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Legendary New Jersey Legislator Bids Farewell to Politics

Loretta Weinberg, the “Jewish grandmother” of the Garden State’s political arena, has battled with Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo to get better transit for the common worker. Now, it’s time to say goodbye.

Loretta Weinberg
Loretta Weinberg, majority leader of the New Jersey state Senate.
(David Kidd/Governing)
If Loretta Weinberg were a normal politician, she probably would have cancelled this interview.

She has an ironclad reason to bow out. A few hours before our appointment, on New Jersey’s primary election day no less, the majority leader of the New Jersey state Senate broke her foot. As a violent thunderstorm lashes against Weinberg’s unassuming office in Teaneck, she hobbles into a well-worn conference room straight from the hospital, a new surgical boot affixed to her leg.

“I’ve never had a broken bone in my entire life,” sighs Weinberg, who is 86. “I waited until this stage of life to do this. I guess I have to experience everything.”

Her nascent fracture isn’t the only thing unusual about this Tuesday in early June. It is the first time that Weinberg will not be on the ballot in this corner of New Jersey, right across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan, since 1992.

2021 marks the end of a career defined by the marriage of left-wing ideals and hard-knuckled political acumen. The self-described “feisty Jewish grandmother” of New Jersey politics has a reputation for standing up to the powerful, and as Gov. Phil Murphy told Politico, of being one of the most consequential legislators in the state’s history.

During the second half of Weinberg’s political career, in the state Senate, she’s made headlines by standing up to the brash, not to say bullying, male politicians like North Jersey political boss Joseph Ferriero, Andrew Cuomo, and Chris Christie. Infamously, the latter asked reporters why they didn’t “take the bat out on her,” and Rachel Maddow even speculated that the traffic sabotage of the George Washington Bridge was actually a scheme to hit back at Weinberg.

“She was the one opponent who really, really got under Christie’s skin,” says Bob Sommer, CEO of Awsom Associates and a veteran New Jersey political consultant.

But Weinberg is not a gadfly, making a lonely stand with no path forward. She stands up to the powerful but also cultivates strong alliances among their ranks as well.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney selected her to be his No. 2 in 2012, despite their regional and ideological differences. Former Gov. Jon Corzine selected Weinberg to be his running mate in his ill-fated 2009 re-election bid, in part because of her spotless reputation in a state where political machines, patronage and petty corruption are still common.

“Loretta actually gets shit done, because she knows the inside game,” says Sommer. “Here’s the thing that gets overlooked about Loretta: Yes, she’s this progressive lion, the conscience of the Senate and all that, but what she’s not given credit for is her total political animal instincts.”

Getting Her Start in Teaneck

Weinberg announced her retirement in January of 2021. Since then, a lot of people have been asking for her origin story and she’s grown bored with the subject. (“I’m going to have to start making things up, make it more exotic,” says Weinberg.)

Teaneck is known as a bastion of progressive organizing across racially and religiously diverse constituencies. Weinberg started going to town council meetings in the 1960s because there wasn’t enough tree cover. But if it hadn’t been the lack of shade, it would have been something else.

“We moved here in 1964, and everybody was involved in something,” says Weinberg. “All the friends we made, everything was about the political activism of the 1960s.”

But instead of telling her story from the beginning, or through clashes with famous politicians, consider how she governs. There are dozens of examples of successful policy battles she’s waged in the Legislature, on issues like indoor smoking, abortion access, gun restrictions and gay marriage. In many of these cases, she faced early defeat but kept up the fight for years.

In her final years in office, Weinberg has zeroed in on a handful of issues. She’s spearheaded a working group against sexual harassment, fought to preserve and expand New Jersey’s strong public access requirements, and sought to buttress public transportation infrastructure.

“Bus riders are not a constituency that legislators have to confront,” says William Castner, formerly an adviser to governors Murphy and Corzine. “Typically, New Jersey’s underclass use the bus system. That’s evidence she is a state legislator who in a very atypical way represented the interests of those who weren’t in a position to fight for themselves.”

Weinberg’s interest in public transit stems in part from her district, which hugs the northeastern corner of the state and is home to commuter-rich townships like Fort Lee, Hackensack, and Palisades Park. There’s no train into Manhattan here, which means that lower income district residents rely on buses and so do middle-income residents working or doing business in the city.

But Weinberg’s interest in transit goes beyond matters of constituent services or economic necessity. It’s a matter of social equity. She vividly remembers a town hall she held about bus service, and the young mother who told her about the hundreds of dollars of daycare late fees she racked up because of delayed NJ Transit buses.

“It’s such a central part of the quality of life here,” says Weinberg. “Imagine you are working eight hours a day and you want to get home to have dinner with your family, and instead you’re on a crowded bus that picked you up 45 minutes late. I don’t know why it isn’t much more at the forefront, but it should be.”

Standing Up for Bus Riders

In Trenton, Weinberg fought for public transit during Christie’s administration, where the agency faced devastating budget cuts and a sharp decline in service. But she did not limit her focus to the state capitol.

Weinberg’s care for public transit can be seen in her attention to one of the least loved pieces of infrastructure in the New York City region. In the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, she attended Port Authority of New York and New Jersey meetings for months to demand details about the machinations surrounding the lane closures. But she also ran a parallel campaign to overhaul the agency’s hulking Midtown bus terminal.

