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Facing bullies, detangling Bridgegate, and so much more…

Teaneck’s Loretta Weinberg talks about her long life and unlikely experiences

 
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Loretta Weinberg’s life has taken her from the Bronx to California to Teaneck, from working in a home office to being state senate majority leader.

Maybe you’ve heard of a Spidey-sense, that vague tingling that tells you that something is wrong.

It’s not limited to superheroes, though — or maybe we should redefine our sense of superhero to include short, tough, no-nonsense grandmothers.

If it weren’t for Loretta Weinberg, it is far from impossible that the imbroglio at the George Washington Bridge that tied up traffic for four stomach-churning days in September might have been left alone, and the web of malfeasance behind it never unraveled.

But because Ms. Weinberg of Teaneck, New Jersey’s state senate majority leader, had a feeling that something was wrong, and had the courage and tenacity to follow up on that sense, the web is beginning to unravel, and Governor Chris Christie, who once threatened her with a baseball bat — perhaps in jest, but it’s an odd joke — is beginning to fear deflation.

So how did Ms. Weinberg find herself in this position?

Is it too easy to say practice?

Loretta Isaacs was born in 1935. Her father, Murray Isaacs, was American-born. Her mother, Raya Hamilton, was born in the Ukraine, “from someplace in the general area that we’re reading about now,” Ms. Weinberg said.

“Her family had a caviar fishing business in the Black Sea. She was the youngest of 10. The story is that her 17-year-old and 19-year-old sisters were about to go to the United States. Their father took them to the boat; when they got there they got so upset about leaving that he got on the boat and went with them.

“I often say that I don’t know if that was love or hostility behind that decision.”

Her grandfather told his wife and remaining children that as soon as he could he would send for them, and a few years later, he did.

Ms. Weinberg, the youngest of three siblings, lived on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, but then, unusually for that time, her parents divorced, and her mother decided to get as far away from her ex-husband as possible. She took her two younger children — Loretta was 9 — and moved to southern California. Ms. Weinberg went to Beverly Hills High School, “far before ‘90210,’” she said.

It was quite a culture shock. For one thing, “I had gone to PS 356, and I realized pretty quickly that I was a little bit ahead in school,” she said. “The school system in New York was good.

“The school buildings were so different,” she added. “Classrooms don’t open onto hallways. They open outdoors. The schools were flat, built around courtyards, and they were much brighter.”

Ms. Weinberg went to school with the children of people who were influential in the film industry. The only famous-for-himself person she recalls is the man she called Dick Chamberlain — the rest of us know him as Richard, early television’s Dr. Kildare. “He was the chief justice of the student court,” she said. “The place you got sent if you were caught in some infraction of the rules.”

She remembers her first trip to California. Her mother had gone out ahead, letting her kids live with relatives and finish the school year in the Bronx. “They put us on a two-motored plane that landed on every flat piece of ground between here and there,” she said. “I remember getting out at all these airports. It was something like a 26-hour plane ride; we weren’t in the air that long, just spent a lot of time going up and down, up and down.” It is not a pleasant memory.

World War II was winding down then. “I remember seeing servicemen kissing women in all the airports. I am assuming they were coming home,” she said.

Soon after they arrived, “my mother went into Beverlywood,” a Los Angeles neighborhood, “and she bought a house. It was $2,000.

“She couldn’t get a Frigidaire” — a refrigerator — because of the huge building boom needed to house all the returning servicemen and their growing families — “so for the first couple of months we had a block of ice in the stall shower. And ants were a problem. So every so often we’d have an influx of ants. We’d have to throw it all out — food and ants together.”

Reva Isaacs worked in a number of jobs. “She was a bit of a pioneer,” her daughter remembered. At one point she sold gourmet foods in a department store. “We used to kid her that she brought home more in the way of gourmet food than a salary,” Ms. Weinberg said. “She’d bring things like brandied peaches. Things that you don’t really eat.” Her mother went on to own a landscape nursery, on rented land that she could not buy but by now is the site of a high-rise development.

