On a brisk and sunny January day, in front of an oil refinery's circular white storage tanks, at the intersection of two of South Jersey's busiest roadways, Steve Sweeney embarked on a political odyssey unlike anything the state had ever seen.

His goal, he told reporters gathered for his news conference, was to use his powers as the state Senate president to make sure the large refinery behind him finally got cleaned of contamination.

But Sweeney wasn't just standing at a rundown refinery as New Jersey's highest elected Democrat, whose on-again, off-again relationship with Republican Gov. Christie affected statewide policy. He was also a local political boss sticking it to interlopers who had just taken over governing in his hometown. He was also a longtime union leader defending laborers who had just lost their refinery jobs.

Mostly, he was a self-proclaimed fighter with a reputation for revenge who was willing to do something unprecedented in the history of New Jersey: Sue his own hometown, gambling $300,000 in state tax dollars in the process.

As always, Sweeney positioned himself to win.

But did he?

Sweeney's home turf

Sunoco's Eagle Point takes up prime real estate off the Delaware River in West Deptford, a blue-collar, Gloucester County town known for its refineries, recreational facilities, and entrenched Democratic control.

"I expect to be buried in West Deptford," Sweeney declared in July in an accent that screams South Jersey. "I love this place."

At 54, Sweeney cuts an imposing figure: meaty handshake, chest like a rain barrel, and a rectangular face missing the trademark mustache he shaved on the losing end of a bet after he became Senate president.

The son of an ironworker union boss, Sweeney grew up in a Pennsauken house that his parents built, on land given to them by his grandparents, and lived there with his mother, father, and three brothers until he was 26. He followed his father into the union, married a hairstylist, moved to an apartment in Blackwood, and settled in West Deptford.

"Oh my god, I'm in the middle of the country!" Sweeney remembered saying when he got to town.

But the soon-to-be father of two liked the family atmosphere, and he also liked this: When he was renovating his new house, the town provided a Dumpster free of charge.

That's "good politics," he thought.

As an ironworker, Sweeney lugged steel just like his father, but after falling 18 feet and then 24 feet, and once finding himself temporarily paralyzed, he hung up the work boots.

"See this scar here?" he asked, pointing to his cheek as he begins one such war story. "I came within a 16th of an inch of losing my eye."

So Sweeney became an instructor, training apprentices to be ironworkers. He later got involved in the union's business operations, helping to steer campaign donations to politicians, who can create union jobs. Based out of his union hall in West Deptford, he would rise to run Ironworkers Local 399, covering Newark to Scranton to Wilmington.

His ascendance came with concurrent success in local politics. Fueled by a natural charm, a competitive spirit, and a family friendship with South Jersey's longtime Democratic leader, George Norcross III - a part owner of The Inquirer - Sweeney went from nobody to the state's most powerful legislator in less than 15 years.

Sweeney has never lost an election.

An appointment to the West Deptford environmental committee took him to the county vocational school board. Thanks to encouragement from Norcross' brother, Donald, now a state senator, Sweeney ran for freeholder in 1996, won, and became board director a year later. His campaign for a second elected office, to the state Senate in 2002, shattered spending records.

For Sweeney, union affiliation, community involvement, and politics entwine.

In the '90s, he got a bunch of trade-union brethren - carpenters, bricklayers, ironworkers - to provide $1 million in free labor on what he describes as the best Little League field in South Jersey. They called it "Union Field." Later, as a state senator, Sweeney quietly secured $200,000 in state funds for batting cages at the West Deptford field.

And after leading the charge as a freeholder to build Miracle League Field, a wheelchair-accessible baseball diamond next to the campus for special-needs children in nearby Sewell, where his daughter attended, Sweeney's efforts were publicly recognized: He threw out the first pitch of the first game.

"Watch a kid that's immobile hit a ball, and go down the field - it's the greatest feeling in the world," Sweeney said. "This is what motivates me."

Sweeney kept moving up, but even after he became Senate president in 2010, his loyalty never left his political base of West Deptford and Gloucester County.

West Deptford had been reliably Democratic since the 1980s, and Sweeney helped keep it that way. He funneled campaign donations, counseled local politicians, and stayed on top of local affairs - by delivering orders, some say - despite his statewide duties.

But something would soon challenge his supremacy.

GOP in Sweeney land

In 2010, a blustery governor with reform-minded rhetoric arrived in office, inspiring an insurgency among West Deptford Republicans, who were infuriated by what they saw as Sweeney-led cronyism, out-of-control spending, and skyrocketing township property taxes.

The next year, when Gov. Christie brought one of his famous YouTube town halls to West Deptford, resident Sam Cianfarini told the governor that his town, with a little more than 20,000 residents, had $142 million in long-term debt.

Christie's eyes seemed to pop out of his head. "Wow," he said. "Really scary."