She remembers a visit to the Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal, one of the busiest transit hubs in the country, where she saw the nightmare that faced many thousands of her constituents every day. The air conditioning didn’t work, so box fans were deployed throughout the building to keep the stagnant air moving. It was dirty, decrepit and filled beyond capacity. The bathrooms were stained with urine and filth. The escalators were broken, and there was no Wi-Fi access.

“They had these little bedside fans set up at places that you would come in with your ticket, and you’d feel like it was a Saturday Night Live joke,” said Weinberg. “When I started going to Port Authority meetings, I realized the bus terminal wasn’t even mentioned in their capital plan...[They didn’t] know how awful it had become.”

The behemothic bus station dates back to 1950, and its last major overhaul was in 1979. In the wake of the Great Recession, plans for a new terminal were abandoned as too expensive by the Port Authority leadership and the governors they responded to.
People crossing a street to enter the Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal.
The Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal, one of the busiest transit hubs in the country, was originally built in 1950 and last overhauled in 1979. Weinberg has pushed for years to build a new terminal and an actual full-scale renovation is in the works that will cost $10 billion and will increase passenger capacity by 40 percent, allow more infrastructure for electric buses and give direct access to the New York subway system. (Shutterstock)
In 2014, after months of Weinberg campaigning at Port Authority meetings, the incoming chairman of the agency, John Degnan, visited and was aghast at what he found. (The Star-Ledger reported that he was told “the chairman and vice chairman never took a tour of the terminal.”) Shortly thereafter, $90 million was found to establish Wi-Fi access, renovate the bathrooms, and fix the HVAC system.

“She was such a commanding presence at the board meetings, it was very powerful how she led that effort to fix this absolutely falling apart infrastructure,” says Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “But for her powerful voice and constant advocacy around it, I’m sure they would have kept putting repairs off until it would have been too late.”

But nothing comes easy at an agency torn between two powerful states. Degnan was a New Jersey appointee, and he clashed with the New York appointee Pat Foye (who is stepping down as chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority on July 30) over prioritization and funding of the bus terminal fix. Despite the terminal’s locations, and the obvious boon that all those New Jersey commuters provide the city, Gov. Cuomo described it as a New Jersey project and tried to complicate the process.

“Everything was a fight over ‘is this New York, is this New Jersey,’ and Cuomo was not a great partner,” says Weinberg. “It was like a playground fight. You got two piles of sand, I get two piles of sand.”

Cuomo called Weinberg at home to rail against Degnan. She also received a call from the New York Post asking if she’d traded a vote to allow Degnan’s son to become state comptroller — a routine bill that passed the Senate by an overwhelming majority — in exchange for the bus terminal money.

“I started to laugh, I said ‘no, but if somebody had offered me that deal, I would have taken it,’” remembers Weinberg. “That came from Cuomo.”

Now as retirement nears, Weinberg says that New York state’s new appointees are far easier to work with and there is actual collaboration between the two states. (She even has some names of helpful allies in Albany to pass on to her successor.) As a result, an actual full-scale renovation is in the works, a $10 billion new terminal that will increase passenger capacity by 40 percent, allow more infrastructure for electric buses and give direct access to the New York subway system. The Star-Ledger’s editorial board declared that the forthcoming building “crowns” her legacy.

“[Weinberg] focuses on what people actually experience, like the Port Authority Bus Terminal, making that a good experience for people as opposed to the totally crappy experience it currently is,” says Adam Gordon, executive director at Fair Share Housing Center. “She has a New Deal-esque vision that the government should be providing services that people enjoy, and are not merely barely functional.”

A Long Legislative Career Winds Down

Weinberg hasn’t been simply racking up wins in her final months. After the election, Gov. Phil Murphy did not provide truly dedicated funding for NJ Transit like she’s been pressing for. Instead, the budget includes a lot of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, even as the state’s principal transit agency struggles with an increasingly uncertain future of commuting and fare box revenues.

In the meantime, she’s pushing for an NJ Transit reform bill, a follow-up on a previous version that passed in 2018 that makes the agency more independent of the governor’s office. A customer advocate position would provide oversight, more public input would be required, and the chair would be elected by the board.

“I’m trying not to think about her leaving,” says Chernetz. “Nobody is going to be able to fill her shoes. But I think she has helped elevate transit as an issue and gotten the attention of other legislators.”

Weinberg hopes that her direct successor, and other legislators across the state, have become more interested in transit issues than their predecessors were. Perhaps this is another policy area where the Democratic caucus have moved in her direction, as happened with gay marriage and tougher gun regulations.

In the next half year of continuing to fight for her priorities, Weinberg is also taking the time to get nostalgic. Her office overflows with plaques and photographs, one of the oldest showing her on a United Farm Workers picket with her daughter in the 1960s. Newer entries include a signed photo of her and Biden, caught unawares discussing their families’ losses to cancer.

Weinberg’s memorabilia-stuffed office also speaks to a larger truth of her career. She is clearly loved by both progressive advocates and career politicians, a feat that is often difficult to accomplish.

“You have to learn how to get along without always going along, and how to pick your battles,” says Weinberg. “Knowing I can compromise here, the world will not come to an end, in order to move my goal forward. You have to know what is actually important. Would I have voted for somebody to be the [comptroller] in exchange for a bus terminal? Yeah.”

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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