Now that New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney has admitted defeat in his re-election bid, South Jersey could see some changes ahead without the longtime state senator from Gloucester County in charge.
Sweeney, the second most powerful politician in the state and the longest serving senate president in New Jersey history, lost his seat to Republican newcomer Edward Durr.
The upset shocked the region, but political observers said there were signs a Republican wave was in the works. Still, the election felt different this time around.
“Democrats were uninspired by the very top of the ticket,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli. It was a different mix of voters who showed up to the polls, compared to four years ago, he said. “Republicans and those who do not have a party affiliation, and in this case leaned Republican, came out in larger numbers than at previous elections.”
Burzichelli entered the legislature with Sweeney in 2002, representing the 3rd legislative district, which covers parts of Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties. At the time, Burzichelli was mayor of Paulsboro, while Sweeney was a Gloucester County Freeholder.
“We’ve known each other for a quarter of a century,” he said. “I’ve always thought that he’s positively the best friend I’ve ever had on a personal level and a person that I trust implicitly.”
Burzichelli, who ran on a slate with Sweeney, also lost his re-election bid. But he says South Jersey took a bigger hit from Sweeney’s loss.
“When people look back upon his service as the Senate President and see what this region gained, they will remember that Steve Sweeney came our way.”
A champion for South Jersey
Sweeney, an iron worker by trade, came out of the labor movement, according to Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. It was a daughter with special needs that prompted him to get involved with politics.
He is also backed by the South Jersey Democratic Party machine, which formed three decades ago out of a desire to get the region a seat at the table.
“Those who live in the southern part of the state when advocating for resources, I’ve always felt a little shorthanded,” Dworkin said. “The South Jersey Democrats got together and said, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore.’” Those Democrats, with businessman George Norcross, were able to form a voting bloc to maximize leverage they had in the state budgeting process.
Sweeney was voted senate president by his colleagues in 2010. In that role, he was able to control which bills his chamber would consider. He frequently used that power to boost South Jersey, from the new wind port in Salem County that’s part of the state’s major renewable energy plan, to the continued expansion of Rowan University in Glassboro.
“I may be biased, but let me suggest that the university’s growth to a 20,000 student institution from a place that was 10,000 students a decade ago could not have been done without state support for a leading school,” Dworkin said. “Steve Sweeney was critical in advocating for the university.”
Because Sweeney controls which bills come up for a vote, Dworkin said, he and his powerful Democratic Party backers wielded a lot of control.
“If it involves state legislation over the last 12 years, it involves Steve Sweeney,” he said.
Rage against the machine
However, not everyone in the Democratic tent sees Sweeney as a pragmatic politician who has gotten things done. To progressives, he has been an obstructionist.
“We could put together a multi-page list of the bills over the years that Sweeney and his allies have tried to thwart or watered down in the state legislature,” said Sue Altman, executive director of New Jersey Working Families.
She among many progressive activists have faulted Sweeney for either blocking or slowing down the progress of many progressive proposals, including from Gov. Phil Murphy.
Among her examples, she lists a “Supreme Court nominee, meaningful common sense gun reforms, the Reproductive Freedom Act.”
“That’s just a tip of the iceberg,” she said. To her, Sweeney’s defeat is a victory for the progressive movement in the Garden State.
“While I’m not thrilled about losing any Democratic seats to Trump Republicans, I am thrilled that this will unclog some of the obstruction that we’ve seen in Trenton over the last decade-plus,” Altman said.
Sweeney’s loss is also a defeat for the Norcross machine.
“The machine is not in tune with its voters,” said Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor, another progressive Democrat, who has warred with the machine. He’s suing the Delaware River and Bay Authority, alleging he was wrongly removed from his job as executive deputy director of the agency. Minor alleges DRBA officials fired him following pressure from Sweeney after he joined Murphy’s 2017 transition team.
Minor said the machine is not in tune with the concerns of South Jersey voters.
“The machine is more concerned about itself,” he said, “its inner workings than it is about the people who elected them.”
Burzichelli argued against using the term “machine” to describe the powerful party apparatus. He said he would instead “embrace the word ‘organization,’” crediting its efforts that put himself and Sweeney in office. He also pushed back against voters not being heard.
“There is an equal argument that taking up a number of progressive social items contributed to us not being successful with this election,” he said. “The progressive wing of our party is legitimate, I think it’s an important voice; it’s not a majority voice.
“Nobody gets everything they want and sometimes you take half a loaf and eventually come back and get a few more slices,” Burzichelli added. “That’s the pragmatic approach.
Norcross declined to comment for this article. But he told The Philadelphia Inquirer that last week’s election was “a tsunami that took place at the end that nobody saw coming. No one.”
Republicans, of course, are also seeing their sweep of the 3rd District as reducing the machine’s power.
“I think it sends a message that we are no longer under the thumb of that machine,” said Jacci Vigilante, chairwoman of the Gloucester County Republican Party. “Our voice, meaning not just Republicans, Democrats, too, in this area of the State of New Jersey are conservative minded.”
Moving past Sweeney era
Progressives are keeping an eye on the upcoming lame duck session in Trenton, all while planning and organizing a plan to get their message out.
Their chances of making inroads in the region are about the same as before the election, according to Dworkin.
“They’re a vocal, committed group of citizens advocating for a set of policies and candidates they choose and that’s great,” he said. “I am not sure that these electoral results that we’re seeing are going to have much of an effect on their ability to organize or win elections.”
Dworkin also adds that “the South Jersey Democratic Organization still exists.”
“They can still raise money, they can still recruit candidates, they are still going to run candidates. They still have a strong hold on the party apparatus and they will continue to do so even if they’ve suffered losses.”
Democrats will have a chance to retake the seats lost in the Legislature in a couple of years.
Until then, at the very least, Burzichelli is looking for the legislators who will succeed him to do what’s best for South Jersey. He also wants to see the region continue to be represented in top state leadership.
“I’m hoping that from the southern standpoint, southern region will have one of our people be the chair of appropriations on the Assembly side,” he said, noting that he has held that role since 2012. “It’s an important committee.”
Burzichelli said Democrats will still retain the majority in the Legislature and that there are still capable lawmakers who will represent South Jersey strongly.
Sweeney in his concession speech Wednesday said he was not done with this political career. Burzichelli hopes he will run for governor in 2025.
“I hold great hope that I will be in position in the not too distant future to be able to cast a vote for Steve Sweeney as governor of the state,” he said. “I think that’s unfinished business.”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!