they disagreed, most notably Murphy’s proposed millionaire’s tax, which nearly caused a government shutdown in 2019. And back in Sweeney’s home turf, Murphy was bitterly battling with George Norcross over tax incentives in Camden.

Over time, the relationship between the two men softened, especially once Covid shifted the state’s politics into crisis mode – but it was clear the governor’s office wished someone else sat in the Senate President’s office. They wouldn’t have to wait long to get their wish.

The 2021 disaster

If Election Day 2021 had gone as expected, it would have been merely a blip in the larger trajectory of Steve Sweeney. He was supposed to romp to re-election against an unknown challenger, keep control of the Senate for a record-breaking 13th year, and set himself up to try again at the governor’s office in 2025.

Sweeney’s opponent, a truck driver named Ed Durr, had none of the assets that previous unsuccessful Sweeney challengers had. Durr, who had lost several campaigns for State Assembly and township council, had no major outside supporters and spent only around $30,000 – more than the $153 some news reports cited, but still not nearly enough to run a functional campaign against a sitting Senate President.

Sweeney felt unthreatened enough that he spent most of his campaign time in other districts, working to expand his caucus of South Jersey Democrats in the Senate. He had never been one to take his own district for granted, but he simply saw no indications – polling-wise, spending-wise, or otherwise – that he was in any danger.

Then election night arrived, and it became clear that New Jersey voters were not behaving as anticipated. The governor’s race, which was supposed to be a sizable victory for Murphy against Republican Jack Ciattarelli, turned into a nail-biter, and downballot Democrats suffered heavily for it.

One of them, of course, was Sweeney. The Senate President maintained much of the crossover support that he had built up over the years, but with Murphy losing the 3rd legislative district by 15 percentage points, it wasn’t enough. Sweeney lost to Durr 52%-48%, a near-perfect inversion of his original win in 2001; Burzichelli and Taliaferro also lost their Assembly seats.

Salem County, which had consistently supported Sweeney since 2003, voted for Durr by 14 percentage points. Some towns, like Deerfield in Cumberland County and National Park in Gloucester County, swung against Sweeney by more than 30 points compared to his 2017 victory.

Sweeney waited a few days to concede his loss, and when he did, he made it clear that his involvement in the political arena was not over.

“I plan to remain fully involved in public affairs in New Jersey,” he said. “I will be speaking from a different podium, but I promise you: I will be just as loud and just as forceful a voice for change.”

Onwards and upwards

Because the senators who won in 2021 were only elected to two-year terms, Sweeney was presented with an immediate opportunity for revenge in 2023. If he had run again, South Jersey Democrats would have been prepared to fully back up his candidacy.

But Sweeney ultimately opted against a comeback campaign; even if he had flipped the seat, he likely wouldn’t have been able to wrest control of the Senate back from new Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden), and would have been stuck as one senator among many. (Burzichelli, Sweeney’s former Assembly running mate, ran in his place – and won.)

Instead, Sweeney spent his time and energies on laying the groundwork for something grander. It was widely known even before 2021 that Sweeney was interested in trying again at the governor’s office once Murphy departed. His re-election loss, of course, threw a wrench in those plans, but they weren’t enough to dissuade him from running anyways.

The Steve Sweeney who launched his gubernatorial campaign last month is, in many ways, the same Steve Sweeney who won a freeholder seat back in 1996. He’s still a politician with moderate, deal-making instincts; he’s still a deeply pro-labor ironworker, as evidenced by the many endorsements from building trades unions he’s already gotten.

And most importantly, he’s still very much a South Jersey guy. Sweeney remains deeply loyal to Norcross, and the Norcross-led South Jersey empire that first put him in office nearly three decades ago has signaled that it is firmly behind his 2025 gubernatorial bid.

But on some things, Sweeney has clearly changed. His launch ad specifically highlighted his efforts as Senate President to legalize gay marriage and codify abortion access – two issues that the Sweeney of 20 or 30 years ago certainly would not have emphasized. The Democratic Party of 2024 is in a different place than it was when Sweeney entered politics, and Sweeney has shifted along with it.

Can Sweeney take those many parts of his political identity – the county freeholder from deep South Jersey, the Senate President who could broker a deal with anyone, the electoral juggernaut who won a tough district again and again, the mainstream Democrat who fought for liberal policies like minimum wage increases and LGBT rights – and turn it into a winning gubernatorial campaign?

He’s certainly going to try.

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