By Anthony Cruz and Arynne Wexler
Jim McGreevey served as State Assemblyman and then State Senator of New Jersey. He subsequently served as the 52nd Governor of New Jersey from 2002 to 2004. He is the first openly gay state governor in United States history.
You had a relatively early start in NJ politics. What encouraged you to be active in politics and run for office?
JM: The old expression for the Irish is you become a priest, a poet, or a politician. So I couldn’t write, being a priest was… So a politician was natural. But it was a career that was very people-oriented. I felt that it could effectuate the most amount of change. One can have the most profound impact on the local level because that’s where people live, shop, worship, get sick, die. So it’s at that level, whether it is children’s inoculation, senior healthcare, improving quality of transportation, access to computers for public education. All of that is at the grassroots levels. That’s what’s so rewarding. It was to improve my community.
Who were your role models?
JM: My role model was Robert Kennedy. In fact, I have his campaign poster in my kitchen from the 1964 election. Robert Kennedy was always, perhaps, my favorite role model. He captured the spirit of the Democratic Party when Jack frankly was being rather conservative and concerned, rightfully so, perhaps, with the Democratic Southern vote. It was Robert who encouraged him to reach out to Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail. It was Robert who encouraged him to understand the plight of the poor, whether it was West Virginia, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, the Indian reservations. I think Robert was always able to push for a deeper and if not more authentic connection with the American public.
You had an interesting run before you became Governor; you lost the 1997 Gubernatorial election by just 1%. What was that like to lose by such a slim margin and then come back to win in 2001?
JM: It was perhaps my favorite election. We had nothing. We literally had spit and glue. I wonder if it could be done today. I say that parenthetically but also sadly because money has just become, particularly in the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decision, a tidal wave of influence. This frankly is from business than from traditional democratic supporters. But it was a tremendous election.
Governor Whitman, for whom I have great, deep respect and affection, I remember seeing on the front page of the Star Ledger and the New York Times. She had an incredible gala and she was dressed in an elegant, simmering, sparkling gown. She raised $400,000. That same night I was at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Woodbridge Township and raised $17,000.
There was very much a Don Quixote quality to the entire undertaking because we didn’t have access to resources; we didn’t have access to the media. McGreevey who? It was this mayor from this relatively mid-size community- Woodbridge, New Jersey, 100,000 (people). Governor Whitman had the advantage of having been governor for four years. She captured the media from both the New York and Philadelphia media markets, was a centrist Republican; perhaps the last centrist Republican. So it was very much David versus Goliath. If only my slingshot aimed a little better. She was clearly the Goliath. It was as itwasmeanttobeandIlostby1%.I thoroughly enjoyed the campaign.
This is atypical, but I thoroughly enjoy Governor Whitman. She is bright, thoughtful, and progressive on environmental policies, women’s issues, and LGBT issues. We differed on some of the more pragmatic concerns of auto insurance, property taxes, and education. Actually there were substantive differences, particularly on auto insurance, which was then a bread and butter issue. New Jersey had the highest auto insurance rates in the nation. The irony is that I believed in more of a deregulated market than she did.
What’s it like being governor?
JM: You have to try to pick a few priorities and focus on them diligently and purposefully. And while it is difficult, you almost have to exclude so much of everything else because it is so difficult to move the ball uphill. The old President Truman had said, “Poor Ike is going to sit here.” Ike was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during D-Day. He would say something and people would jump and get it down. Truman said “Poor Eisenhower is going to say do something and nothing is going to happen.” It has become even more fractious and difficult which unfortunately never ends.
You would hope it would end on Election Day but today with the 24 hour news cycle it has worsened. It hasn’t done democracy and America any good. Every day we focus on a couple of things. What did I focus on? I focused on early childhood literacy. You have to have kids being able to be proficient by 3rd grade. If they are not proficient by the 3rd grade, the game is over. If they do not have the necessary mastery to read, forget their language arts; they can’t read their history, their science, and so they just ever increasingly fall further and further behind. So 3rd grade literacy was a great priority. It was something that I think enjoyed Republican and Democratic support.
