New Jersey Senate president concedes stunning loss to Republican

Senate President Steve Sweeney conceded his loss to Republican Ed Durr Wednesday, admitting a defeat that shocked New Jersey's political world and ended the legislative career of Trenton's most powerful lawmaker.

“All votes have been fairly counted, and I, of course, accept the results," an emotional Sweeney said during a brief press conference at the New Jersey Statehouse Wednesday afternoon. “I want to congratulate Mr. Durr and wish him the best of luck."

Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the longest serving Senate president in New Jersey's history, ran about 2,200 votes behind Durr, a relative political unknown who previously mounted a failed independent campaign for Assembly and is now a celebrity in Republican circles.

Sweeney ruled out seeking a recount. It's exceedingly unlikely such an effort would do much to change the result of the race.

The incumbent blamed his loss on a Republican wave, noting about 11,000 more votes were cast in the 3rd District this year than in 2017, when the Senate president last won re-election. Sweeney's last Republican challenger won more 22,336 votes. Durr's count stands at 33,663.

Margins were tighter than expected in the gubernatorial race and in a handful of competitive districts, with Republican candidates generally exceeding expectations. The GOP captured a few legislative seats from Democrats, besides Sweeney's.

Despite his loss, Sweeney said he will remain active in state politics.

“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," he said during the press conference, which lasted for about eight minutes.

Sweeney's tenure saw him become a polarizing force in New Jersey politics, at once hailed by members and observers for his ability to corral the Senate and derided by upstart political forces in the state over a belief that he stood in the way of their progressive policy efforts.

Durr's victory upended the Senate's leadership structure, setting off a brief contest among the chamber's Democrats that already appears resolved. The caucus is set to hold leadership elections on Friday, and Union County Sen. Nicholas Scutari is expected to succeed Sweeney as Senate president.

It's not clear what form Sweeney's continued involvement will take. He will keep his spot on the legislative redistricting commission, a position that could give him the ability to redraw the 3rd District's lines to be more favorable for a repeat campaign in 2023. A collection of towns in Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland counties, the 3rd District has about 16,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but unaffiliated voters outnumber both.

Sweeney declined to say whether he would seek re-election, but he did not rule out a bid for his seat in 2023. The Senate president has also been raised as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2025.

“What I said is I'm not going away. I don't say what I'm doing, but I can tell you something: I've been a believer in making New Jersey affordable for a long time," he said. “I've been the one that has been through battles over pension and health care costs for a long time."

The Senate president presented a somber face Wednesday, listing a series of priorities and policy accomplishments that included boosted funding for extraordinary special education aid, a $15 minimum wage, earned sick and family leave, bail reform, and marijuana legalization, among numerous others.

He also repeatedly raised affordability as an issue, promising to advocate for lower costs even after he leaves office on Jan. 11, mentioning specifically the cost of living for young adults, working families, and retirees.

“I plan to remain fully involved in public affairs in New Jersey. I will be speaking out for fiscal responsibility and reform," he said. “I will be a strong voice for unity, for economic opportunity, and for competitiveness and growth."

Democrats saw their worst legislative losses in years last week. They're expected to lose one seat in the Senate (the GOP flipped two seats in that chamber and Democrats flipped one), and between four and six seats in the Assembly, including those held by Sweeney's running mates, Assemblymen Adam Taliaferro and John Burzichelli, who chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Democrats lost both Assembly seats in the 2nd District and Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling narrowly trail their Republican challengers in the 11th with few votes left uncounted.


New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

New Jersey's most powerful legislator handed an unexpected defeat at the hands of a virtual unknown

Senate President Steve Sweeney has lost his bid for a seventh term, the Associated Press projected Thursday, ending a 20-year career in the Legislature that saw him become a dominant force in New Jersey politics.

Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat, was defeated by Republican Edward Durr, a truck driver from Logan who raised roughly $10,000 for his longshot campaign against the state's most powerful legislator.

Durr beat the Senate president 32,742 to 30,444 in the biggest upset of the year. Durr previously ran unsuccessfully for Assembly and local office in Logan.

There do not appear to be enough uncounted mail-in ballots for Sweeney to bridge the gap, nor are late-arriving mail ballots expected in large enough numbers to change the result of the race.

The incumbent's defeat is a blow to power broker George Norcross, a longtime friend and Sweeney ally, and the South Jersey Democratic bloc, which finds its power in the Senate much diminished. Durr's victory, meanwhile, has made him a celebrity of sorts in New Jersey and nationwide among Republicans, who believe losses like Sweeney's portend trouble for the Democratic Party in 2022 and beyond.

Sweeney, a leader in the Ironworkers Union, is the longest-serving Senate president in state history, his tenure characterized by a control of his caucus that rarely faltered.

