NEW BRUNSWICK – It was scheduled to last an hour and a half. It lasted just over 20 minutes.
Senate President Steve Sweeney rushed off stage Thursday night in the middle of a raucous town hall meeting, unwilling to sit and be shouted down when he tried to hype his "Path to Progress" legislation in front of a pro-union audience at Douglass College's Trayes Hall.
Sweeney paused to try to let the screams, shrill railroad whistles and boos subside, but was quickly drowned out, again and again.
At one point, Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" blared, much to the delight of the 300 or so pro-union workers who danced, pumped their fists and sang along to the 1980s hair band classic.
"You're not going to scare me," Sweeney told the crowd, whipping them into more of a frenzy. "You're not going to chase me off."
Sweeney met the venom of the crowd with defiance. At one point, he shook his head and said, "You can holler all you want. We're going to fix this place."
That brought applause from members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who sat in seats reserved for them in the front two rows.
At other points, Sweeney alluded to his 27-bill package he rolled out just hours earlier. The "Path to Progress" is a series of proposed fiscal reforms and cost savings developed by a bipartisan group of economists, academics and legislators that furthers Sweeney's mission to save taxpayers from projected increases in property taxes, debt service, health benefits and pensions.
The fear of the latter is what got the crowd's blood boiling Thursday night.
Some leaped from their chairs and accused Sweeney, Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex) and Richard Keevey of Rutgers' Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of conspiring to steal their pensions.
When Keevey tried to speak, one man stood up and yelled, "Tax the millionaires!" - a reference to Gov. Phil Murphy's plan to increase taxes on those who earn more than $1 million.
"You know, how many people here have been in the military? Because if you were, you would have the decency to shut up," Keevey said.
The crowd erupted and one woman in a red shirt yelled, "Did a millionaire write your speech?"
The crowd, however, was loudest when Sweeney attempted to speak.
"Don't take our pensions," yelled one woman.
When Sweeney started to talk, a man about 10 rows from the front yelled, "It's easy for you to say. You have a pension."
Then a woman right next to him yelled, "You're a thief!"
Soon, it all became a cacophony of anger.