Second was the environment. New Jersey is the most crowded state in the nation. New Jersey is actually denser than India in terms of population against square footage. So saving the Highlands that was a critical priority. I am pro-development but pro-development in our urban areas where there was already existing infrastructure. So that was important.
Auto insurance, that was to move to a deregulated auto insurance market where it would be based on people’s driving records not based on where you live or artificial rates. I would say communism is dead everywhere in the world except Cuba and the New Jersey auto market. It was absurd that our rates were so artificially stilted. Our rates are not where they ought to be but they have come down. We are no longer number one, thankfully.
I enjoyed it. You have to have a herculean work ethic. It’s hell on your family. But the local level is the best.
Did you ever want to run for U.S. Senate?
JM: When I was a young person, yes! It is perhaps the greatest deliberative body since the Roman Senate. The U.S. Senate is the U.S. Senate. I think of Robert Byrd and great, legendary legislators.
I wasn’t cut for the legislature. Being a legislator is a fundamentally different process than being in the executive branch of government. And they are different personalities. The legislative branch of government has a lot of substantive work, a lot of drilling down. But it’s collegial, it’s crafting compromise, and there have been some great legislators that were in the executive branch and probably some presidents that were great legislators. But it’s a very different skillset.
You think of Michael Bloomberg as being a great mayor. It’s all about execution and getting it done. The process is never ending. If you like to shine your shoes, don’t become a legislator. Become a Mayor or a Governor because at the end of the day it’s about getting things done. There’s a beginning, there’s a project, you execute, and you get it done as a result. The legislative process – to sort of quote Samuel Clemens – you should never watch legislation or sausage being made. It’s ugly and messy. You have to be willing to be able to maintain your principles through this very messy process.
I never really wanted to be U.S. Senator. It would drive me nuts. That being said, in fact I was with Senator Joe Lieberman last week, who was a great legislator. Politically being on the local level, there is a book called If Mayors Ruled the World by Ben Barber. I recommend it to your readers. His point is that large government, whether it is the European common market, the United States federal government, Brazil, or China, the exciting things are happening on the local municipal levels. Great cities – whether you are talking about Shanghai, Beijing, New York, London, and San Paulo – are where 50% of the world’s populace now lives. They are not handicapped by the fractious partisanship of their respective federal/ national governments or economic alliances. They have to perform. They have to deliver services. It’s exciting. It’s tangible. It’s gritty. The local level has the greatest psyche satisfaction.
If you want to do something that is purpose driven and something meaningful, such as making sure that you have quality pre-K education and watching those kids read, it is far more rewarding than passing a piece of legislation. While it may have a substantial impact, it is more ephemeral in terms of demonstrative benefits.
We saved the Highlands, which has produced 50% of New Jersey’s drinking water. We changed auto insurance. But there was nothing more impactful than when I would walk into a home in Woodbridge, New Jersey where a senior citizen lay on a hospital bed in her living room talking about the quality of nursing support services that this township was given. To her, that was everything. That’s my plug for municipal government. We have great mayors in America: Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles; Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago; Steven Fulop in Jersey City. Washington has an attraction, but there is nothing like rolling up your sleeves and getting your boots dirty on the local level.
When will we see near-universal acceptance of gay rights and marriage? Do you believe in our lifetime? What direction do you see the Republican Party moving in?
JM: I think among your generation it’s there, it’s over, it’s gone. It’s not even a debate. I remember being eight or nine and being just scared in coming to the realization that I was gay. Never did I think as a teenager or as a young adult that I would ever see gay rights advanced the way it has. But I think your generation gets it – they’re smart, they’re quick, put the BS aside.
But I don’t see the Republican Party embracing gay rights. It’s really disappointing and frustrating. I have many good friends of mine that are Republican that vote Democratic because they can’t get past, nor should they, the Republican position on LGBT rights. A quarter of the Republican National Committee was, when I was in office, Evangelical Christians. I happen to be Christian, but I am also a gay man. I believe faith is about the transformative experience to live life in a more godly way. But if you are going to allow your political party to ascribe to a particular religious notion which is limiting, whether it’s against women, gays, any particular group. That to me is worse than being sad. It’s defeating for the party, which is a negative consequence for the nation. And sadly, it also has a negative consequence for all those kids that grew up in Republican families that being gay is less than. There is a direct punitive impact on the psychological health and well-being.
