What’s wrong with us in New Jersey? Here we have an embattled governor, bravely acknowledging the politically embarrassing circumstances of his personal life and graciously agreeing to resign from office in order to avoid compromising the public good, and yet some of us can’t resist trying to run him out of town even sooner.
What’s wrong with us? Let me try to explain. Some of us do think that Governor Jim McGreevey should resign at once, instead of playing the lame duck in order to keep a Democrat in power and avoid a general election until the fall of 2005. And many of those who think that way, I suspect, have no problem with McGreevey’s sexual orientation, or even with his infidelity. And some of us might even be sympathetic to the plight of a gay person seeking political office and still feeling that he — or she — had to live a secret double life in order to survive on election day.
But McGreevey’s new age metro lifestyle isn’t what makes him a bad apple in the Garden State. It’s his oldtime political machinations. And he is the governor who ran on a platform that promised to “change the way Trenton does business.”
I met the guy in person just once. By that time, a few months into his term, stories about McGreevey’s sexuality were already in the air. Remember the midwinter night’s walk on the shore, when the governor fell and broke his leg? There was talk then about the delay between the time of the accident and McGreevey’s arrival at the hospital — was he really with his wife or was he with someone else?
But when I went to Drumthwacket one bright spring Sunday afternoon for a reception with other weekly newspaper editors, McGreevey’s sexuality would have been the last thing on anyone’s mind. More than anything else, McGreevey came across as an earnest policy wonk. Far more articulate in person than he appeared in his television appearances, the governor rattled off his objectives, including a seemingly impossible dream of curtailing urban sprawl in the heavily populated northern “highlands” portion of the state.
Because he suspected that weekly newspapers collectively reached as many New Jersey residents as the handful of daily newspapers that most government press offices pandered to, McGreevey wanted his administration to be available to small town papers. On hand at the reception were most members of his cabinet. I buttonholed Jack Lettiere, the commissioner of transportation. His plans for Route 1 were to make the highway safer, then to do whatever could be done quickly to make it more efficient, and then to address long-term technological upgrades that could make it better yet.
Later I went back and checked Lettiere’s credentials: He didn’t appear to be some political hack. In fact he was a 28-year employee of the DOT and the improvements he outlined began to take shape. Maybe things were changing in Trenton.
But not all of McGreevey’s appointees were so well qualified. Consider for a moment the appointment of Golen Cipel without the specter of sexual politics hanging over our heads: Pretend that McGreevey was a happily married man and that Cipel was the son of a wealthy campaign contributor. The public would still be justifiably outraged to see him appointed special assistant for homeland security in the state that borders the World Trade Center site.
McGreevey, of course, would love to see his troubles defined in terms of sexual politics — no wonder he enlisted a national gay rights organization to help create the crafty line in his resignation speech: “I am a gay American, and I am blessed to live in the greatest nation . . . with the greatest tradition of civil liberties in the world.”
But the real issues border on criminal, not sexual. One of the governor’s cronies was indicted on charges of trying to extract $40,000 in political donations from a farmer seeking to put his land in the farmland preservation program. McGreevey’s appointee as Commerce Secretary was forced to resign after a barrage of ethical indiscretions were exposed. Then the governor’s chief fundraiser, Charles Kushner, was charged with hiring a prostitute in an attempt to pressure potential witnesses not to testify against him in a case involving illegal campaign contributions. Strange bedfellows indeed down in Trenton.
The other night I caught a few minutes of Ingrid Reed, Princeton resident, wife of the former Borough mayor, and director of the Eagleton Institute Poll, being interviewed on television by Brit Hume. Was there something in the water that spawned corruption in New Jersey, Reed was asked. Yes, she answered, New Jersey has a strong governor, no lieutenant governor, and strong county bosses with whom a governor has to deal in order to raise campaign money.
What’s wrong with us in New Jersey? Maybe the faulty way in which the executive branch is organized. But McGreevey created his own problems. The joke now is that he promised to change the way Trenton does business and he succeeded — he made it worse.