Senate President Stephen Sweeney
Deputy Speaker John Burzichelli
Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro

Courier-Post – At the far end of a boisterous cafeteria at the special needs Bankbridge School, Lauren Sweeney is having lunch with her friends, a daily scene that includes eating, high-fiving, raucous laughing and teasing typical of teens.

In walks her father, state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney. Lauren, in mid-giggle, sees her dad standing at her table and jumps up to give him a hug. As they embrace, Sweeney notices his 18-year-old, who has Down syndrome, is surrounded by boys.

Sweeney reacts as any doting father might, with a comment not fit for print in a family newspaper. Then he grins.

Lauren, Sweeney’s close associates say, is why New Jersey’s second-most-powerful elected official got into politics.

“A switch flipped in Steve when Lauren was born,” says his older brother, Dr. Robert Sweeney, chairman of emergency medicine at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Monmouth County. “He didn’t care one wit about politics until he started getting involved with what would be best for disabled citizens.”

Hard-fought elections pitted against seasoned veterans? Bruising battles with governors past and present? Reforms seen as traitorous by union brethren who branded him a “rat”?

That’s nothing, Sweeney says, compared to watching your daughter born at 26 weeks, a scant 2 pounds, then learning a month later she has Down syndrome and if she doesn’t learn to eat soon, she will die.

Life before Lauren

At the State House in Trenton, Sweeney, 52, is a commanding figure routinely surrounded by fellow legislators, reporters or lobbyists. A conservative Democrat, he has represented the 3rd Legislative District, which includes Salem, Cumberland and parts of his home county of Gloucester, since 2002.

Sweeney, a possible contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination when Gov. Chris Christie’s current term expires in two years, doesn’t mince words when he talks about his life before Lauren.

A self-professed “screw-up” in high school who had no aspirations for further education, he says he was a “pampered” guy who lived with his parents in Pennsauken until he was married at 27. His mother cooked his meals and did his laundry. As a new husband, he said he was a “stereotypical ironworker,” laboring all day and spending many nights at bars.

“My daughter has taught me everything,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t become an adult until I was 33 and she was born. When the doctor told my wife and me Lauren had Down syndrome, I asked what he could give her for it. I didn’t know what Down syndrome was.”

The fragile new life turned Sweeney’s life upside-down. He became an activist with skill sets gleaned from his working-class neighborhood, from a trade that values hard work, from family members who prize loyalty. They are skills he has used every day he has spent in elective office.

“Steve’s a late-bloomer,” says Robert Sweeney. “But he’s a quick learner.”

Long days for Sweeney

Soon after winning a seat on the Gloucester County freeholder board in 1996, he accepted responsibility for three-quarters of the county’s departments. His colleagues guffawed. Sweeney had the last laugh.

“I took 75 percent of the work, but I also got 75 percent of the jobs,” says Sweeney, who is president of Ironworkers Local 399 in Westville. He knows jobs cement power in government and politics.

He dug in, working to consolidate, merge and share government services to save taxpayers money. He marshaled efforts to build a 2,500-job port in Paulsboro, set to open next year. He established a Veterans Administration clinic and cemetery. And he guided the creation of the three-prong special-services school system known as Bankbridge in Sewell, where Lauren now attends classes.

“I have never met anyone who works longer hours than Steve Sweeney,” says one of his oldest friends, Democratic Party boss George E. Norcross III. “We have conversations at 4:30 a.m. and at 11 p.m. He is the hardest-working human being I’ve ever met.”

The relationship between Sweeney and Norcross, an insurance executive, is fodder for their political foes, none of whom were willing to address specific criticisms on the record. They contend that Sweeney is too closely aligned with Norcross, giving him too much influence over public affairs.

“Myth,” Sweeney says. “I never get credit for having my own brain, my own mind, my own ideas. I’m proud of George. He started his insurance business with a card table and a phone. I am loyal; I will not walk away from my friends.”

Adds Robert Sweeney: “People bring up this connection between Steve and George Norcross. They have been friends since grammar school. He has a rough exterior, but down under it’s all about fairness. (For Steve), it’s about representing his constituents.”