Special education programs and funding emerged as a key issue for Sweeney, who has a daughter with a developmental disability. Bills he sponsored shifted the onus of proof in cases over special education issues to districts and, among other things, boosted state special education aid to nearly $1.2 billion.

Progressive Democrats often found a foe in the Senate president, seeing him as an avatar of machine politics they abhor and as a roadblock to their agenda. They have been gloating since late Tuesday, when it became clear Sweeney's political career was in peril.

Their opinion that Sweeney is a roadblock for progressive policies is a view not reflected among many of Sweeney's colleagues.

“Whether you're talking about restoring money for Planned Parenthood or earned sick leave or family leave or the millionaire's tax — you name it — it was Steve Sweeney who got us to 21-plus votes," said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Most of these were not an easy lift in our caucus."

In more recent years, the Senate president has urged municipal and school district consolidation in an effort to cut down on the ever-growing cost of living in the Garden State.

Those reforms earned support from some Republicans, including newly elected Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), but the so-called Path to Progress never really got on its way. It was variously waylaid by the pandemic and, before that, the Democratic infighting that colored the first two years of Gov. Phil Murphy's term.

Sweeney's tenure as Senate president was characterized by an iron-fisted control of his caucus. Members were expected to cast difficult votes when needed or risk losing committee assignments and leadership money used to bolster legislative staffing.

Still, some votes failed. A push to eliminate oft-abused religious exemptions to public school immunization requirements failed after thousands of anti-vaccine activists assailed the Statehouse for days, and efforts to legalize marijuana legislatively continuously fell to opposition from older Democratic senators.

The race to replace Sweeney as Senate president is still in its nascency, but his successor will have an uphill climb in a Senate with a diminished majority and a greater share of unpredictable Democrats.

“I'm assuming that some of my more liberal and progressive allies are not sorry to see this happening. I think there's going to come a day where they're sorry for what they wish for because they got it," Weinberg said.

Sweeney joined the Senate in 2002 after ousting longtime Republican state Sen. Raymond Zane by about three points. At the time, he had spent five years on the Gloucester County Freeholder Board, a seat he would retain even after joining the Senate.

His margins grew in proceeding years, swelling to their largest in 2017, when Sweeney defeated Republican Fran Grenier by 18 points despite a major push by the New Jersey Education Association to defeat him.

He became Senate majority leader after just six years in office, with his rise to Senate president coming two years later, in 2010.

That ascent left bad blood in its wake. A coalition of Senate Democrats from North and South Jersey, formed through negotiations undertaken out of the public eye, handed Sweeney a leadership victory over then-Senate President Dick Codey (D-Essex).

Asked to comment on Sweeney's election loss, Codey, a frequent foe of the Norcross wing of New Jersey's Democratic Party, wasn't inclined to twist the knife.

“He had a hell of a career," he said of Sweeney. “Who knows, maybe he comes back."

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Phil Murphy and Jack Ciattarelli locked in tight race for New Jersey governorship

The race for governor is too close to call.

Gov. Phil Murphy and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli were locked in a tight race Thursday night, and it's unclear whether late-reported votes in Democratic counties like Passaic, Somerset, and Mercer will be enough to hand the incumbent a win.

Murphy led his challenger by less than a point with roughly 75% of Election Day vote totals reported.

Ciattarelli took an early but narrow lead after accruing a nearly 74,000-vote lead in Ocean County, the state's staunchest Republican stronghold.

Mail-in ballots tallies in numerous counties were not reported Tuesday night.

The Republican's lead cast a pall on the governor's election party in Asbury Park, where attendees began to filter out as the Republican edged ahead. Murphy addressed the crowd at about 12:30 a.m.

“We're all sorry tonight did not get to be the celebration we all wanted it to be but … when every vote is counted, we hope to have a celebration," Murphy said. “We're going to wait for every vote to be counted and that's how democracy works."