In her 50s, Ms. Isaacs began losing her eyesight to macular degeneration. “If you live in L.A. and you can’t drive, forget it,” Ms. Weinberg said. So her mother moved to Palm Spring, “a small town with good services for seniors.” She started a group called the Desert Blind, “which provided services to sight-impaired people.”

Talk about a role model for her daughter…

Ms. Weinberg began college at the University of California at Berkeley — this was almost a decade before it turned into the Berkeley of the 1960s, the home of radicalism, free speech, sex, drugs, and rock and roll — and then transferred to and graduated from UCLA. “I was not politically involved at all,” she said. “I remember a professor at Berkeley giving us a big lecture about how uninvolved everyone was, and how different it was when he was in college, in the 1930s.”

After she graduated from college, Ms. Weinberg and a friend went to Europe. “They called it hitchhiking, but we didn’t go on a road with our thumbs out,” she said. “You’d go to the local American Express office in whichever city you were in, and you’d find someone who was willing to drive and share expenses.”

It was in the American Express office in Paris that Ms. Weinberg cast her first vote for president. It was for Adlai Stevenson. “I remember being very impressed with myself,” she said. “It was very glamorous.

“It was wonderful,” she continued. “We had many an adventure. And then I ran out of money, and it was time to come home.”

There were big differences between the United States and Europe; some favored one region, some the other. “I remember the first time in a department store in London, and I was asked, ‘Have Madam’s wants been attended to?’” she said.

She came back across the Atlantic by ship, carrying only one little suitcase. “I had one good skirt,” she said. “It was gray and pleated. It also was very wrinkled. I rang for the steward on the ship, to see if I could get it pressed. He knocked on the door, and said, ‘Whadya want, ladies?’

“We hadn’t even left Southampton yet, and I knew we were going home.”

When the ship docked in New York, Ms. Weinberg decided to stay there and try her luck on the East Coast instead of heading back west. She found a shared apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — 75th and Columbus — and learned that an old high-school friend lived one building down the street from her. It was Bill Marx — Harpo’s son. One of his roommates, Irwin Weinberg, ended up being Loretta’s husband.

When she first began to work, Ms. Weinberg was not at all career-minded; after all, it was not a time when many women thought about long-term jobs. “I went to an employment agency, and I said I wanted something between 40th and 50th streets, and Fifth and Madison avenues,” she said. “I got a job as a receptionist at a trade publication for American Aviation Publications. I was a college graduate, they offered me a job as a receptionist and switchboard operator, and I was perfectly satisfied.”

She was promoted quickly, and soon worked for the advertising manager; next, she saw an ad for a position as assistant to the advertising manager at Scientific American. She got that job, and stayed there until her first child was born.

“It was a fun job, and a good place,” she said. “It was owned by the Piel brothers, who also owned the brewery. This was maybe 10 years after the war, and they would not accept any advertising from the Krupp empire because of their participation in the Holocaust.

“The Piel brothers were not Jewish. That was remarkable. They were turning down money for moral principles.”

The Weinbergs’ first child, Danny, was born in 1962. Francine followed in 1963. In 1964 the family, then complete, moved to a brave new world.

Teaneck.

Not surprisingly, it was a different town then. There were Jews, but it was not the center of modern Orthodox life that it is today.

“There was a very large and diverse Jewish community when we moved in,” Ms. Weinberg said. “I was and still am a member of Temple Emeth,” which is Reform, “and there was the Teaneck Jewish Center, which then was Conservative, so the town ran the gamut from Reform to Conservative. The growth of the more traditional Jewish community happened thereafter.

“B’nai Yeshurun was there then; I’m not even sure I know how many other synagogues there were in town.” The Weinbergs lived next door to a doctor’s house and office; when it went on the market, a group wishing to start a more traditional shul in the neighborhood bought it. “There was a big fight over variances and board of adjustment issues and so on,” she said. “It ended up in court. My husband was a big supporter of theirs, and he worked really hard for them. He felt that people had a right to form a house of worship.”

That fight won, the house grew into Congregation Beth Aaron.

“We had a red retaining wall in front of our house,” she added. “We always said it was a rite of passage for kids at Beth Aaron to run up and down it, because it was too inviting for any kid to pass up. I watched every kid at Beth Aaron grow up — and I took care of some of them.” (Blessings of a skinned knee!)

