Stephen Sweeney holds on to seat in costliest legislative contest in N.J. history

New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney

In the costliest legislative race in New Jersey history, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, held on to his seat against Republican challenger Fran Grenier, whose candidacy got a surprising boost from the state’s largest teachers’ union.

According to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, at least $15 million was spent on behalf of the two campaigns in South Jersey’s Third District, more than twice as much as in the previous record-setting race, in 2003.

Sweeney, the most influential elected Democrat in the state, has represented Salem and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland Counties since 2002, and lawmakers voted him in as Senate president in 2009.

The New Jersey Education Association, which represents more than 200,000 teachers and other members, had vigorously opposed Sweeney in attack ads in the Philadelphia market.  The union said Sweeney had underfunded schools, pushed through laws requiring public employees to contribute more toward their pensions and health care, and sided with Republican Gov. Christie against teachers.

Sweeney, vice president of an Ironworkers local, said he had worked for a fairer distribution of school aid and a better-funded pension system.  In a news release late Tuesday, he praised the Democratic victories that kept the party comfortably in the majority in the Legislature.

“I have remained focused on the progress and achievements that will make their [voters’] lives better. … I am always ready to fight for their best interests,” he said in another statement that called his own victory decisive.

“With Democrats providing leadership in the executive branch as well as both houses of the Legislature, we can build upon the successful Democratic priorities with a more expansive Democratic agenda,” he said.

The NJEA also released a statement: “While NJEA-endorsed candidate Fran Grenier fell short … his insurgent campaign electrified New Jersey politics and energized NJEA members, who remain determined to endorse and campaign for pro-public education candidates regardless of party affiliation.” Steve Baker, a spokesman, said he could not go beyond the statement and comment on the money the association spent.

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State Senate President Stephen Sweeney

Grenier, a former Woodstown Borough councilman, did not return a call for comment.

All 120 legislative seats were up for grabs this year, and the Democrats were expected to keep their majorities in each chamber. For the first time in eight years, the Democrats will also have a governor, Phil Murphy, according to unofficial results.

Another costly and closely watched Senate race focused on the contest in Atlantic County’s Second District to replace veteran Democratic Sen. Jim Whelan, who died of a heart attack in August soon after he announced he would retire.

According to an unofficial count, Democrat Colin Bell, who gained the advantage of incumbency when he was tapped for Whelan’s seat, was defeated by Republican Chris A. Brown, an assemblyman seeking to become a senator. Brown’s Assembly seat went to a Democrat.

Brown did not respond to a call for comment.

Bell said he was “disappointed we came up short. … I wish [Brown] the best of luck.”

In the race for a Senate seat in the Seventh District, representing a wide swath of South Jersey, Democratic Assemblyman Troy Singleton bested Republican John Browne, mayor of Delanco, Burlington County. Singleton will replace Republican State Sen. Diane Allen, who is retiring.

Troy Singleton, at a panel discussion in Trenton this month,


Staff writer Avalon Zoppo contributed to this article.