Tough-guy sweetheart

Earlier this fall, Sweeney had a chance encounter with Bridgeton residents Jay and Pravina Vashee. They’d met once before, three years ago.

“We own a 7-Eleven and he came in,” Pravina Vashee says. “There’d been a bad storm and he stopped in to see how we were doing. He said, ‘If you have a problem, you tell me.’ Just now, he asked us about our store. He called us both by name.”

That knack for connecting is one of the reasons why Norcross says, “In my next life, I would like to have Steve Sweeney’s personality.”

Sen. Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, a former governor and Senate president, admires Sweeney’s “tenacity.”

But, he adds, “There are dichotomies there. He can be the tough guy. He can be the sweetheart. … I thought he was a friend. Then he ran against me (for Senate president). But that’s politics.”

Some are immune to what state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, calls Sweeney’s “charisma.” Beck, though on the other side of the political aisle, is not one of his detractors.

“I trust him,” Beck says. “When he gives his word on an issue, you can rely on that. It’s easy for the Senate president to be dismissive. Steve is not.”

A stand-out fan

Earlier this month, Sweeney won re-election in the 3rd District by about 10 percentage points, defeating Republican challenger Michael M. Mulligan. Though up in the polls by double-digit margins, Sweeney admits he ran “like I was 30 points down.” Much like he ran against 28-year incumbent state Sen. Raymond J. Zane in 2001 to win his first term in the Senate.

It’s about persistence and, adds his brother Robert, the fact that “Steve’s a fairly fearless individual.” Bucking established rules doesn’t faze him.

Though he grew up in diehard Philadelphia Eagles’ country, he is a devout Green Bay Packers fan. George Norcross says Sweeney even attended a Packers-Eagles game — in Philadelphia — dressed in full green-and-gold Packers regalia. “Someone his size stands out, dressed like that,” Norcross said.

So perhaps the unions should’ve seen it coming: If this guy was brave enough to dress in an enemy uniform at Lincoln Financial Field, why think he’d let vows of union backlash discourage him from shepherding the reforms to pensions and benefits he had been pushing for years?

He had persisted in his push for such reforms through a spate of uncooperative governors from both parties. Then, in late 2009, Sweeney defeated Codey for the Senate presidency and took charge of the legislative agenda. About the same time, Republican Gov. Chris Christie became governor.

Their hard-negotiated reforms included a property tax cap, arbitration rule changes friendlier to management than to workers and increased public employee contributions to pensions and health insurance costs. But the Sweeney-Christie honeymoon ended when Christie unexpectedly vetoed several budget items dear to Democrats, including an early-intervention program aimed at disabled children. Sweeney took umbrage, calling the governor a “bully” and a “bastard.”

An unholy alliance

Since the dust-up four months ago, both have stated publicly they will continue to work together. “I’ve moved on,” Sweeney says. “It’s about what’s best for New Jersey.” Christie, through a spokesman, declined further comment.

Some call the working partnership between the Democratic Senate president and the Republican governor an unholy alliance that is a knife wound to the chest of unions everywhere. Others believe the reforms they have enacted are starting to bring fiscal sanity to New Jersey.

Political analysts don’t shortchange Sweeney when doling out credit.

“When Steve Sweeney is ready to negotiate —– be it pension and benefits reform, the tax cap — it happens,” says Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “He chooses to bridge differences. And that’s why we in New Jersey have reform. If we had a different Senate president, this might not have happened.”

Sweeney is aware his alliance with Christie has made him a target.

Speaking to the Teamsters Joint Council 53 this fall in Atlantic City, he said, “I know I upset a lot of people with what I did. But six, seven years from now, people will have their pensions. For too long, (leaders) sat back and let it go broke. I thought, ‘Do I let it collapse? Do I point to those who came before me and say that it was those other guys?’”

The big picture

After Sweeney’s talk, Howard Wells, president of Teamsters Local 676, Collingswood, said, “At first I didn’t understand what he was doing. But then I did listen. I did learn. A lot of people don’t want to see the big picture of what he actually saved. People hear they have to pay more now and won’t listen to the second sentence – that it’s so you get what you earned later.”