Teaneck was a politically active place then. “It was a hotbed of civic activism,” Ms. Weinberg said. “Remember, this was the 1960s. We had the school integration issue going on here in ’65, and nationally the women’s equality movement, the fight over the Vietnam war, and the civil rights movement.” Still very much a woman of her times, Ms. Weinberg was a stay-at-home mom, although she did work for her husband, whose business was home-based. “I had an electric typewriter and whiteout,” she said. “That was a nod toward modernizing.”

Ms. Weinberg’s social conscience was galvanized into action during those years. Her first political work was as a volunteer with the Lyndon Johnson campaign. “The campaign headquarters was on Cedar Lane, where Noah’s Ark,” a popular local kosher deli, “is now,” she said. She and her friends — mostly other stay-at-home mothers of young children — “felt we were doing important work to change our country, and in many cases, collectively we did.”

In 1965, local battles in the war for school integration were fought across the country. Teaneck was an active battleground. “I had a very high-level job, distributing literature,” Ms. Weinberg said. “I remember going up and down all those stairs in the apartments on State Street.

“The integration battle was being fought through the school board elections,” she continued. “Those who wanted to make sure our schools were integrated against those who didn’t want to do that. It was a hard-fought campaign, with high passions on both sides.”

The pro-integration side won. “Teaneck was the first town in the country to voluntarily go and vote to integrate the schools,” she said. “There were other towns before that had court-ordered integration, but we did it voluntarily.”

Like Ms. Weinberg, many if not most of her friends and allies in the political campaigns of that period were Jewish. Was that coincidental? She pauses. “I don’t think we articulated the connection then between social activism and being Jewish, but it was engrained in me,” she said. “I was doing Jewish stuff, but it was not something that I was conscious of at that point.”

Later, that connection became more clear.

For decades, Ms. Weinberg remained a volunteer, “active in volunteering in whatever the good cause was,” she said. She also paid close attention to the politics around her

In 1975, the Democratic party won back control of Bergen County, after nearly half a century on the outside. Her good friend Jeremiah O’Connor — “a member of the Irish contingent of my family,” she joked — became freeholder director, and “convinced me to go to work for the county. (The county had not yet switched to the county executive form of government by which it is run today, and the freehold director was its top official.) She became clerk to the board of freeholders and an assistant county administrator, and held those positions for almost 10 years. The job entailed making policy. “I helped start the first domestic violence shelter, Shelter Our Sisters,” Ms. Weinberg said. “I wrote the first affirmative action program for any county in the state of New Jersey. Through Jeremiah’s leadership, it was the first time we were able to get block grants from the federal government — there was no town in Bergen County large enough to qualify but we put towns together into regions, and that literally brought millions of dollars here for affordable housing, road improvement, making public buildings barrier free, and other similar projects.”

This kind of collaborative effort between towns is hard in New Jersey, where the tradition of home rule is deep if not always particularly logical. “I’m very proud of what we did,” Ms. Weinberg said. “It was pretty significant. It was a very creative government, and I learned a lot. It was a combination of having the right leadership and the government having the money and being willing to spend it in that way, for infrastructure and social services.

“It was a great period, a time for understanding what governments really can do if a whole bunch of good-thinking people get together.”

Eventually, this idyll ended, as all idylls do. In 1985, the Republicans won back the county. Loretta Weinberg was out.

In 1990, she ran for Teaneck council. “It was a bit scary,” she acknowledged. It was also interrupted by history.

“We have nonpartisan government in Teaneck,” Ms. Weinberg said. “We file for office at the end of March, and on April 10, 1990, after the filing deadline but before the election, was when the Pannell shooting took place.

“I often say that I filed for office in one town and ran for office in another one. It felt like a different town, because everything was turned upside down.”

Some history is in order here.

Phillip Pannell was 16 years old, an African-American teenager with something in his pocket — a gun? a starter’s pistol? something he was reaching for? something his hands were nowhere near? — when he was shot in the back and killed by a Teaneck police officer on a spring evening. The episode remains murky, but the fact that the teenager ended up dead was incontrovertible. The tragedy was terrible.