One of my favorite movies is Lincoln. I think I have watched it probably nine times. It was great. You think this is the party of Lincoln. This is the party of perhaps the greatest President who fought for freedom with agility and grace and the advent 13th amendment. If you look at the Republican Party today, it is how far they have fallen from that place. They are almost unrecognizable. This was the party of Lincoln! It was founded on the premise of freedom, civil rights, of getting the state of the way, the dignity of every person. Lincoln wouldn’t know his party. It’s sad and it hurts the nation. We should have two strong, viable parties that produce quality candidates. You think of the Republican Party and you think of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Nixon – led the War on Cancer, establishment of the EPA. Compare Nixon’s platform to the Republican Party of four years ago. Nixon is the progressive by light years, which is strange.
Is the media too intrusive in the lives of politicians?
JM: It is what it is. I think the British are always 5, 10 years ahead of us. So watch where the tabloids are there and see where we are headed. There is an ethical question of whether it is fair. But I will tell it’s done though. Many good people don’t get into the arena simply because the collateral damage brought upon one’s family and friends is simply not worth it. You think of what this nation would’ve been without FDR. One of the oldest families in this nation: Dutchess County, New York, Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, President. You think of what this nation could have been without the Kennedys and the Bushes for that matter.
So the danger is if the press becomes so invasive it either becomes just a purview of the wealthy and/or people, whether they are middle-class or wealthy, think it’s just not worth the invasion of my life. But the 1st amendment is so critical and having a strong, vigorous press is everything. But I think the French sort of have it right on the personal side. Is it strictly related to a public matter, public function? Then it is relevant.
Can you speak to your journey of becoming a priest and your work with female prisoners?
JM: My grandmother always said “the only things that last are those done with love.” So that for me, being the more authentic force in life, doing what I am doing now, working with men and women in prison as well as ex-offenders. It is inspiring and one of the best things in my life. This one kid, Rafael, his mother was a prostitute and his father was a cocaine addict. We spoke for 12 minutes from the heart and it was among the most powerful, moving, dramatic things I have ever heard. There was not one dry eye in the room. His life was brutal and every day was a fight for survival. I was so profoundly moved.
The important thing for America to understand is that we all don’t start the race from the same place. So when people look at others in poverty or welfare. My family was Irish Catholic middle-class family. I was a prosecutor after I graduated and tough on crime. Now I am on the other side, a 180 degree turn.
The real problem in life is that people don’t understand about the criminal justice process. There are two basic principles. One: people live the behavior that is patterned for them. So when you are dealing with a young woman growing up in a Camden housing project and people are running, gunning, and doping, that’s what she patterns. She’s not sitting down and thinking of having virtuous ethics. She sees everyone else selling drugs, doping, and running.
This one 12 year old girl, Ashley, was sent by her mother to conduct drug deals for years. You could not blame her for joining a gang because that’s the only option for survival. Any rational person would argue that anyone in such a position what do what they have to do to survive while trying to preserve their humanity. The simple point is that we replicate the moral behavior that is patterned for us. The notion that either a) that these people are bad people or that b) they are miraculously going to change in prison with people, some of whom are really, bad, is an absurdity. We learn our morality from the environment around us.
It’s understanding that if you don’t break the barriers of housing and employment for those formally in prison, these people will have a chance to get back on their feet! We have more people locked up than any other nation in the world. We have more African-American males locked up in the United States than South Africa did during the height of apartheid. Right now, 1 out of every 99 Americans is in prison. It’s insane and incredibly expensive. NY State for the first time this year will spend more on the prison system than on higher education. That is an ominous warning sign because there is a finite amount of resource. You could send somebody to University of Pennsylvania for a year for the cost of putting someone in a prison cell. We have to be aware of what we’re doing to 1% of Americans. Parenthetically, children of inmates are six times more likely themselves to be felons. So if we do nothing there is a significant probability that the problem will worsen.