#jtg-1355 .modula-item .jtg-social a, .lightbox-socials.jtg-social a{ color: #ffffff }#jtg-1355 .modula-item .jtg-social svg, .lightbox-socials.jtg-social svg { height: 16px; width: 16px }#jtg-1355 .modula-item .jtg-social a:not(:last-child), .lightbox-socials.jtg-social a:not(:last-child) { margin-right: 10px }#jtg-1355 .modula-item .figc {color:#ffffff;}#jtg-1355 .modula-item .modula-item-content { transform: scale(1) }#jtg-1355 { width:100%;}#jtg-1355 .modula-items{height:800px;}#jtg-1355 .modula-items .figc p.description { font-size:14px; }#jtg-1355 .modula-items .figc p.description { color:#ffffff;}#jtg-1355.modula-gallery .modula-item > a, #jtg-1355.modula-gallery .modula-item, #jtg-1355.modula-gallery .modula-item-content > a { cursor:zoom-in; } #jtg-1355 .modula-item .modula-item-overlay, #jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-layla, #jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-ruby,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-bubba,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-sarah,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-milo,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-julia,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-hera,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-winston,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-selena,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-terry,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-phoebe,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-apollo,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-steve,#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-ming{ background-color:#ffffff; }#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-oscar { background: -webkit-linear-gradient(45deg,#ffffff 0,#9b4a1b 40%,#ffffff 100%);background: linear-gradient(45deg,#ffffff 0,#9b4a1b 40%,#ffffff 100%);}#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-roxy {background: -webkit-linear-gradient(45deg,#ffffff 0,#05abe0 100%);background: linear-gradient(45deg,#ffffff 0,#05abe0 100%);}#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-dexter {background: -webkit-linear-gradient(top,#ffffff 0,rgba(104,60,19,1) 100%); background: linear-gradient(to bottom,#ffffff 0,rgba(104,60,19,1) 100%);}#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-jazz {background: -webkit-linear-gradient(-45deg,#ffffff 0,#f33f58 100%);background: linear-gradient(-45deg,#ffffff 0,#f33f58 100%);}#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-lexi {background: -webkit-linear-gradient(-45deg,#ffffff 0,#fff 100%);background: linear-gradient(-45deg,#ffffff 0,#fff 100%);}#jtg-1355 .modula-item.effect-duke {background: -webkit-linear-gradient(-45deg,#ffffff 0,#cc6055 100%);background: linear-gradient(-45deg,#ffffff 0,#cc6055 100%);}#jtg-1355 .modula-item:hover img { opacity: 0.5; }#jtg-1355 .jtg-title {font-weight:400; }#jtg-1355 p.description {font-weight:normal; }#jtg-1355:not(.modula-loaded-scale) .modula-item .modula-item-content { transform: scale(1) translate(0px,0px) rotate(0deg); }@keyframes modulaScaling { 0% {transform: scale(1) translate(0px,p0x) rotate(0deg);} 50%{transform: scale(1) translate(0px,0px) rotate(0deg);}100%{transform: scale(1) translate(0px,p0x) rotate(0deg);}}#jtg-1355.modula-gallery .modula-item.effect-terry .jtg-social a:not(:last-child){margin-bottom:10px;}.modula-fancybox-caption .modula-fancybox-caption__body, .modula-fancybox-caption .modula-fancybox-caption__body p {text-align:left}@media screen and (max-width:480px){#jtg-1355 .modula-item .figc .jtg-title { font-size: 12px; }#jtg-1355 .modula-items .figc p.description { color:#ffffff;font-size:10px; }}

Republicans are not worried about mail-in voting fraud in 2021

National politics put New Jersey Republicans in strange position last year.

Former President Donald Trump repeatedly derided mail-in voting — which saw widespread adoption as governments looked to stem the spread of COVID-19 — and a cohort of GOP state lawmakers raised alarms over the practice, alternatively arguing residents did not trust it or urging in-person machine voting be allowed.

Once their efforts to head off Gov. Phil Murphy's order met with little success, the party eventually began urging its members to cast the mail-in ballots sent to every registered voter in the state.

This year's races haven't seen similar GOP pushes against mail-in voting. State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), who railed against last year's mostly mail elections, explained that conditions are different this year.

“The polls are open. Not only are they open, but there's early voting, so I think that took a big egg out of it," said Pennacchio.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli isn't exactly driving constituents toward mail-in voting, but he's not urging them to abandon the practice either.

Ciattarelli campaign manager Eric Arpert said it's “really the voters' choice" this year, with three options: mail-in voting, early in-person voting, and traditional Election Day voting. Urging voters who are on a list to get a mail-in ballot to vote in person instead means they would have to vote by provisional ballot, he noted.

“And certainly that's not as effective as just voting by mail or delivering their ballot to one of their local drop boxes," he said.

The data bears that out. Republicans have, so far, cast vote-by-mail ballots at slightly higher rates than Democrats.

According to vote-by-mail data maintained by Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University's Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, 31.8% of GOP voters who received a mail-in ballot this year have already voted as of Thursday afternoon, compared to 30.9% of Democrats.

“More significant to me than whether or not they've got an edge is that they're in the game at all," Rasmussen said. “These are Republican voters who do trust vote-by-mail, or they wouldn't have asked for those ballots. We couldn't have said that last year, because everybody got them."