Added Wells: “I think Steve’s on track to be governor of this state. I think we need to start rallying behind him, start listening to him. He is looking to help the taxpayer.”

“Sweeney for Governor” signs won’t be appearing across the state any time soon. “If Steve does decide to run,” his brother Robert says, “he wouldn’t declare until close to election (time). He wouldn’t want it to interfere (with his work as a senator).”

How could a Democrat who now is president of a union local and whose father was a Democrat and a labor leader stump for reduced benefits for government employees?

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, also grew up in Camden County. He sees Sweeney as completely true to his roots.

“There are no inconsistencies in his ideology,” Murray says. For South Jersey Democrats, it’s always been about “taking a hard look at costs, making sure the middle-class won’t be hurt.”

An ability to connect

Previous statewide officials from South Jersey, such as former Gov. Jim Florio and former Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, weren’t cut from the same cloth as Sweeney, Murray says.

“People feel Steve Sweeney is ‘one of us,’” Murray says. “He connects with people differently than Florio and Roberts. The affection people feel for him down there is not because he was anointed by the Norcross machine. What Norcross saw in him is that he’s someone with something special, that ability to connect with people. Frankly, you can’t sound that authentic unless there’s a good part of you that is authentic.” Or, as Norcross says, a “street-smart genius.”

The street in Pennsauken where Sweeney lived is named Tinsman Avenue. There, in a modest two-story, brick-and-tan house that sits in the backyard of the home that belonged to his maternal grandparents, Robert Sr. and Raefeline Sweeney raised Robert, Louis, Steve and Richard.

“My grandparents had a finished basement, with a bar, and they’d entertain,” Sweeney says. “We felt blessed. We got to grow up with our grandparents. You know, I may be Irish, but I was raised Italian.”

He shakes his head and laughs when he speaks of “Mean Mama Mills,” the only neighbor his parents would trust to baby sit the four Sweeney boys if they went out for an evening. He tears up when he remembers the childhood escapades of his brother Louis, who died of cancer at 43.

“Louis was 43, but he was 143 when it comes to real living,” Sweeney says, looking at the gold Rolex watch he always wears. It belonged to Lou.

Lauren Sweeney isn’t in her classroom when her father stops by Bankbridge one afternoon. She’s in the nurse’s office with a headache, Lauren’s teacher tells Sweeney, who then heads to the nurse’s office. Halfway there, he starts chuckling.

“She’s a faker,” Sweeney says. “My wife and I let her take a CPR course and now she knows all the symptoms, so she can fake being sick. Watch, she’ll have her head down, but she’ll see me and jump up, just fine.”

Exactly as predicted, Lauren, at first sitting quietly on a bed, spots her father, beams and runs into his arms. Hugging and kissing ensue, then fist-pounding and teasing.

“Lauren gives as good as she gets,” Sweeney says.

“That’s right,” Lauren says. “But my dad is the best.”

As he leaves Bankbridge, Sweeney recalls Lauren’s precarious birth 18 years ago.

After spending 70-odd days in the neo-natal unit, Lauren wasn’t growing. She couldn’t eat. Sweeney and his wife Patti decided to bring her home. They struggled to feed her.

Then Sweeney got the idea to coat the tip of a straw with a thick ice cream milkshake, enticing Lauren to use it as a feeding tube for her baby foods.

“She sucked it all down,” Sweeney says. “She went for that ice cream.”

“You know,” he adds, looking out over the Bankbridge campus, “my greatest accomplishment was teaching my daughter to drink through a straw.”

District Offices

Gloucester County

Kingsway Commons
935 Kings Highway, Suite 400
West Deptford, NJ 08086
Phone: (856) 251-9801
Fax: (856) 251-9752

Salem/Cumberland Counties

The Finlaw Building
199 East Broadway, Suite G
Salem, NJ 08079
Phone: (856) 339-0808 or
             (856) 455-1011
Fax: (856) 339-9626