Long before she ever contemplated the prospect of investigating the governor of New Jersey for corruption, Loretta Weinberg had to face down corruption accusations made against her.
The boodle in question was 8 tons of tuna.
It was during the mid-1980s, years prior to her running for office, that the tuna disappeared, under fishy circumstances, from the Bergen Pines County Hospital, in Paramus, N. J., where Weinberg served as assistant executive director. But in Weinberg’s case, when the county leadership fired her because of the security breach at the public hospital, she sued and won a $70,000 settlement.
The tuna caper marked the last time allegations of serious misconduct were ever leveled against Weinberg, who has cultivated a reputation for being tough on corruption in the often scandal-rocked world of New Jersey politics. And now, from her post as the majority leader in New Jersey’s State Senate, the self-described “feisty Jewish grandmother” from Teaneck is leading the senate’s high-profile investigation of the bridge scandal swirling around the administration of her longtime political nemesis, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Weinberg’s star turn in the political klieg lights is a late-life development in a late-life political career. The 78-year-old didn’t run for office until she was in her 50s. But once she set on that path, she rose determinedly through the ranks of New Jersey politics, from Teaneck’s city council to the halls of the state assembly to the state senate and her current position as majority leader. In the course of her storied life, Weinberg has encountered numerous setbacks, including a failed bid for the lieutenant governorship in 2009, and the loss of her life savings in the Bernard Madoff investment scheme.
This is not the first time Weinberg has faced off against a powerful politician. In her first two elections for the state senate, she stared down Joseph Ferriero, the powerful Democratic boss of Weinberg’s native Bergen County, who had thrown his support behind other candidates. Most observers wrote off her chances against his hand-picked candidates. But Weinberg fought back, ultimately receiving the Democratic nomination and winning the Senate seat in 2005. She then fended off a challenger backed by Ferriero in 2007.
Ferriero’s fate afterward reflected another aspect of Weinberg’s political life: She has a knack for outlasting her political rivals, and often gets the last laugh. In September 2013, Ferriero was indicted on charges that he engaged in racketeering and bribery while heading the Bergen County Democratic Party. Ken Zisa, Weinberg’s senate campaign opponent in 2005 and Ferriero’s own choice, is confined to his home pending an appeal of his conviction on charges of insurance fraud and official misconduct while serving as Hackensack’s police chief. It remains to be seen whether Christie, with whom she has also clashed in the past, emerges in better condition.