But the Christie administration declined Cianfarini's request to audit the books, so Cianfarini took action himself: He ran for West Deptford's governing body, the township committee, alongside a former state trooper, Raymond Chintall. They were outspent more than 5-1, with Sweeney's union directing thousands of dollars to stop the challengers.

Yet, the Republicans eked out a victory, adding two to the lone GOP committee member and taking control of the town for the first time in a quarter-century.

Sweeney's reaction that night? "Heartbroken," he told reporters.

"It's human nature," Cianfarini said. "You put somebody in power for 20-something years, and that's what you get - entrenchment - and they're going to fight to keep their power."

At the municipal meetings after the new regime took control, Republicans and Democrats sat on different sides of the room. Signs advertising competing, vitriolic political blogs were planted on lawns throughout town. Sweeney and the two new Republicans claimed to receive death threats.

Sweeney seethes at what he says the Republicans were doing to West Deptford. They underfunded the fields he helped to build, he contends, and plotted to ax other programs with a tea party mentality.

Republicans say they were trying to set West Deptford straight after years of Democratic financial malfeasance. Democrats lacked a state-required general ledger of financial transactions, oversaw a water department where hundreds of residents got free service, and failed to itemize millions of dollars in receipts for a debt-ridden, publicly financed riverfront development known as the RiverWinds.

"Everything I've looked at or touched as a result of taking office is completely broken," Cianfarini said.

But perhaps the biggest dispute was over a series of property-tax appeals filed by Sunoco over its Eagle Point facility near Route 130 and I-295. Sunoco had appealed its assessment dozens of times since 1988, saying the bills were higher than the property's worth. West Deptford had spent millions in legal fees on the case.

Immediately after they were elected in 2011, Republicans met to figure out how to deal with the Sunoco case. A court date loomed, and they feared the township risked a judgment that could cost tens of millions. So they sought to settle the matter, end the legal costs, and get the best deal possible.

Sweeney, meanwhile, strategized a counterattack.

Sweeney vs. Sunoco

Sunoco's chief executive, Brian MacDonald, arrived in Trenton one day in the spring of 2012, walked into the Senate leader's Statehouse office, and sat down in front of the senator's well-polished mahogany desk.

"You're screwing people I represent," Sweeney said he told MacDonald. "I don't think it's right for corporations to just leave a big mess behind and take everything away from people."

Then, Sweeney said, he kicked the Fortune 500 CEO out of his office.

Two years earlier, blaming the recession and reduced global demand for refined oil, Sunoco had announced it was ceasing refinery operations in West Deptford and evolving into a terminal and storage facility - and it would lay off at least 400 workers.

Sweeney represented those workers, many of whom were West Deptford residents, and he had worked there himself, rigging equipment as an ironworker. He knew the "true middle-class, blue-collar jobs" that the company once provided. Sunoco wouldn't accept his help as he tried to find a buyer or create a redevelopment plan, he said, as he had for other decommissioned industrial facilities.

Sunoco didn't appear to care that hundreds of "families" were losing work. "That upset me," he said.

There were other reasons for Sweeney to be angry. Eagle Point was the only Sunoco facility in the region that was now a nonunion shop - even though it sat just down the road from Sweeney's union headquarters.

Plus, shortly after the layoff plan was announced, former Sunoco CEO Lynn L. Elsenhans collected a $28 million severance package, according to federal documents.

Joe McGinn, a spokesman for Sunoco, said in a statement that no one was kicked out of the Trenton meeting. Regardless, Sweeney was miffed.

A week later, a Sweeney bill to kick Sunoco gas stations off the New Jersey Turnpike passed a Senate committee. The bill would have required gas stations on toll roads to use suppliers that have refineries in the state, but it ultimately stalled in the Assembly.

A Plan B would be needed.

Brash 'amateur' politics

"I'm a fighter and I don't make no bones about it," Sweeney bragged. "And I fight hard."

His political detractors take that a step further. They say he "bullies" and "punishes" his enemies.

Earlier this year, Sweeney refused for 50 days to allow Senate votes on Republican-sponsored bills after a procedural kerfuffle over a gun-control measure.

"I'm not going to let you slap me in the face and say thank you," Sweeney said of Republican Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. "That's called a fighter. I wanted to get his attention, and I did."

Instead of pursuing "big-picture issues," Sweeney is motivated by "a score sheet in which the politician makes a list of who are his friends and who are his enemies," said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison. She called it "amateur-style" politics.

"He has a sort of political chip on his shoulder, and I don't know if that's his blue-collar roots, or if he's a South Jersey politician in a state that North Jersey dominates," she said.

Sweeney defends his approach as "getting things done," ticking off accomplishments, such as a new power plant in West Deptford and a $300 million port in Paulsboro.

