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Loretta Weinberg is terrific with toddlers and has a lot of advice about how people should behave. But she is not your typical bubbe. Instead, she is known as a "feisty Jewish grandmother" from Teaneck, New Jersey, who surprisingly finds herself as the Democratic Party's candidate to become the state's first-ever lieutenant governor. Weinberg, with a reputation as a fearless reformer, was chosen as the running mate of Gov. Jon Corzine for the November election.
Weinberg, 74, is a seasoned politician. It began with trees. Or rather, the lack of them. Weinberg went to a town council meeting in the mid-1960s to demand shade trees on Teaneck streets for young parents, such as herself, who took their children out in strollers. She prevailed, trees were planted and her local political career was launched.
A graduate of the University of California with a degree in history, Weinberg was elected to the New Jersey State Assembly in 1992. She is known as a liberal, squeaky clean - and undaunted. "She's not afraid to buck the system," said Elie Y. Katz, a Teaneck businessman, town council member and former mayor.
In 2005, while serving in the assembly, Weinberg battled the local Democratic Party chairman, who wanted someone else to fill an empty seat in the State Senate representing wealthy Bergen County. Weinberg won the battle and got the seat. However, the chairman, Joseph Ferriero, subsequently was indicted on fraud charges brought by then US attorney Christopher Christie, who is now Corzine's (and Weinberg's) Republican opponent.
CORRUPTION - the stereotypes, the suspicions, the charges, the convictions - looms large in New Jersey. Corzine unexpectedly choose Weinberg as his running mate late last month shortly after federal authorities charged three New Jersey mayors, assorted state and local political figures and a handful of rabbis from the Syrian Jewish community (in New York and New Jersey) with various corruption charges.
Corzine - a former marine, US senator and head of the financial firm Goldman Sachs - could distance himself from the taint by choosing Weinberg, the reformer.
New Jersey, like the rest of the US, has suffered from the economic downturn and is flat broke. Although she can schmooze and quickly put people at ease, Weinberg doesn't mince words, and she appears unwilling to coddle constituents with feel-good, impossible promises.
ASKED A tough question, she gives a direct answer and explains why you won't be happy with it. Last week, for instance, the editor of an influential Orthodox monthly newspaper, one with a right-wing slant, asked what the Democrats would do to ease the burden of yeshiva tuition costs for the observant community. Weinberg replied: "There are 4,000 Jewish day school students in Teaneck alone. If you give each one $1,000, which is negligible, it would cost $4 million. Where would that money come from? I believe in school choice, but do the arithmetic."
"We in the Jewish community believe in taking care of the most vulnerable among us," Weinberg said to a group of supporters last week in Teaneck. Her politics are shaped by her life experiences and Judaism (she is a member of a Teaneck Reform congregation). Shade trees for her children led her to community and political service. Fighting insurers as she cared for her husband, Irwin, as he was dying a decade ago, made her a relentless advocate for health care and for paid "family leave" programs. Weinberg has two children and two grandchildren.
"She has established a reputation preeminent in the state for standing up for what she believes in," said Charlie Lavine, who lives near Princeton and works on Jewish outreach for the state Democratic Party. "Loretta is tough."
Lavine says Israel is not an issue in this gubernatorial campaign. The state government long has been involved in Israel trade, but the Corzine administration, prodded in part by Weinberg, strengthened those ties.
"Loretta has been a strong advocate for the Jewish community and the enhancement of the Israel-New Jersey partnerships," Katz said.
Last year, Corzine signed legislation establishing the New Jersey-Israel Commission as a permanent part of New Jersey's Department of State. The commission, which deals with economic and cultural relations, had been established nearly 20 years earlier, on a less structured basis. Israel was New Jersey's ninth largest trading partner in 2007, according to published reports.
Recently, new state laws on religious tolerance have been passed. As Weinberg noted, it is important to recognize the diversity of the state's communities. While some laws are of special interest to the Jewish community, others concern all religious minorities. For instance, nursing homes must meet residents' religious dietary needs. Special academic tests and licensing exams must offer alternate dates so people are not compelled to miss important tests because they fall on a religious holiday or the Sabbath.
The position of lieutenant governor is new. It was created because there was no deputy to take the governor's place if the governor resigned or was incapacitated, as happened repeatedly in the last decade.
Christie also has chosen a woman as a running mate for lieutenant governor: Kimberly Guadagno, a former prosecutor who was the first woman elected sheriff of Monmouth County.
If Corzine wins reelection, Weinberg would be: the first lieutenant governor, the first Jewish lieutenant governor, the first grandmother lieutenant governor. She was in the State Assembly when the position of lieutenant governor was debated. She didn't imagine it would have anything to do with her. "Not in my wildest dreams."
But she relishes the prospect. "I have always been direct; I'm not afraid to speak my mind," Weinberg said, adding: "Everyone needs a Jewish grandmother. Even the State of New Jersey."