Loretta Weinberg has become an iconic figure in New Jersey politics, devoting nearly 60 years as an activist in support of social justice causes, equal opportunities for women, and in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
But her start in politics was much more local, as an advocate for more trees on Cedar Lane in her hometown of Teaneck.
After working on a campaign that flipped a Bergen County congressional seat to the Democrats in 1964, Weinberg served as a part-time aide to Rep. Henry Helstoski (D-East Rutherford) and held that until 1975.
She won her first election in 1966 as a candidate for a Democratic county committee seat in Teaneck that included full slates from two factions. Weinberg was allied with a reform group that alleged that party leaders were stacking the organization with family members in order to maintain control. She defeated Anda L. Teitelbaum.
In 1971, Weinberg defeated Seymour Schwartz to become the Bergen Democratic District Chair in what was then called District 13B. Democrats picked up two Assembly seats in the general election year.
Weinberg racked up another victory in 1972 as a candidate for delegate to the Demcoratic National Convention pledged to George McGovern. Weinberg ran on a 13-candidate slate of McGovern delegates – one of her running mates was New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton – and defeated a slate of delegates backed by the Bergen County Democratic Organization that was supporting Hubert Humphrey.
One classic story from that convention evinces Weinberg’s longtime fight for transparency. As a delegate, she wanted to read a full copy Democratic Party Platform before she voted on it, but party leaders were not forthcoming with the final document. Weinberg began an hours-long hunt through Miami Beach to locate a copy and finally convinced a security guard in the room where the boxes of platforms were stored to give her a copy.
After Bergen County Democrats elected Barbara Werber to serve as county chair in 1973, Weinberg was named as executive director of the Bergen County Democrats.
After Democrats won control of the Bergen County Board of Freeholders in 1974, Weinberg was named clerk of the board. Later, she also took on the roll as assistant county administrator.
Weinberg was a central figure in the day-to-day operations county government until 1981. Republicans had regained their majority in the 1980 elections and made their own appointments. She was later hired as the purchasing manager at Bergen Pines County Hospital.
During that time, Weinberg also became the Teaneck Democratic Municipal Chair. In that role, she led a grassroots movement, the Committee for Responsive Government, to stagger the terms of the township council so that all five seats would not be up at one time.
In 1990, Weinberg was elected to the council in a race that saw Mayor Francis Hall, an 11-term incumbent, win by just 100 votes. Weinberg outpaced incumbent Louis Schwartz by about 230 votes.
After Assemblyman D. Bennett Mazur (D-Fort Lee) resigned in February 1992 for health reasons, Weinberg became a candidate for his Assembly seat. She had served as an aide in Mazur’s legislative office.
After Hackensack Democratic Municipal Chairman Ken Zisa, dropped out and endorsed Weinberg and former Bergen County Sheriff Bob Herb withdrew from consideration, Weinberg faced two challengers: Hackensack Deputy Mayor Sandra Robinson and Leonia Mayor Robert Pacicco.
The New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus took sides in that race, endorsing Robinson. They said that the district had been redrawn to include Englewood, Hackensack, and Teaneck in an effort to increase minority representation in the legislature.
Weinberg easily won the March 1992 special election convention, defeating Robinson by a 112 to 42 vote. Paciccco finished third with 32 votes.
She won a 1992 special election for the remainder of Mazur’s term by 16,532 votes, 61%-39%, against former Hackensack Councilman John R. Smith.
When State Sen. Matthew Feldman (D-Teaneck) retired in 1993, Assemblyman Byron Baer (D-Englewood) ran for the Senate and Weinberg sought re-election on an Assembly ticket with Zisa.
Weinberg was the top vote-getter in a five-candidate Democratic primary. She ran 1,388 votes ahead of Zisa and 2,586 votes in front of the third-place candidate, Yvonne Smith Segars, a former public defender from Englewood.
In 1998, Weinberg became the Democratic nominee for Bergen County Executive against the incumbent, William “Pat” Schuber. She lost by 16,090 votes, a 54%-46% margin.
After Baer stepped down from the Senate for health reasons in 2005, Weinberg became a candidate for the State Senate in a battle against the old boys network and a political machine run by the Bergen County Democratic Chairman, Joseph Ferriero.
Ferriero was backing Zisa, then the Bergen County Sheriff, for the Senate, while Weinberg had the support of the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Senator Jon Corzine. Weinberg had been among the first to endorse Corzine for the Senate seat in 1999.
At a special election convention on September 15, Democrats picked Zisa in a complicated and controversial vote.
Zisa led Weinberg by four votes, 114 to 110, in the race to fill the immediate vacancy – and by one vote, 112 to 111, in the race for the Democratic State Senate nomination for a November 2005 special election to fill the remainder of Baer’s term.
But there were seven uncounted ballots that were sealed and under the protection of a neutral party, then-Rep. Steve Rothman.
The election included allegations of fraud after a Ferriero and Zisa ally, Bergenfield Democratic Municipal Chairman Kevin Clancy, tried to remove elected county committee members from his town that were voting for Weinberg.
Five resignation letters – all supposedly dated in January and in the same font and the same text – suddenly appeared.
It was essentially a purge of the rolls to remove Weinberg voters.
Two of the sealed ballots were later opened, putting Zisa 5-votes ahead for the immediate vacancy and expanding his lead for the Democratic nomination to two.
There were votes from Tenafly that were also being contested.
After going to a Superior Court Judge, the five Tenafly ballots gave the Senate seat to Weinberg.
She won the special election convention to immediately replace Baer by one vote, 115 to 114, and the Democratic nomination to run in the November special election by two votes, 116 to 112.
In the special, she beat Republican Robert Lebovics by 23,735 votes, 73%-27%.
Weinberg quickly became a force in the State Senate, both publicly and behind the scenes. She was a supporter of Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney’s bid to oust Senate President Richard Codey in 2009.
New Jersey had created a Lt. Governor position that would be elected for the first time in 2009.
Corzine, seeking his second term as governor, had narrowed his short list to Weinberg and State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen).
He was ready to pick Buono when Middlesex County Demcoratic Chairman Joseph Spicuzzo was indicted on corruption charges. Corzine became spooked by Buono’s ties to the organization and picked Weinberg as the first Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor.
Weinberg also became the first Democratic woman to run statewide in a general election since Thelma Parkinson lost a U.S. Senate race in 1930.
Corzine and Weinberg lost the general election to Republicans Chris Christie and Kim Guadagno. The vote was close: 87,714 statewide, 48%-45%.
Still, Weinberg did her job. Corzine carried Bergen County by 5,940 votes, 48.5% to 46.3%.
After Senate Democrats dropped Buono as Senate Majority Leader following the 2011 elections, Weinberg became Majority Leader.
In all, Weinberg won seven races for the State Assembly, and five for the State Senate.