At the age of 73, Loretta Weinberg may look like a kindly grandmother, but don’t underestimate her. She is a grandma, but this Democrat from Teaneck still bares her teeth.
Early in 2007, she toppled one of the most formidable party bosses in the state when no one else was willing to take him on. And she got the governor to back her.
Today, she’s one of the most influential players in Jersey politics. Not bad for a former PTA mom who did not enter politics until she was in her fifties.
“She’s extremely honest, with deep convictions,” says Eleanore Nissley of Ridgewood, a longtime friend of Weinberg’s who is also a Republican committeewoman in Bergen County. “The Republicans regard her with respect as a good legislator, and the Democrats think they can’t get away with anything as long as she’s around.”
Weinberg seems unassuming, with her blue eyes twinkling behind glasses, and a charm necklace dangling around her neck. Her office is a tribute to her political career: The walls are covered with plaques and pictures of Weinberg with her family and famous people, such as President Bill Clinton, and drawings from schoolchildren she has visited. On a couch lies a needlepoint pillow that reads, “I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas!”
“I never think of using my name in a sentence with ‘power,’” Weinberg says. “I’m willing to accept what people say [about being powerful], but I find it almost funny.”
Observers say that behind the grandma shtick stands a hardball political tactician.
“She’s smart on her feet and maddening to her colleagues at times. That’s what distinguishes her,” says Record columnist Charles Stile. “With her, you get a sense that there’s an end to all this means, that she’s using her power to achieve health care, or on the social issues that she backs. And she’ll do the necessary grunt work to get there.”
To be sure, Weinberg has had her successes in the state legislature: Her bills to ban indoor smoking in New Jersey and to require insurance companies to pay for 48 hours of aftercare for new moms have become models for other states.
But many point to Weinberg’s accomplishment in taking down one of the state’s most powerful Democratic leaders— Joseph Ferriero, chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Organization—as the event that elevated her stature in the Senate, and for that matter, the state.
The two feuded over who would fill an open Senate seat in the county. Ferriero backed another candidate, but Weinberg wanted the position. She eventually won the nomination and was elected to the Senate in 2005.
Two years later, Ferriero again endorsed another candidate for Weinberg’s Senate seat. Weinberg gathered her supporters, including labor unions and environmental groups, and held a rally to send Ferriero a message: She would not back down.
It worked, and even Governor Jon Corzine came to her side, showing up to broker a deal with the party boss. Ferriero cried uncle, withdrawing his candidates against Weinberg and her running mates. (Ferriero has since been indicted on federal corruption charges.)
“Any time you have a state legislator take a stand in a county as big and diverse as Bergen—and you get the governor to line up with you—now that’s one measure of power,” says Tom Wilson, the Republican state chairman. “Loretta Weinberg has become the de facto leader in Bergen County…If you wish to be a candidate there, one of your stops has to be to see her.”
For Weinberg, success at this stage in her life is especially gratifying.
“My attitude is, no one is powerful unless you enable them to be. I did what comes naturally to me,” she says. “The things that are important to me can’t be taken away: my children and my grandchildren. There’s nothing any county leader can do to change that. What’s the worst that could happen?”
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