Loretta Weinberg remembers the moment she learned about the birth of her first grandchild in 2003. Huddled in her New Jersey state senate office with members of a coalition for domestic-partnership legislation, she was approached by a transgender woman who gave her a hug and said, "I'm a grandfather, you know."
Weinberg, the 74-year-old self-described "feisty Jewish grandmother from Bergen County," shrugs on a recent fall afternoon when she recalls the exchange--they were simply connecting as two grandparents. With her nonjudgmental ethos and tenacity, Weinberg has presided over rapid gains in New Jersey gay rights since taking office in 2005--enough to make progress in nearby New York seem glacial. The achievements during her tenure as a Democratic state senator include a civil unions law, trans-inclusive antidiscrimination legislation, and paid family leave for same-sex partners. "When you know people, when you love people, it's normal to want to make sure they have all the same rights and opportunities the rest of us do," Weinberg says.
On a recent afternoon, Weinberg was in her campaign car en route to a Newark church to hear Princeton University professor Cornel West speak. She mused about her next steps in LGBT legislation and said she'd like to cap her service in the senate with passage of a marriage equality bill, which Gov. Jon Corzine has promised to sign. Weinberg is poised to take office as Corzine's deputy in January, becoming the state's first lieutenant governor (Corzine, ahead in the polls as of press time, was running a heated race for the November election). New Jersey voters passed an amendment in 2005 to establish a lieutenant governor post, not long after former governor James McGreevey resigned after a gay affair with an adviser.
"Loretta Weinberg is the most effective champion of LGBT rights who has ever held public office in New Jersey," says Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality. Goldstein and his partner exchanged vows in Weinberg's office on February 19, 2007, the date the new civil unions law took effect. Months earlier, the state supreme court had ruled in favor of equal rights for same-sex couples but deferred to the legislature as to whether the unions should be called "marriages."
Weinberg now sees the civil unions law compromise she sponsored as a "chicken way out" but also insists pragmatism was necessary. "It was the ability to take the next step forward," she says.
A Bronx, N.Y., native, Weinberg moved to California as a child with her brother and mother following her parents' divorce. She graduated from Beverly Hills High School and attended the University of California, Los Angeles, before returning to the Northeast and marrying her husband, an interior designer who died in 1999. Weinberg traces her passion for gay rights to her Jewish family's unconditional acceptance of two gay cousins.
Over the past four years in the senate, she's acquired a ballsy rep for her stands against the gun rights lobby and corrupt politicians. That reformer pedigree nudged Corzine to select her as a running mate.
Does she have her eyes on the state's top position in 2013? Weinberg isn't saying either way: "I know I'm as old as I am, but other than that, inside, my age is sort of irrelevant."