Racial tensions had been rising in the town, and the shooting was the spark that set off a blaze. It attracted men like Al Sharpton, and the circus, media and otherwise, that always trailed him in those years. “We had demonstrations, and what someone described as a mini-riot,” Ms. Weinberg said. “It was a real upheaval.”

She won the election, “and those first few months were another big learning experience,” she said. “Our council meetings were filled with people. The meetings already were being televised at that point, and literally we had a line halfway out the door of people coming to share their opinions of what we should be doing in Teaneck.

“I spent a lot of time listening and learning more about the community I thought I knew. There was a lot more to learn about the feelings of the African American community vis-à-vis the police. Out of that came community policing programs, to bring the police and the community closer to understanding each other, and understanding the role of law enforcement.

“One night I did a ride-along with the police. I ended up going with them on Cabbage Night” — the night before Halloween, where teen pranks not infrequently escalate into real trouble — “and we actually got rocks thrown at us.

“I had to kind of duck down as the car pulled up.

“There isn’t much in my life that I hadn’t experienced first-hand,” she mused. “Some of it was wonderful and exciting, and some of it I would have chosen not to have experienced — but there we go…”

And life continued to happen.

“In 1992, my predecessor in the New Jersey General Assembly, Bennett Mazur, who was a very close friend, resigned midterm because of illness.” He died two years later. “It is a convention that the committee of that party gets to pick a successor. There was a convention, and a bit of a fight, but I won that, and I went to the Assembly.”

As was not infrequently the case, her gender was a hurdle to be overcome.

“If I had not run for and been elected to the Teaneck Council, my guess is that I would never have been considered for an assembly seat,” she said. “In my experience, if a man decides to run, that’s one thing — but if a woman decides to run, you have to have a really good resume.”

Loretta Weinberg remained in the state Assembly for 13 years. In 1998, she ran a sacrifice campaign for county executive against Pat Schuber; she did lose, but by a far smaller margin than expected. Because it had not been an Assembly election year, she was able to retain her seat.

In 2004, Byron Baer resigned from the state Senate. “The same kind of thing happened,” she said. “There was a convention, and this time there were a lot of party bosses aligned against me.” Nonetheless, she won both the nomination and the election. She is now the Senate’s majority leader.

Teaneck, like every other place, has changed in the years since 1964, because change is natural. “It kind of happened over the course of a lot of years,” she said. “I have always taken the attitude that there is no way that anybody could or should try to control what kind of people move in and out of a community. You can just control yourself — you stay in a community until there might be a time when you want to leave, for whatever the reason. The changes that happened in Teaneck are just natural movement. You should not attempt to meddle with it.”

Ms. Weinberg stayed in the same house until 1998, when she moved to another part of Teaneck. Her husband died the next year. Her son still lives in Bergen County; her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren are in southern California.

As Ms. Weinberg says, she has experienced a great deal. Some of it is wonderful, some not good at all. In 2008, she learned that her life savings, which she had invested with a money manager, had vanished, gone with Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme.

Ms. Weinberg has never hidden either her status as a Madoff victim or her desire to rise above and move beyond it, to refuse to let her life be defined by someone else’s evil rather than her own successes.

One effect has been to push retirement off even farther.

Bridgegate has made retirement seem even less appealing.

As a member of the Senate, Ms. Weinberg can go to meetings of such bodies as the Port Authority.

As a long-time Bergen County resident, and as a representative from Bergen County, which of course includes Fort Lee, she knows a great deal about its infrastructure, about its roads, and about its omnipresent traffic problems. “Someone could sneeze on the Cross Bronx, and it congests Fort Lee,” she said. Complaints about traffic fill her inbox all the time.

Still, she said, there was something about the reports of traffic problems last September that sounded different. John Cichowski, the Bergen Record’s traffic correspondent, the Road Warrior — and yes, you can learn a great deal about Bergen County simply by knowing that its local daily has a columnist called the Road Warrior, who never runs out of copy — wrote about it too.

