Loretta Weinberg, the Majority Leader in the New Jersey Senate who has been serving in elected public office since 1990, was invited to attend the State of the Union address by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Senator Weinberg is known for her role in investigating the “Bridgegate” scandal involving then-governor Chris Christie, advocacy on behalf of equality for the LGBTQ community and voted to restore funding to family planning clinics in New Jersey.
Senator Weinberg did not personally know Speaker Pelosi prior to February 5, 2019. Her daughter Francine Weinberg-Graff told Heavy that the invitation for the State of the Union “came out of the blue” and that her mother had been thrilled to receive it. Senator Weinberg posted a photo with Speaker Pelosi to her Facebook page, writing, “The night is complete. She is fabulous.”
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Loretta Weinberg Worked on Political Campaigns in the 1960s & Was First Elected to Public Office in 1990
Loretta Weinberg was born into politics, according to her daughter Francine Weinberg-Graff. She explained in an article for the email newsletter “Lenny” in 2018 that her mother was exposed to the political world from a young age through her father. Weinberg’s father was involved in the New York City political organization Tammany Hall.
In the 1960s, Weinberg stayed involved in the political scene by working on various campaigns in the state. She brought her young daughter along for the ride. Weinberg-Graff wrote for the piece, “I spent my childhood picketing at the supermarket in support of Cesar Chavez or distributing leaflets for local candidates. I was six years old, but it was campaign season, and all hands were on deck.”
Weinberg was in her mid-50s when she began a career as an elected official. She was elected to the Township of Teaneck Council in 1990. She was a member of the Assembly for 14 years before becoming a state senator in 2005. She has been the Majority Leader since 2012.
2. Senator Weinberg Helped to Lead the Charge in Investigating the Controversy That Became Known Nationally as ‘Bridgegate’
For a brief summary on what happened: two of three access lanes on the George Washington Bridge were closed in September of 2013. The bridge connects Fort Lee, New Jersey to New York City. The closures caused massive delays that stranded commuters and emergency vehicles. The New York Times reported that a typical half-hour commute stretched to four hours on average.
Months of investigations eventually revealed that the decision to close the lanes was politically motivated. Governor Christie, who was running for re-election, had asked Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich for his endorsement. When the mayor did not endorse Christie, that allegedly inspired retribution. Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, was found to have emailed David Wildstein at the Port Authority, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie was never charged, but Kelly was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Deputy executive director of the Port Authority Bill Baroni received a two-year prison sentence. Both of their sentences were delayed pending appeals.
Senator Weinberg first heard from her constituents about the lane closures in Fort Lee and attended multiple Port Authority meetings to investigate. She and Democratic assemblyman John Wisniewski kept asking questions and it eventually led to a complete investigation. Senator Weinberg served as co-chair on the legislative panel.
3. Senator Weinberg Sponsored a Bill to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage in New Jersey
Senator Weinberg is credited for taking leadership positions on issues of equality. The “Loretta Weinberg Legacy Fund” at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics describes her on its website: “Weinberg has been in the lead on every LGBT advancement in New Jersey throughout her legislative career, including marriage equality, transgender equality, and sweeping anti-discrimination and anti-hate crimes laws.”
Senator Weinberg introduced a bill in 2010 to make same-sex marriage legal in New Jersey. It failed by a vote of 20-14 that year.
She pushed for it again in 2012. You can watch Senator Weinberg’s speech from the New Jersey Senate floor in 2012 embedded above. The measure passed the Senate by a vote of 24-16. But it failed to become law because then-governor Christie vetoed the measure. The Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide in June of 2015.
Senator Weinberg was also close friends with Barbra Siperstein, a transgender activist who served as a delegate on the Democratic National Committee. On February 1, 2019, the Babs Siperstein Law went into effect in New Jersey. It allows for transgender people to amend their birth certificates in New Jersey based on how they identity themselves. Siperstein passed away on February 3, 2019, at age 76.
Senator Weinberg wrote an editorial for NJ.com on Siperstein’s passing. It reads in part:
“As statements pour in from all over the state, and the country, I remember both a giant of the LGBTQ community and a friend. Babs led her life with courage and authenticity. Through her example, she taught the rest of us about true equality.
She will be sorely missed by her friends and family, as a grandmother (and as a grandfather). Her legacy lives on and cannot be forgotten because we feel it every day. It is felt by all of us, transgendered or not, because we all benefit from a fairer, more inclusive and more just society. If her passing can bring to mind one final thing, beyond her stunning achievements and her magnetic personality, let it be a reminder of all the work we have yet to do.”
4. Senator Weinberg Sponsored a Bill to Develop ‘Smart Guns’
Senator Loretta Weinberg has advocated for “smart guns” for nearly two decades. These types of weapons can only be fired by the registered owner.
In 2002, she sponsored the Childproof Handgun Law, which would require guns purchased in New Jersey to be equipped with personal recognition technology. The law stipulated that all handguns sold in the state must be “smart” within three years once they became available anywhere in the country. The idea had been to eventually replace all other weapons with smart guns.
But the law had unintended consequences. Gun owners, concerned about starting that three-year clock, did not sell smart guns. Weinberg told NPR in 2014 that “the law’s mandate has become an impediment to the development of smart guns.”
The debate has been resurrected once more. This time around, Senator Weinberg has advocated for requiring gun sellers to smart weapons alongside their other merchandise.
5. Senator Weinberg Highlights Women in an Annual ‘Power List’
Loretta Weinberg’s office puts out an annual list called the “Powerful Women of New Jersey.” She told NJBiz.com in 2016 that she was inspired to do this after seeing a list out out by PolitickerNJ of the most powerful people in New Jersey. Only 15 women were on it.
The 2018 list included the following mesage from the senator:
Many of the powerful women of New Jersey are well known. Others are not. They are the cabinet members who run the large and complex bureaucracies that make up our state government. They are the union leaders who advocate for our workers. They are behind-the-scenes schedulers, office managers, and Chiefs of Staff for some of New Jersey’s leaders. They are the lobbyists and influencers who articulate the many policies of New Jersey’s businesses and non-profits. They are business leaders, healthcare leaders, fundraisers, and political leaders.
But most important, they are advocates for all of us. As this list grows each year, let’s all celebrate
their influence and their increasing stature. The “powerful women” of New Jersey make our state a better place.”