Not many 9-year-old boys would willingly endure an afternoon in their grandmother’s office. But when Granny’s minions press candy on you and you get to play with an iPad, something forbidden at home, you start to come around. Plus the place is stocked with all kinds of intriguing items, like plastic donkey figurines and a picture of Bill Clinton and Al Gore digitially doctored to make them look like surfers.
Jonah Graff calls Loretta Weinberg’s district office in Teaneck “grandma paradise” and seems totally clued in to the family elder’s important duties: “Be famous and go against the governor.”
That’s a reasonably accurate job description for Weinberg. The majority leader of the state Senate has become a household name in New Jersey as Governor Chris Christie’s most dogged critic. For the past year, she has served as co-chair of the state Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation, a special panel tasked with unraveling the mystery of the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
On this afternoon, as a journalist attempts to interview their grandmother, Jonah and his 11-year-old sister, Shayna, have free rein to find whatever diversions Grandma’s office holds. Later she’ll treat them to ice cream at Bischoff’s, the legendary confectionary up the street. But if the distractions threaten to get in the way, Weinberg is swift to put her foot down. Swift, but gentle. She doesn’t have to raise her voice to exert power.
The same holds true in Trenton, where Weinberg has been a fixture for the past 22 years.
Still, some marvel that this 79-year-old Jewish grandmother is running, in effect, the Watergate hearings of New Jersey. It’s been noted in such disparate publications as the Jewish Daily Forward and Vanity Fair. It inspired a song parody based on Katie Perry’s hit “Roar” at this year’s New Jersey Press Association’s Legislative Correspondents Show. Even Weinberg winks at the irony of grandmotherly power by placing a prized yard-sale find—a poster of Golda Meir—outside her office door.
“Someone like Golda Meir wouldn’t pass the TV test,” she says—“TV test” being Weinberg’s term for whether someone is, or is not, telegenic. “But then, neither would Abraham Lincoln.”
Telegenic or not, Weinberg has been a regular TV presence this past year. In addition to frequent appearances on the state’s public-television news program, NJTV News, she has shown up on The Rachel Maddow Show and Meet the Press, and was even featured in a gun-rights segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Her newfound fame has inspired women of a certain age particularly in and around Teaneck, to approach Weinberg to tell her what a role model she is. Weinberg is flattered, but doesn’t often think of herself in those terms. “I’m surprised I’m as old as I am,” she says. “You don’t feel it inside.”
Having been around the block a few times does confer a few advantages—or what John Wisniewski, co-chair of the special legislative committee investigating Bridgegate, calls Weinberg’s “nonsense meter.”
Case in point: When Weinberg, seeking answers to the then-fresh lane closure mystery, walked into a meeting of the Port Authority’s Ethics and Governance Committee last October and set eyes on Bill Baroni, the authority’s deputy executive director, she instantly sensed something amiss. Weinberg had worked with Baroni when he served in the state Legislature; they’d been allies on the issue of gay marriage. But suddenly, he was betraying the same kind of nervousness Weinberg remembered from when her children, as teenagers, would try to hide something. “I could just tell by his body language that he was guilty of something,” she recalls.
Leading the liberal fight is nothing new for Weinberg. She’s been doing it for decades and was Jon Corzine’s running mate in 2009. While her children were still young, Weinberg worked outside the home in a series of administrative jobs for Democratic officials, Bergen County and Bergen Pines County Hospital while participating in local politics at night. Her husband, the late Irwin Weinberg, ran his business from home and took the kids to the orthodontist. “My dad was the original Mr. Mom,” says her daughter, Francine Weinberg Graff, who lives in California.
Weinberg steered Francine away from girlie ambitions like being a cheerleader or participating in the Little Miss America pageant in Palisades Park, both of which she yearned for. “I really wanted to be a cheerleader,” Francine says. What she got instead were lessons in political activism. In the senator’s office, a family photograph shows Francine as a girl of about five holding a sign—“Don’t Eat Grapes While Grape-Pickers Go Hungry!”—while her mother watches her in the background. Francine and her brother, Danny, often tagged along on visits to Democratic campaign offices throughout Bergen County.
It’s those Democratic headquarters—not the Weinberg family kitchen—that Francine associates with the smell of chicken soup. Loretta Weinberg is not a cook, Francine is quick to note, but a heater of leftovers. Her maternal mantra during Francine’s formative years: “I’m so busy building a better world for you, I don’t have time for you right now.”
Weinberg was busy making New Jersey a better place for the LGBT community—working on passage of a domestic partnership bill—when Shayna, her first grandchild, was born in September 2003. Though Weinberg would have liked to be with her daughter in California, she stuck with the battle in Trenton. Weinberg remained in the forefront of the gay marriage fight as it evolved from domestic partnerships to civil unions and eventually to marriage equality. She’s also proud of her part in getting indoor smoking banned and making sure new mothers and infants get at least 48 hours in the hospital, and for her work on autism research and domestic violence.
It’s important to Weinberg that Shayna knows not just that her grandmother was absent for her birth, but why she was absent. “I wanted my granddaughter to know I wasn’t sitting around knitting baby blankets.”
Shayna knows. In 2011, at age seven, she sent a letter to Governor Christie asking him to stop bullying her grandmother. The plea was in response to Christie’s infamous instruction to reporters that they “take the bat out” on Weinberg, saying she deserved a “hypocrisy award” for starting to collect a government pension while still receiving a government salary as a senator. Weinberg, 76 at the time and a recent victim of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, had earlier chided Christie for going easy on his pal, Essex County executive Joe DiVincenzo, when he was facing criticism for double dipping.
Now Weinberg has Christie in her sights as her special committee tries to unravel what happened inside the governor’s administration between October 1, 2013, when the Wall Street Journal broke the news of Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye’s angry e-mail about the George Washington Bridge closing, and January 8 of this year, the day Bridget Kelly’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail famously came to light.
“Three full months,” says Weinberg, sounding impatient. “What was the governor’s office doing?”
Weinberg’s Trenton career began in 1992, when she was appointed to fill an Assembly seat midterm. Since then, she’s been both scrappy challenger and political insider. In 2005, she had to fight Bergen County’s Democratic machine to become her party’s candidate for the 37th District Senate seat when her predecessor, Byron Baer, stepped down.
But now, as Senate majority leader, Weinberg is just about as inside as you can get. “I think I have as much access to [Senate president Steve] Sweeney as George Norcross does,” she says, referring to the South Jersey power broker. “It’s only being on the inside that you can really help shape things.”
Colleagues on the other side of the aisle, like Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, a Republican member of the special investigative committee, and Senate Minority Leader Diane Allen, commend Weinberg for wielding her power with grace and skill.
Handlin offers evidence of how Weinberg accrues political capital—by sharing it. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Weinberg had an opportunity this summer to vote on two new appointees to the Port Authority, John Degnan and George Laufenberg. When Weinberg set up private interviews with both men in her office, she invited Handlin to sit in.
“Despite the fact that I have no vote,” says Handlin. “Despite the fact that we’re on opposite sides of the aisle.”
Weinberg is up for reelection in 2017 and says she hasn’t decided if she’ll run again. As for other political scenarios, Weinberg thinks Christie will fail in his effort to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, and the 2017 gubernatorial race will be “Sweeney versus some Republican.”
Sweeney, and not Weinberg?
Weinberg laughs. “If I were 20 years younger,” she says, “they’d all be out of the field.”
Debbie Galant is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.