Though Murphy has allowed in-person voting for this year's races, other voting changes enacted over recent years are still in effect, including a six-day grace period to count mail-in ballots election officials receive after Election Day and a law that requires voters who request such ballots receive them for future elections.

Studies have shown mail-in voting does not benefit either party disproportionately and instead boosts turnout across the board, but the reality is more complicated. Like all get-out-the-vote operations, mail strategies take time to build. Democratic county organizations, particularly in South Jersey, have for years emphasized mail-in voting. Republicans have not undertaken similar efforts.

While GOP voters have mailed in their ballots at a slightly higher rate so far this year, Democrats account for the vast majority of requested and returned ballots. As of Thursday, 512,234 New Jersey Democrats, just under 20% of the party's membership, had requested vote-by-mail ballots, and 158,741 had returned them. By contrast, the 164,404 Republicans that requested mail-in ballots accounted for a little less than 11% of the New Jersey GOP, and 52,218 of them had cast their ballots as of Thursday.

“It doesn't surprise me, but again, I think if you're a Republican, you have to say, 'This is great that we're at least in the game,'" Rasmussen said.

Even among Democrats, vote-by-mail uptake has been far from universal. At 62%, turnout rates in the 2020 general election were lower in Essex and Hudson counties, both Democratic strongholds, than anywhere else in the state.

Hudson has seen some increases in mail-in voting, Hudson County Democratic Chairwoman Amy DeGise said, but much of that has been limited to young voters, especially young white women.

Skepticism over mail-in voting among elderly voters and voters of color — just 28.5% of Hudson County residents are white, according to census data — has largely persisted.

“Our older voters, to them voting is an experience. They go to their polling location, they see friends from the neighborhood that they don't see as regularly as they want, they sit and talk, and they linger," DeGise said. “Voting by mail for them, that keeps them in the house, and they don't want to be in the house. They want to get out."

The story's similar in Essex County, where 42% of residents are black and 24% are Latino.

“People in Essex County are more confident and more trusting of the machines," said Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, who also chairs the Democratic State Committee. “People look forward to marching to the polling sites, much like their own personal crusade for change."

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Anti-vaxxers defeated in New Jersey as judge declines to block Rutgers vaccine mandate

A federal judge declined to block Rutgers University's vaccine mandate Monday, ruling the anti-vaccine group that lodged the suit failed to demonstrate the action was likely to succeed or that the plaintiffs would face irreparable harm.

U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi denied the bid for an injunction to block the mandate sought by Children's Health Defense — an anti-vaccine group with ties to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — and 12 current or future university students.

In his ruling, first reported by Law360, Quaraishi found the plaintiffs failed to meet all four bars it needed to meet for injunctive relief.

Without hearing oral arguments, Quraishi ruled the suit was unlikely to succeed, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent for the enforcement of vaccine mandates that has gone largely unchallenged for more than 100 years.

That 1905 case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, involved a state resident who refused to comply with a smallpox vaccine mandate, charging the state law requiring such vaccinations was unconstitutional.

Because Rutgers' mandate allows religious and medical exemptions to vaccinations, the university's mandate is less strict than the standard established in Jacobson, and the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic puts the policy on firm ground, Quraishi found.

Recent suits against vaccine mandates in Indiana and Massachusetts have also proven unsuccessful.

The timing of the plaintiffs' filing raised eyebrows. Though Rutgers announced it would require its students to be immunized against COVID-19 in March and adopted the policy the following month, the lawsuit was not filed until late July.

The vaccine opponents didn't seek an injunction until Aug. 30, only two days before the semester began. By delaying, the plaintiffs harmed themselves, the judge said.

He also found blocking the mandate would harm the university by forcing it to adopt costly measures to accommodate unvaccinated students. The increased spread of COVID-19 would harm the public interest, he ruled.

The suit is ongoing despite the lack of an injunction. The university is due to respond to the plaintiffs' complaint by Oct. 29.

Quraishi's decision is unsurprising. The suit against Rutgers' vaccine mandate always faced long odds, and those appear to have grown longer still after a plaintiff made an incorrect claim that she was told to get the vaccine because of a remote-learning class she was taking.

It turned out that student was set to attend a single class that could meet in person later in the semester and was not enrolled in a fully online degree program, according to Monday's ruling. Students enrolled in the all-remote program are not provided with university IDs, are not expected to ever come to campus, and are exempted from the mandate.

The plaintiffs earlier this month sought Quraishi's recusal, charging his time as an adjunct for the Rutgers University Law School could create the appearance of a conflict of interest, though they did not claim any such conflict exists.

Quraishi declined, citing numerous cases where sitting judges with ties to the Newark law school remained on cases involving the New Brunswick undergraduate college, which is named as a defendant in the vaccine suit.


New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy Holidays!