"There wouldn't be schools for disabled children [in Gloucester County] if it wasn't for me fighting for it," Sweeney said. "I will not apologize for fighting for people in South Jersey."

South Jersey scored a huge victory in 2010, when Sweeney, working with his longtime political ally George Norcross - the state's preeminent political power broker - engineered what insiders describe as a "coup." Sweeney became Senate president by ousting Richard Codey, a former governor and Norcross foe, and since then the region has had more sway in state politics - and in pulling state resources - than ever before.

Sweeney so relishes the victory over Codey that he keeps two framed editorial cartoons in his district office. One depicts a decapitated Codey, with the caption "Sweeney Todd"; the other shows a monstrous claw with Sweeney's name poised to attack a shivering, pajama-clad Codey.

Codey declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Kean (R., Union).

But a self-described victim of Sweeney's alleged tactics was eager to lay blame on the senator for ruining her career.

Sweeney County

"He's vengeful; he's vindictive," said Debra Press-Costello, a former Sweeney supporter and West Deptford Democrat who worked for Gloucester County from 1983 until her retirement earlier this year.

The former county deputy clerk said that Sweeney, as her freeholder director, had her transferred to a no-work job as a punishment in 2010. Press-Costello's offense? She had promised to treat Sweeney's opposition, newly elected Republican freeholders who had just broken onto the all-Democrat board, as equals.

Press-Costello was moved to the Department of Human Services, where she spent the next two years, until her retirement, doing little more than playing a balloon-pop game on her iPad while collecting $144,000 in public salaries, she said.

Sweeney left the freeholder board shortly after Press-Costello's transfer, due to political pressure over holding two demanding and powerful elected positions. But several sources from both parties said that Sweeney still controls county operations, with orders issued via an aide who works for both Sweeney's Senate office and the county freeholder director.

"His face lights up when you talk about Gloucester County," said a Democratic operative who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation. "He's always laser-focused on it."

Sweeney, Gloucester County administrator Chad Bruner, and the current freeholder director, Robert Damminger, denied Press-Costello's accusations about a no-work job, saying she was moved as part of a regular reorganization of duties. Sweeney is too busy in state affairs to meddle in local politics, Damminger said.

Sweeney is "an advocate for all the residents of Gloucester County in Trenton," Damminger said. "He's a good friend, been a good friend for quite a long time, but to say he has undue influence on the day-to-day operations of the county is absolutely false."

In an indication of Sweeney's continuing popularity at home, Harrison's Republican mayor, Louis Manzo, has crossed the aisle to endorse Sweeney in his reelection campaign against Niki Trunk, a former township deputy mayor and former deputy chief of staff for the state comptroller.

Harrison Township officials also recently unveiled Senator Stephen M. Sweeney Way, a bypass that was built, Sweeney says, after he lobbied officials and property owners.

Building a broad-based coalition in his home county is key for Sweeney, who is thought to harbor bigger ambitions. He started a U.S. Senate fund-raising committee last year, and he later considered challenging Christie's reelection bid.

Asked if he was the most powerful Gloucester County politician of the last generation, Sweeney smiled and said, well, he wasn't going to say that.

The news conference

At that January 2012 news conference, though, Sweeney acted as Gloucester County's powerful protector when he stood outside Eagle Point's facility.

Just three weeks earlier, Republicans took office in West Deptford and moved to settle the decades-old tax dispute. Now, to an industrial landscape of smokestacks, circular storage tanks, and narrow metal towers, Sweeney proposed a state law that would stop the settlement.

Sunoco is a "corporate pirate" that had "raped and pillaged" and "is going to destroy a community," Sweeney said.

His bill would prevent Sunoco and other companies from getting tax refunds on closed facilities until the properties were clean of contamination.

No matter that the state Department of Environmental Protection already had a remediation plan to clean up Eagle Point, with 25 monitoring wells throughout the facility. Reports filed at DEP headquarters in Trenton indicated that the cleanup was on schedule, and a DEP spokesman said there have been no problems at the site.

Sweeney argues that industries regularly pretend to clean up their facilities, only to let them sit and rot, with no taxable reuse, for decades, and his bill would apply to refineries statewide.

But the only place immediately affected would be Eagle Point.

West Deptford Republicans, fresh off a big election win, thought they controlled their town. They didn't realize Sweeney would weigh in from his perch in the Legislature. And they didn't realize that the Republican governor would side with their Democratic opponent.

In June 2012, the Legislature approved the bill, and the next month, without so much as a news release, Christie signed it into law.

Sweeney sues his town

The West Deptford Republicans, however, moved ahead with a deal to refund $13.1 million in overpaid taxes to Sunoco. The town also reimbursed Eagle Point's previous owner, Coastal, $18.5 million in taxes. The Republicans and their lawyers argued that since about 50 Sunoco employees still worked at Eagle Point in its new role as a storage facility, the site was not "decommissioned," as the law stipulated, and therefore was exempt from the law.

