Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg is retiring after a decades-spanning career in politics, serving in the New Jersey legislature for almost 30 years. A staunch Democrat from Teaneck, she was chosen to be Governor Jon Corzine’s lieutenant governor candidate in his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 2009. She has been the senate majority leader since 2012, succeeding Barbara Buono, served in the state senate since 2005, and previously represented the 37th district in the state Assembly from 1992.
She has seen it all and carries a wealth of personal and political experience. With retirement ahead, she has an opportunity to look at the state from a perspective unfettered by concerns for the next campaign. With that in mind, Insider NJ spoke with Senator Weinberg to discuss the current election between Governor Phil Murphy and former assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, as well as the trajectory of the political environment in the state.
As far as Weinberg is concerned, acknowledging that the state and nation as a whole are very divided, the key topic the governor needs to focus on with Election Day closing in is the issue which has affected and does affect every man, woman, and child in the world: the virus and public health. With Murphy helming the ship of state through the worst public health crisis in a century, and the worst of the virus appears to be behind us, Weinberg believes that that speaks to the strength of his command. “The fact that we seem to be, thank God, improving in this area as we get more and more people vaccinated, we get the disease under control as best we can. I think that he has to keep the confidence of the people of New Jersey, that he’s done a good job in this area, and that he’s going to continue to protect their health and the health of their families.” With public health the top priority, the next would be the wallet. A simple but effective formula that speaks to the practicalities of daily life, not necessarily any ideological outlook: “Building the economy back after COVID, getting business back up on its feet and people employed, and, of course, the ever present property tax.”
Weinberg noted that she deals with her own high property taxes, and that tax and the economy are the stronger parts of Ciattarelli’s attacks on Murphy. “I think he’ll gain some traction because people get annoyed and they want to take it out on someone,” Weinberg said, “but not nearly enough traction to change the trajectory of this.”
Jack Ciattarelli is also a man swimming in swirling, changing seas. A New Jersey moderate Republican, Ciattarelli is affable and projects an easy-going personality—he would probably be a tough but fair boss if you worked for him, and a decent guy who could be your neighbor. That’s the image he has been cultivating, painting Murphy as a rich, out-of-touch ideologue who wants to transform New Jersey into something it isn’t, like a Berkeley-style lib-topia that is as unaffordable as it is unrealistic.
But that’s the nature of campaigning, and the New Jersey Republicans’ gubernatorial champion has demonstrated more tact and rationality than many other Republican candidates across the nation, who openly embrace QAnon conspiracies, tout that the election was stolen from Trump, and describe an apocalyptic landscape before them. These views are held by some on the right while President Biden—a not-so-radical Democrat uninterested even in legalizing marijuana—is struggling to get his own party which holds both houses in line behind his agenda. This stems from ideological divisions between the likes of conservative Democrats such as Senator Joe Manchin, former Green Party-turned-Democrat Senator Kyrsten Simena, and New Jersey’s Congressman Josh Gottheimer, and left-wingers such as Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, it should be noted, joined Governor Murphy’s political-celebrity endorsement tour of the state, along with President Biden and former President Barack Obama. This left Ciattarelli chuckling and the legions of New Jersey unaffiliated voters who skew moderate and conservative shaking their heads.
Let us now review the clash which looms before the residents of the Garden State.
In the battle for the governor’s chair, Jack is the admiral of the New Jersey Republican Fleet, battered but unbroken after the 2018 Blue Wave. Here, state chairman Bob Hugin is captain of the flagship carrying Jack into a headwind. At Trafalgar 116 years ago, the outnumbered Royal Navy defeated a numerically superior Franco-Spanish armada, but at the cost of Admiral Nelson himself. For Ciattarelli, the Democrats, with their million-plus advantage in registered voters, represents such an armada he faces in the Battle for November 2. As Murphy peers through his spyglass at the red sails before him—LeRoy Jones as his fleet captain—the governor positions his blue sailed warships, such as the Newark, the Elizabeth, the Paterson, and the Jersey City, firing stinging long-range volleys of early votes and votes-by-mail. These are supported by the smaller brigs and frigates which will play substantial roles in the critical in-person get-out-the-vote salvoes. These will decide the clash in which ships sail home in triumph, and which sink beneath the waves for four years.
Should Ciattarelli prove himself luckier than Lord Nelson and pull into the port of Trenton as the victor, then he will have the ability to decisively set the tone of the New Jersey Republican Party going forward, or at least be in the best possible position to do so, depending on the unfolding of events in Washington DC in 2024. This may prove to be either a blessing or a curse as the Republican Party seeks to find its soul as much as its role post-January 2021.
For Weinberg, the Republican Party itself has changed “drastically” and she is disappointed with the trends she has seen across the aisle. “I can’t get over it,” she told Insider NJ. She spoke of the “many Republican women who I’ve been friends with over the years starting in Bergen County, where we had a very robust bipartisan group of women that did things together in the legislature. I was able to work with Republican women across the aisle, women like Rose Heck, Maureen Ogden, and more recently, Diane Allen. To see a Republican Party that they are not the dominant voices of is troublesome. I say this, because I think we need a two-party system to keep all of us functioning in the most democratic way. And today’s Republican Party is not in tune with mainstream New Jersey, I don’t believe.”
