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Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Master of the Senate

By Kevin O'Toole, December 28 2021 12:01 am

The current New Jersey Senate President, Steve Sweeney,  served an astonishing 12 years as head of the co-equal branch of government known as the Senate. Like our former 36th  President of the United States, LBJ, Steve has been the Master of the Senate, navigating through choppy and unknown waters. Steve will long be remembered as the most influential Senate President in modern times.

Steve is the 114th President of the State Senate and some would argue that he was the most powerful and consequential  of them all. I would agree.

I had just begun my second stint in the Assembly in 2002, after a brief “cup of coffee” in 2001 in the State Senate. Former Senate President John Lynch, one of the true maestros of the Senate, gave me that description when I served alongside him in 2001. That same year, Steve joined the House of the Lords and I initially watched from afar in the lower house as he quickly moved through the Legislature making friends and allies along the way. He quickly gained the confidence of his colleagues and obtained leadership status.

Through the years, Steve and I had a few chance meetings, and we slowly grew a relationship. I’m proud to say our relationship grew into a true friendship that was tested by others on more than one occasion. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

When I landed back in the Senate in 2008, after my bruising primary of 2007, I had a new appreciation of the specialness of serving in the upper house and I also took the time to reacquaint myself with legislators from the past tenure. One of the first encounters I had after getting sworn in was with the Senator from the 3rd District. Steve was gracious and welcoming and offered to help with legislation or any issues I ran into with the Corzine Administration.

While it was clear that Steve was a Democrat, he never let party politics overtake or consume important public policy. In the years together, Steve taught me a lot about bi-partisan law making, consensus building and friendship.  I remember in the Fall of  2009, there was a clamor by both sides to change the Senate President, as many sought a different type of leadership.  I recall at a precise moment in a Senate Committee Room a conversation with Steve, with several of my Republican colleagues, that we wanted to support Steve for this move. The momentum gathered and soon a majority of the then 17 GOP Senators quietly banded together and secretly pledged to support Steve for Senate Leader, if needed. All of us had abiding trust and  kinship with Steve. He was human, kind, tough, smart, and a fairly agile leader. It reminded me of the time in 2006 when the Republicans came this close to deposing Speaker Joe Roberts and installing then Assemblyman Joe Cryan as Speaker—another story for another day.

As luck would have it, Steve quickly garnered the support of nearly the entire Senate Caucus, and he went on to serve for 12 magnificent years. Most noteworthy were his 8 years as Senate President during the two terms of Governor Christie. We have read a few media stories of the collaboration between the two on big picture stuff like Pension Reform ($30 billion is as big as it gets) and the Transportation Trust Fund, and you have also heard a story or two of the nasty public and private fighting.

During the years I served under Steve’s leadership, I can tell you that he earned my respect, friendship, admiration, and loyalty. Steve was fiercely protective of all 39 of fellow Senators. He would run through a wall for the right cause, and when he gave his word, it was written in stone. He has served as a role model for what a true public servant looks and acts like. He respected the territory that came along with being a Senator and made sure each one had their appointments and commitments respected and honored. Steve understood what it meant to deliver for the District, and he knew constituents came first.

Iron worker Steve never forgot his working class roots and he  taught us about the human condition. Among his many legislative feats included transportation funding, job creator, pension reformer, promoter of equal pay, high minimum wages, fighter for Project Labor agreements, innovator of the 2% cap, and author of Pathway to Progress. However, nothing delighted or moved Steve more than his most important cause — assisting those with disabilities. Steve put a face on those individuals living with disabilities. Steve’s daughter Lauren was his North Star, and he was guided largely by his family experiences.  Steve and Lauren educated all of us on this long-overlooked issue and we are a much better State because of it.

Along with the legislative endeavors, Steve was known to scrap occasionally. He wasn’t one who ran from a fight. I saw this firsthand during the Christie era.  I can tell you there is a lot to tell about those 8 years. Much has been written, but not everything is truly public. Under the dome, only Kevin O’Dowd, Kevin Drennan, Tom Scrivo, Jim DiGiulio, and maybe Jeff Chiesa and Chris Porrino, can attest to the incredible back and forth between Steve Sweeney and Chris Christie. Oddly, and even though I wasn’t viewed as a Christie insider, I somehow emerged as the messenger boy between these Alpha males—fun times had by all. These extraordinary  interactions and scream fests will be told at a later date.

Back to our senate leader.

In two weeks, we look  toward the inevitable – a passing of the Senate Presidency baton to the next. Senator Scutari will carry the honor of the office with every worthy measure, and he will be a Senate President for the ages.  But today is about recognizing a legislative giant—a once in a lifetime personality and once in a lifetime powerhouse legislator.

They don’t make them like Steve anymore and I have this sneaking suspicion that this isn’t the last we have seen of our Senate President. Steve – every state legislator past, present, and future owes you a direct thank for all you have done. And while we are at it, each and every person of New Jersey owes you a thank you as you have made our state better and more affordable.

THANK YOU for the ride of a lifetime.

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