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Powerful South Jersey Sen. Steve Sweeney loses to a little-known Republican: ‘Stunning to see’

Steve Sweeney's loss to Edward R. Durr, a truck driver who has never held office, will likely usher in major changes at the statehouse.

Steve Sweeney has served as president of New Jersey's Senate since 2010.
Steve Sweeney has served as president of New Jersey's Senate since 2010.Read moreAKIRA SUWA

Update: Truck driver Ed Durr says his win over N.J. Senate President Steve Sweeney is a rejection of pandemic restrictions

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat who has been a major political force in Trenton for two decades, has lost his reelection bid to an obscure Republican candidate who ran a bare-bones campaign.

His loss to Edward R. Durr, 58, a truck driver who has never held office, will usher in major changes in the statehouse. Just about every major legislative initiative over the course of Phil Murphy’s and Chris Christie’s governorships required Sweeney’s assent.

Sweeney lost to Durr by about 2,200 votes out of some 62,000 cast, or almost 4 percentage points. The Associated Press called the race Thursday morning.

Durr’s victory was a sign, some Democrats said, of an election wave that helped power Republican Jack Ciattarelli’s closer-than-expected challenge to Murphy’s reelection bid and the GOP win in the Virginia governor’s race. Former President Donald Trump twice carried Sweeney’s working-class district south of Philadelphia in a state Joe Biden won by 16 points.

Sweeney has said nothing publicly about the race, but Wednesday he issued a statement canceling a planned Thursday political meeting in Trenton.

“Due to the closeness of several State Senate elections, the leadership caucus scheduled for tomorrow will be delayed,” he said, without mentioning his own race. “The caucus will be rescheduled once the result of every Senate election is determined.”

Sweeney’s Assembly running mates were also trailing in races that were too close to call. Perhaps even more alarming for Democrats than Sweeney’s possible defeat, the party faced tight races in more liberal areas like the Princeton-area 16th Senate District, which Biden carried by 20 points.

» READ MORE: New Jersey governor’s race remains too close to call as counting continues; powerful South Jersey Democrat trailing truck driver

Yet a loss by Sweeney, 62, the longest-serving Senate president in New Jersey history, will have outsize ramifications.

Having served as Senate president since 2010, Sweeney has helped guide policy-making on everything from economic development in South Jersey to the state’s retirement plans for public workers to the appointment of scores of judges and executive-branch officials.

“There’s a delicate balance of power between North Jersey and South Jersey, and all the various political fiefdoms within,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship at Rowan University in Glassboro.

“Because it’s such a delicate balance of power, taking him out of the equation upends everything,” Dworkin said. “He effectively was the king of the Senate. When the king is gone, lots of people think they can be king. Right now there’ll be intense positioning for how the legislative leadership is going to look moving forward.”

Sweeney and his Assembly running mates had spent more than $1 million as of late October, records show.

Durr, of Logan Township, and his running mates raised just $10,460, according to an Oct. 27 campaign finance report. By contrast, when New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union sought to unseat Sweeney in 2017, it spent about $5 million, and he still won by 18 points.

On his campaign website, Durr said his priorities include repairing roads and reducing taxes. Durr pegged Sweeney as being complicit in Murphy’s response to the coronavirus, and criticized him for “sitting by” amid state and school closures, mask orders, and vaccine mandates. He told Politico the area’s distrust and dissatisfaction of the longtime Democratic machine also led to his success.

In an August interview, Durr said he was inspired to get into politics after he was denied a concealed-carry permit despite having a clean record.

An ironworker by trade, Sweeney, of West Deptford, rose to become vice president of the International Association of Iron Workers union. He’s a former longtime chairman of the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners and was first elected to the Senate in 2002.

With the help of his childhood friend George E. Norcross III, the insurance executive and Democratic power broker, Sweeney climbed the ranks of legislative leadership and built political clout for South Jersey — which had been long overshadowed by Democrats in the northern part of the state.

Sweeney ousted a North Jersey Democrat, former Gov. Richard Codey of Essex County, as Senate president at the end of 2009. Christie was elected governor that year and they forged a perhaps unlikely friendship and on-again, off-again political partnership.

Sweeney, marshaling the support of his bloc of loyal South Jersey legislative foot soldiers, helped Christie pass legislation requiring public workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health benefits. That passed over the objections of most Democrats in the Legislature and their allies in public-sector unions like the Communications Workers of America and New Jersey Education Association.

Christie’s ability to enact such measures into law in blue New Jersey burnished his reputation as a no-nonsense bipartisan reformer that vaulted him to national GOP stardom. As Christie traveled the country in the following years as he prepared to run for president, he told GOP audiences about his work with Sweeney as evidence that he could shake things up in Washington.

Even so, Sweeney often tangled with Christie — a dispute over Christie’s handling of state Supreme Court appointments dragged on for years. Sweeney was credited with having protected Chief Justice Stuart Rabner from being sacked by the governor when he was up for reappointment. Christie had lashed out at the justice’s rulings on issues like affordable housing.

After Christie won a landslide reelection in 2013, Sweeney seemed well-positioned to seek the governor’s mansion himself as Christie’s successor.

But when the political revenge scandal known as Bridgegate broke in January 2014, the dynamics in Trenton changed quickly. Christie had been knocked down a few pegs, and Democrats launched investigations. Suddenly it was not politically favorable to be seen as one of Christie’s top collaborators.

Sweeney nevertheless maintained his gubernatorial aspirations and sought to build support for a bid in the years leading up to the 2017 election. He pursued higher taxes on millionaires as part of an effort to increase funding for public workers’ pension system — and to try to get back in the unions’ good graces. He pushed more stringent gun laws, over the objections of some constituents in his relatively conservative district. And so on. Christie, of course, vetoed many of these bills.

But whatever goodwill Sweeney built with the left during Christie’s second term, the Senate president could never quite shake the criticism that he was a “Christie-crat.” And eventually, by the end of 2016, the Democrats consolidated behind Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, as their preferred choice for governor.

» READ MORE: From 2016: How Jersey City mayor's exit doomed Sweeney's bid for NJ governor

At the outset of Murphy’s governorship, Sweeney took an aggressive posture. That millionaire’s tax he pushed so many times under Christie? Murphy wanted it — but Sweeney wouldn’t budge, at least initially.

Within months, the Senate was investigating allegations that the Murphy campaign and administration had failed to act when a staffer alleged she had been raped by another aide.

Murphy set up a task force to investigate the Economic Development Authority and its approval of billions of dollars in tax incentives during the Christie administration — a review that ended up shining a spotlight on projects linked to Sweeney’s friend George Norcross.

Murphy and Sweeney would eventually reach something of a détente, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Now Trenton observers aren’t quite sure what to expect. “I don’t think anybody went into Election Day expecting this,” Dworkin said. “It was stunning to see.”