Weinberg’s legacy: People before party

Longtime legislator, who announced her retirement Wednesday, lauded for commitment to public service

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

As someone who had spent a few years in Trenton, Sabeen Masih wasn’t surprised when she read the story last December detailing how women working in the political world were frequent subjects of sexual harassment.

And, as someone who had spent a few years in Trenton, she assumed little would change.

Then, she saw state Sen. Loretta Weinberg took up the issue — and she immediately knew things would be different.

Weinberg (D-Teaneck) started a commission to investigate the issue and introduced legislation to help fight it. More than anything, she brought public awareness to a problem in the state that needed fixing. That, of course, is what Weinberg has done throughout her nearly 30 years in the Legislature. And what so many thought of Wednesday, when she announced she would be retiring at the end of this term.

“The thing with her is that she really talks the talk and walks the walk,” Masih, the vice president for public affairs at Capital Impact Group, said. “She’s energetic. She’s always trying to figure out, ‘OK, this is the issue, what can we do with it?’ She’s all about the results, and I think that’s what makes her so special.”

That sentiment was shared through the state Wednesday. And on both sides of the aisle. Weinberg, 85, may have been a Democrat in the state Senate, but she represented the interests of the people first and foremost. She has been just as tough on Gov. Phil Murphy as she was on Gov. Chris Christie and all the others who held the position.

Murphy saluted Weinberg for that spirit.

“I want to say that Sen. Weinberg has been a singular voice in the State House, a champion of progressive action since she entered the General Assembly in 1992,” he said. “She has proudly worn the mantle of New Jersey’s unofficial Jewish grandmother. She has proven herself as a strong advocate, and equally tough adversary.”

Former longtime Sen. Ray Lesniak said he and Weinberg went to war many times. He joked he was fortunate that they usually fought on the same team. He saluted Weinberg for her never-ending fight for what was right.

“Loretta and I were the odd couple — straight allies fighting for marriage equality and women’s rights,” he said.

It’s why the Senate majority leader earned praise from her counterpart: Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield).

“During her tenure in public office, the senator’s steady, measured demeanor and thoughtful, authoritative voice helped her become an influential Democratic leader,” he said. “I enjoyed working closely with her on several important bipartisan initiatives, as her commitment to helping the people of New Jersey has always been undeniable.”

Lesniak called her a New Jersey legend.

Murphy said you can make a case that she’s the most consequential legislator in the history of the state.

New Jersey Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Bracken said her influence goes well beyond legislation.

When Bracken and the chamber wanted to address the issue of sexual harassment on the annual Walk to Washington train trip, they brought in Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, to formulate new policies and procedures.

When Weinberg endorsed the plan — after initially being skeptical — Bracken saw a legislator who was not only willing to do the right thing, but one willing to keep an open mind.

“She complimented us for our efforts, and came around to really being a supporter,” he said. “She takes strong positions upfront, but, I think in this case, it showed that, even though she has some strong thoughts, she was willing to listen. And, after she listened, and experienced people following through on what they said they would do, she was willing to change her mind.

“It is very refreshing to have somebody be open-minded enough to listen and to watch and then change after they see that their original misgivings were being addressed properly.”

For Weinberg, the decision to retire comes in a simple statement.

“This is the time that felt right to me,” she said. “I feel emotional. But I don’t feel conflicted about my decision. This is my time.”

Weinberg has had a major role in the state since earning that spot in the Assembly in 1992. She became a state senator in 2005 and the Democratic majority leader in 2012.

And she’s been intertwined in major events involving the last three governors.

Weinberg was the running mate of Gov. Jon Corzine in his unsuccessful reelection bid in 2008, she co-chaired the special committee investigating the Bridgegate scandal involving Christie in 2014 and she co-chaired the panel that investigated how Murphy’s administration responded to Katie Brennan’s rape allegations.

Murphy said he expects Weinberg will continue to challenge him during the year. He wasn’t joking. And he shouldn’t be.

Just Tuesday, Weinberg let Murphy know she’s holding his feet to fire.

When Murphy pledged greater transparency during his State of the State address, Weinberg fired right back, asking him to support a bill that would make some documents related to administration’s response to COVID-19 subject to disclosure under the Open Public Records Act.

“New Jerseyans have come together and made tremendous sacrifices to keep themselves and their families safe,” Weinberg said. “It is in times like these that the public’s right to know is most essential and in need of protection.”

That’s Weinberg at her finest. People first. Party second.

The good news: This isn’t an obituary. And it’s not even a goodbye. Just a countdown to a final year of serving the public.