What do you think about politicians like Spitzer and Weiner who seem to be trying to make their way back into politics?
JM: I’ll leave you with Saint Matthews: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Politics can be a powerful addiction. It can be such a force for good. Remember Cincinnatus after his public service returned to the farm. This is the notion that politics is something temporal. Now we have, internationally, the rise of the professional political class. It goes from generation to generation like a family business. That is disconcerting because it ultimately ought to be about service, the public good.
How can we achieve that?
JM: Well the money thing is dangerous. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, it’s just dangerous. I think the Citizens United case was a debacle, a debacle for democracy. Whether it’s wealthy Democratic or Republican patrons, you will always find somebody. I think it stilts the public debate.
At the same time I have great hope. Republicans really over-played their hand on bringing the nations to brink of defaulting on their loans. I think Ted Cruz is just reckless. I don’t care if you are conservative, extreme, but you cannot be irresponsible. I think there will be a political price to pay. I remember being a young man working in the NJ State Legislature and working for an Assemblyman. When he would go to the bathroom, he would give the gavel to the ranking Republican on his committee. I worked for Governor Tom Kean who was a Republican. He is a great, moral leader that hired me, a young, obviously partisan Democrat. He just did it because I was good. It was a different time. I look now and think we need to get back to that virtue. Tom Kean won overwhelmingly because he did do the right thing.
Can you speak to being the first openly gay state governor in US history?
JM: Well it was an ugly way to get there. For me, I don’t think I could’ve ever run as openly gay. At that point, I was just tired of running and not being who I was. To embrace my truth in that one moment was the most liberating and healthy thing I have ever done in my life. After which, the consequences be suffered, but for that one brief shining moment it was shining grace.
I received letters from all over the country supporting me. My friend Kevin Jennings had me speak to kids. I remember talking to this young girl that was lesbian. She was in school in Idaho and she came out and these boys kicked her down a flight of stairs and grabbed her by the crouch and said, “You are going to like this.” Her teacher did nothing and her principal did nothing. She said to me “What should I do?” And for a second I thought, “I wish you stayed in the closet, because what parent wants their child suggested to that brutality and ugliness?” I was emotionally overwhelmed. I said, “Thank you for your courage. I didn’t have the courage to do what you did. That’s why America is going to be better.” So that’s why I am so hopeful because the next generation gets that. We travelled so far as both a nation and internationally. We have Pope Francis! Such a breath of fresh air throughout the world.
Do you think the reaction to your resignation was any different because you came out as gay?
JM: Oh, definitely. Sometimes even the press asked questions like: “Are you HIV positive?” The answer is no, but would you ask someone straight “do you have a venereal disease?” It was all just frustrating, but it’s changing a bit now.
Governor Christie has been in the national spotlight for the last several years. While popular with many, he has come under scrutiny for various things. What do you have to say of Governor Christie’s record for NJ?
JM: Well I’ll just say this, and to take myself out of politics intentionally because I just want to focus on prison reform. On the question of increasing accessibility for addiction services, the Governor has a great track record. He is kind enough to visit where I work at Hudson Jail. Mary Pat Christie comes to spend time at integrity house with no press, no reporters. Governor Christie has a deep, personal commitment to the treatment for addiction. I think that Governor Christie’s perspective is that addiction is disease. 70% of Americans behind bars are addicts. That is an incredible statistic. On the sole issue of addiction treatment, which is of significance to me, he has been tremendous.
What advice do you have for those that wish to go into public service?
JM: Be exposed to it before you make that commitment. I think that’s important. So you know the scope, the breadth, the depth of this substantial commitment that you are about to embark on. There are many different levels of public service. There is elected, appointed, agency.
Secondly, do the next right thing. It’s always about doing the next right thing. You have to make the next rightful and moral decision. It will always put you in good standing.
Third, you have to find the right spouse. It’s hell on your family and tough on your kids. You have to find the right blind. Governor Christie is so blessed with Mary Pat Christie because she is an incredible woman.
This interview was conducted in early January and contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.
This interview originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.
Image (Attribution License) courtesy of David Shankbone on Flickr.