Diane Allen is running for lieutenant governor on Jack Ciattarelli’s ticket, taking on the role Weinberg herself had had when the position was first established in the Corzine years.
Ciattarelli came out of a blistering primary campaign that pitted himself against more hardline Trump-oriented candidates like Phil Rizzo and Hirsch Singh. Even Ciattarelli’s own family took the brunt of the Singh campaign on a personal level, crossing a line many New Jerseyans found unacceptable.
In the Garden State, some things are off limits, like family.
While Trump took 41% of New Jersey compared to Biden’s 57% in 2020, the Republican Party continues to be dominated by the former president’s legacy and, particularly among the rank and file, style. This has been an issue of concern where the traditional party structure is bucked by the populist wing—which in turn erodes the control of party direction.
“Part of me feels sorry for him,” Weinberg said of Ciattarelli. “It kind of harkens back to the Democratic Party years back when there was this schism between the, at that point, so-called moderate Democrats and the ultra-liberals. I go back to the 60s and 70s when the McGovern people, of which I was a card-carrying member, took over the party, and then lost the election in huge numbers. So, I get that it’s a tough road, and I’m glad that our party is not undergoing those kinds of stresses.”
Weinberg continued, “I say that because in New Jersey, generally, we have a moderate voting public. And I don’t understand why, in New Jersey, the moderate Republican doesn’t become dominant. I don’t get it. I think because they’ve been too afraid. If they got together and flexed their muscles in the Republican Party, they should be taking it over in New Jersey. But,” she added wryly, “I would be the last person they would want to take advice from.”
Assuming Governor Murphy defies the historical trend of Democratic governors not being re-elected, the degree of Jack’s defeat will have implications for the NJ GOP’s branding. If he loses by a large margin, was it because they were insufficiently Trumpian? Or were they too Trumpian? Moderate Ciattarelli is not a MAGA man, if a pragmatist, so one could expect at least some segment bucking further to the right. This might have the effect of shocking the NJ GOP from within, but it may also further divide the state and, so long as Democrats keep their advantage, condemn the Republicans to minority-party status that encompasses a predominantly white, male, and aging electorate. Ciattarelli doing well enough to have made his case would signal that his messaging was, perhaps, on target for Republicans but not necessarily enough to overcome the Democrats’ weight. This could also allow the blame to be shifted on the lingering toxic effects of Trump, which time will eventually smooth over. In terms of moderation and the ability to work across the aisle, soothing tempers and attitudes, allaying fears that the system “doesn’t work”, this would be healthier for the NJ GOP than a Murphy landslide. It would also be beneficial for the people as a whole who do, in fact, depend on government to function properly with both parties agreeing that serving the public good is the reason they have their jobs at all. Or so one would hope.
“I find it so mystifying,” Weinberg said of the Republican moderates. “I think that there is enough of the Republican Party–I’m only speaking about New Jersey now, not nationally—in this state that they should be able to take back their party.”
The outcome of November 2, whether Ciattarelli’s fleet sails to the home ports in triumph with Murphy’s flagship a smoldering wreck on the retreating horizon, or if the Republican squadrons limp back bruised, or bubble down to the bottom of the sea, may well determine what the next course plotted will be to best navigate future contests.
Weinberg said she did not have an opinion or judgment of Ciattarelli as a man himself, except, “My own point of view, and I’m speaking on behalf of many of the Republican women I know; I’m not speaking for them because nobody asked me to, but I’m speaking on what I believe some of them think: I would have liked to have seen him become more of a leader in his party against the Trump brand of politics.”
After Election Day, should Governor Murphy win, Weinberg believes that while unity across the state is not possible, he would do well to lead from the interests that affect the bulk of the population. That would be the only pragmatic way to build consensus, especially after a raucous election where the divides are deep and Murphy himself is among the most “progressive” of governors the state has seen in years.
“I think you always have to lead with a coalition, but sometimes the coalitions change depending upon the issues,” Weinberg said. “It’s a diverse state. It’s diverse in every respect, of course: gender, race, religion, you name it. I live in and work in Teaneck, where I say we have everything from a mikvah to a mosque, right in our little six square mile town. You can’t get more diverse than that. New Jersey is diverse, we’re never going to be 100% unified, there be no way that any state or any group of people are 100% unified. So, it’s a question of leading from the things that are important to the majority of the people that you are leading and in Governor Murphy’s case, that’s the majority of the population of New Jersey. Coalition building is always important, but the coalitions change.”
With respect to women, the Murphy campaign attracted national attention over sexual harassment allegations during his initial run for governor. Weinberg took the lead in working to rectify these matters on behalf of women. To that end, she credited Governor Murphy and is very confident that women can trust in him over his opponent to look after their best interests in the state. “The issues around sexual harassment and sexual assault we’ve had, we have passed—and still have a few more to go—some pretty all-encompassing laws in New Jersey to help protect women. We were able to pass those laws because Phil Murphy signed them.”
To Weinberg, Ciattarelli comes up short for women based off of his past record, one she says is antithetical to the things women prioritize. “Women are interested in their right to choose, good education for their children, their access to health care, and Jack Ciattarelli was part of the Republican majority that, for eight years of Chris Christie, he consistently took the money away from women’s access to health care. So, women, I think, trust the Democratic Party more than they trust the Republican Party as well they should. And I certainly think they have more reason to trust Phil Murphy more than Jack Ciattarelli.”
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