Sweeney was apoplectic. He asked Christie's attorney general to step in, but the request was ignored, Sweeney said. (The Attorney General's Office had no comment.)

So Sweeney did something no New Jersey legislator had done in 37 years: He sued a municipality.

In fact, research and interviews indicate no state legislator has ever sued his or her hometown.

Sweeney argued that Sunoco's charitable arm, the Sunoco Foundation, gave West Deptford Republicans $750,000 in fire trucks as a kickback for approving the tax refund. Sunoco and the Republicans denied the charge, saying the grant was a separate matter.

To cover legal fees for the case, Sweeney dipped into the $1.9 million in public funds that he has broad discretion over as Senate president. Past Senate presidents have occasionally used the money to hire outside lawyers. But a legislator suing a town to defend a law signed by the sitting governor? Unprecedented.

A settlement is reached

In May, the payments to the outside law firm had reached nearly $300,000. But after The Inquirer began requesting legal bills from Sweeney's office, the payments stopped. That's also when talks about settling the lawsuit began.

Meanwhile, West Deptford taxpayers continued to incur legal fees to defend Sweeney's suit - $23,423.60 as of last month.

Sweeney said the money was needed to protect his town, his people, from the scourge of Big Oil. "I want it cleaned," Sweeney said of Eagle Point. "I want it cleaned now."

But the Sierra Club's Jeff Tittel, the state's leading environmental lobbyist, said that while Sweeney's law was just, his motivation wasn't.

"The irony with Sweeney is that even though it was vengeance against Sunoco for what they were doing, from an environmental side, [the law] was actually right," Tittel said.

A month ago, Sweeney's and Sunoco's lawyers reached a settlement.

Sunoco will receive its tax refund but will have to post a $4.5 million bond. If it violates DEP regulations within the next three years, then the DEP can draw down from that bond and use the money to clean the site.

Yet, technical documents in thick stacks of folders stored at the DEP building in Trenton indicate that Sunoco is already remediating the site, as required. While the bond backs up the remediation with cash, it is unclear how this settlement brings the facility any closer to being "clean," Sweeney's purported objective.

After three years, this new layer of enforcement ends, according to the settlement.

Sweeney couldn't clarify these terms because of a settlement contingency that largely prohibits the parties from talking to the media. A Sunoco spokesman would not comment either.

In an interview after the settlement papers were signed, though, Sweeney seemed pleased. He had at least forced Big Oil to put up money.

And he hadn't given new fodder to his political opponents: Part of the settlement required Sunoco to pay $300,000 of his legal fees. Any fees incurred above that after May would be waived by the lawyers, Sweeney promised, and not paid by taxpayers. Only West Deptford's legal fees stand to be paid by taxpayers.

Cianfarini, the West Deptford Republican, believes Sweeney lost. He says the settlement indicates that no laws were broken and the lawsuit was frivolous.

"This is just one more thing where Steve is using every bit of state resources that he can to stop the Republican majority that has now taken control of his hometown," Cianfarini said. "And he doesn't like it. And it's personal."

Harrison, the political scientist, agrees.

When Republicans took control of his hometown, that put "a bit of the fear of God in him," because it meant "undoing everything he has done, his legacy."

"But it also means there's a constant source of criticism . . . and I think that does damage to the ego and is probably partially responsible for that kind of vitriolic and maybe overly aggressive response," she said.

Sweeney rejects that argument. Yes, he acknowledges, he wants "to see my town go back to the Democratic side." But that's not what any of this was about. It was about cleaning up a toxic site in his district and sticking up for the families affected by layoffs.

"I only fight when I have to," Sweeney said. "Who cares about the vulnerable more than me?"

More fights loom

West Deptford Republicans may have survived this bout with Sweeney, but they remain wary that New Jersey's most powerful elected Democrat wants to take back his hometown.

While Democrats see him as a leader and are grateful for his advice and involvement in the Sunoco issue, he insists he does not run local politics.

"I wish I was that good," Sweeney said.

Township elections are scheduled for Nov. 5. A local blog, WDPride.com, is touting two Democratic candidates - if they win, West Deptford returns to Democratic control.

The website is paid for by a political action committee funded in part by Sweeney's union.

Its motto?

"It's time to take our town back."

STEVE SWEENEY

 Age: 54

Hometown: West Deptford

Education: Pennsauken

High School

Previous offices: Gloucester County Board of Freeholders; freeholder director, 1997-2010

Legislative service: Senator representing parts of Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, 2002-present; majority leader, 2008-10;

Senate president, 2010-present

Occupation: General organizer, International Association of Ironworkers

Family: Married, two children

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mkatz@phillynews.com