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Senate President Steve Sweeney. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

How Steve Sweeney got to the Senate

Close, expensive race to oust eight-term incumbent in 2001

By David Wildstein, March 29 2018 2:03 am

Steve Sweeney won a State Senate seat in 2001 after a feud between State Senator Raymond Zane and Gloucester County Democratic Chairman Michael Angelini over competition between the two over government legal contracts they both wanted.

Zane was one of the most popular politicians in Gloucester County.  A former freeholder, was elected to the Senate in 1973 at age 34 with 64% in a race where a GOP write-in candidate finished second and a Republican incumbent with legal issues finished third with 18%.  He won re-election seven times, never getting less than 61% of the vote in a Gloucester-Salem district that was considered competitive.

Democrats became angry over Zane’s refusal to back the Democratic candidate for Assembly in his district, Paulsboro Mayor John Burzichelli, against the Republican incumbents in 1999.  For years, an informal non-aggression pact existed between Zane, Assembly Speaker Jack Collins and Assemblyman Gary Stuhltrager. Zane didn’t get involved in the Assembly race, and Collins and Stuhltrager didn’t try to move up to the Senate.

In retaliation for Zane’s actions – and because Angelini thought the Senator was too greedy –  Gloucester County government entities stripped Zane of more than $175,000 worth of legal work, and Zane’s son, Freeholder Raymond Zane II lost his position as Vice President of the Freeholder Board.

The split between Zane and the Democrats widened in 2000 when Zane attempted to switch local party organizations from supporting former Gov. Jim Florio for U.S. Senate to Jon Corzine.  Salem County Democratic Chairman Tom Pankok went public with allegations that Zane offered campaign contributions to Salem Democrats on behalf of Corzine in exchange for dropping their support of Florio.

Zane tried to go to war with Angelini and criticized Angelini’s alliance with South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross and bringing boss-style politics to Gloucester.  Angelini threatened Zane with a primary challenge in 2001, and Sweeney acknowledged in May 2000 that he was likely to be the candidate.

Greenwich Democratic Municipal Chairman Anthony Velahos and East Greenwich Democratic Municipal Chairman Jeffrey Malinoski , both Zane allies, were stripped of their membership on the Democratic screening committee by Angelini after they endorsed Corzine for U.S. Senate.

Zane ran two candidates for freeholder in the 2000 Democratic primary, recruiting East Greenwich Mayor Dalyn Currey and former Monroe school board member Willie Carter (on a slate with Corzine) to challenge incumbents Bob Damminger and Bill Krebs.  Zane’s candidates got destroyed – losing by more than 40 points.  Angelini’s sheriff candidate, Gilbert Miller won 74% of the vote against Zane’s candidate, Peter Villegas.

In early 2001, Zane’s son showed up at his freeholder office to find that the freeholder director, Sweeney, had moved his office to one about one-third of the size.  A few weeks later, Zane announced that he was switching parties and would seek re-election as a Republican.

Zane accused Sweeney of offering paid legal jobs to Zane to get him to drop out of the race, but Sweeney denied that.

With Norcross’ help, Sweeney set the record for the most money spent in a legislative race in New Jersey history up to that point: he raised $1.9 million, plus another $457,000 for a joint campaign account with Burzichelli and Douglas Fisher.  Zane raised $625,000.  Sweeney was on Philadelphia television and did an estimated 30 pieces of direct mail.

Zane carried Salem County, but by just 474 votes.  Sweeney won Gloucester by 1,152 votes and carried the Cumberland portion of the district by 1,057 votes.  That gave Sweeney a 1,735-vote win – 51.5% to 48.5%.

George and Donald Norcross joined Sweeney at the podium when he gave his victory speech.

In 2003, Zane sought a rematch with Sweeney.  After the primary, after an ethics complaint was filed against him and following a series of bad news stories about the legal fees he made from local governments during his years as a Senator, Zane dropped out of the race.  Sweeney won re-election by 4,353 votes, 54%-46%, against replacement candidate Phil Rhudy.

Footnote: In those days, Sweeney was a right-of-center Democrat.  The National Rifle Association backed him for re-election in 2003 and contributed to his campaign – and $10,500 total since Sweeney has been in the Senate.

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