Her Spidey-sense pinged.

After trying to learn more from Pat Schuber, her one-time county executive opponent who now is a Port Authority appointee — a position he gained with Ms. Weinberg’s vote — and failing — he ignored her — Ms. Weinberg decided to show up at a meeting.

“Life is a long series of learning experiences,” she said. “This was one of them.”

There was no regular meeting scheduled for that week, but there was a subcommittee meeting, chaired by Mr. Schuber, about governance and ethics. “I think I’m going to this one,” Ms. Weinberg recalls having thought. She told the subcommittee members that she would be there, and they allowed her the chance to speak.

One of the key players in the Bridgegate scandal, Bill Baroni, was there. “I know Bill Baroni very well,” Ms. Weinberg said. “I know him from my service in the Senate.” Mr. Baroni had been a state senator before Governor Christie appointed him to be the Port Authority’s deputy executive director. “We had worked on marriage equality together,” she said. “He was the one Republican who had supported it.” She had both liked and respected him.

She could see that something was wrong.

“I walked into that room, and I used my mother antenna,” she said. “I said to the staffer who was with me that Bill Baroni knows something.

“I knew it just by looking at him. He had his eyes down. He had trouble looking at me directly.”

She asked questions about the traffic disaster at the meeting but they never were answered.

Loretta Weinberg does not give up.

“I went to the meeting of the full board of commissions in mid-October,” she said. “They never acknowledged anything at that meeting. I went to the November meeting, and then the December meeting. They weren’t answering anything, but by that time there was press there, and of course they would corner me and ask me questions.

“That kept the story alive. The press continued to look at it.

“We know from the emails that at first the Port Authority thought that it would just go away.” She laughed.

Although it is not clear that the New Jersey legislature will have the subpoena authority it needs to look at more emails, the investigation continues, more witnesses have been subpoenaed, and the federal government and New York are looking into it as well.

Ms. Weinberg knows what happened, but “we still don’t know why it happened,” she said. “I have gone through every scenario in my head. We have proof for none of them. I have gone through everything, from frat boys out of control to an orchestrated attempt to punish someone.” The truth eventually will out, she said.

She is not a big fan of Governor Christie.

To be fair, he is not fond of her either. Evidence of that is the bat affair, which was driven by internal politics about when elected officials — in particular, part-time elected officials well beyond retirement age — can begin to collect their pensions.

That episode had frightened her granddaughter, Shayna, who wrote a letter, in a 7-year-old’s severely challenged spelling, asking Mr. Christie to stop bullying her grandmother. He had publicly requested that someone be inspired to “take a bat” to Ms. Weinberg, and Shayna had been seriously alarmed by the prospect of the large governor going after her small grandmother, even by proxy.

“We didn’t suggest that she write the letter, but it happened at a time when schools were starting to focus on bullying,” Ms. Weinberg said. Her granddaughter quickly made the connection between the governor’s plea and the social problem, bullying. Perhaps coincidentally, the governor often is accused of such behavior. “It was an inappropriate choice of words by the man who was the leader of the state of New Jersey,” Ms. Weinberg said carefully.

She minces far fewer words in talking about the governor now.

“He presided over an administration that if nothing else had a feeling that the ends might justify the means,” she said. “He was going through an election that had implications for his national ambitions, so there was a whole push to get Democratic elected officials to endorse him.

“We had three in Teaneck,” she added. (Those were Councilmen Elie Y. Katz, Yitz Stern, and Mark Schwartz, who proudly and publicly endorsed Mr. Christie in early September, before the lanes were closed.)

There is much more work for Loretta Weinberg to do — the mystery of Bridgegate to unravel, a legacy of progressive social activism to ensure, and a lifelong tie to Teaneck to nurture. She plans on continuing. Her Spidey-sense is twitching…

 
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Mr. Lev is a small-boned, taut, wiry man, muscular still, even at 87. His close-cropped white hair, white mustache and carefully trimmed beard, and light eyes, his blue jeans and windbreaker make him look less like Shloime Levitsky, as he once was, and more like a retired British sailor about to head out to the pub with his mates in a 1950s movie.

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