Born in Margaret Hague Hospital in Jersey City, baptized in St. Patrick’s Church, former Gov. Jim McGreevey looked back this week, with some sense of disbelief, at his resignation as governor 10 years ago.
A “gay American” whose coming out made international news in August of 2004, McGreevey marveled at how much the world has changed since his shocking revelations.
At 57, McGreevey currently works in the town where he grew up, as the director for Jersey City’s Office of Workforce Development, helping inmates re-enter society. He also has taken seminary classes and does ministry work.
McGreevey had served for two years as governor of New Jersey when, in 2004, one of his officials, Golan Cipel, was poised to file a sexual harassment suit against him. Cipel’s hiring as the governor’s liaison to homeland security in 2002 had puzzled many because Cipel was an Israeli national. At the time of his resignation, McGreevey faced other questions, some similar to the Bridgegate scandal plaguing current Republican Gov. Christopher Christie. Two of McGreevey’s closest aides, Gary Taffet and Paul Levinsohn, were forced to resign over a series of billboard deals that appeared to take advantage of their connection to McGreevey as governor. A top McGreevey political donor had been indicted for allegedly extorting money from a farmer who wanted access to McGreevey. Charles Kushner, a powerful developer, had agreed to pay fines in connection with illegal campaign contributions.
But when the governor resigned, he was able to deflect attention from those issues by coming out of the closet during his exit speech. Today, some connect his resignation with his sexual orientation and forget the other issues surrounding the sudden, televised revelations on an August day.
Cipel later dropped the suit, saying in the press, “Despite my strong desire to prove my case in a court of law, I have decided not to proceed with my suit. The main reason is the governor’s resignation and his admissions of his acts. It’s clear to all that McGreevey resigned because he sexually harassed me, and that a man of his standing would not have resigned because of sexual orientation or having had an extramarital affair.” He soon returned to Israel and never filed the suit.
“I didn’t have a choice of coming out and still being political.” – Jim McGreevey
In an interview with the Reporter last week, McGreevey said he has not seen Cipel since the resignation.
A real blessing
In looking back, McGreevey, who was married at the time, said he sees the events of 10 years ago as a kind of blessing for him and his family.
“It was a tumultuous time,” he said. “It is a great blessing to be who you are and what you are and what God meant for you to be. I am grateful for that today.”
In doing talks on various college campuses, he finds the atmosphere has changed, and that it seems far less an issue that it was even a decade ago.
“It is hard growing up pretending to be what you’re not,” he said. “I’m 57 this year, and it was largely required when I was young.”
Regarding the scandals, McGreevey said he wasn’t part of any wrongdoing. But he acknowledged that the impending lawsuit and other matters reflected badly on his office and caused a distraction. Part of the reason he resigned and came out of the closet, he acknowledged, was Cipel’s threatened lawsuit.
He has said before that Cipel was a liaison between the governor and the homeland security office, but didn’t run that office.
Still, it was time to go. “At that point, with the prospect of litigation, I thought it was the right thing to do,” McGreevey said. “Obviously it was a difficult decision. It was revealing my soul. But it was the right course of action and I knew I would have to live with the consequences and make amends.”
This was not making amends for being gay, but rather for hiding it and living a lie.
“In AA, a part of the steps is understanding where you’ve caused pain,” he said. “I was announcing who I was. Ironically, it was a great blessing. It allowed me to recalibrate my own moral compass and focus on the life I was authentically meant to live.”
Local politicians remembered the day of the resignation well. But they differed on how serious the scandals were.
State Sen. and Mayor Nicholas Sacco of North Bergen said, “I was in Trenton and I was told he was going to resign. I walked over to the building and stood in the back of the room and heard the resignation speech. It was an overwhelming experience, being in that crowded room, that crowded auditorium, hearing the governor resign.”
He added, “It was an upsetting day for everybody. I walked out feeling very empty when it was over. The thing was that for a person to have worked that hard to get where he was and then to have to give it up was very tragic. I didn’t feel he should resign. There may have been other things going on, but I wasn’t privy to them. Not knowing what other things are taking place, from the outside looking at it, I thought he should just say ‘I am a gay American, I’m staying here and I’m going to stick out my term.’ “
Union County State Sen. Ray Lesniak was sorry about the resignation as well.
“Yes, he made a mistake by giving this fellow a job,” Lesniak said last week. “But the position wasn’t the head of homeland security as Republicans and most of the media were claiming. He was to serve as the governor’s liaison to homeland security. It was a public information position. I do not believe that it was cause for the governor to resign.”
Rep. Albio Sires said that he had heard about the impending resignation at 10 a.m. that morning, and the anticipation grew over the course of the day.
“I was disappointed, obviously,” he said. “I thought Jim McGreevey did a lot of good things in the two years he was there. He probably did more than some governors did in four years. He dealt with a big deficit. He signed the project labor agreement. I’ve never seen any person in political life who has stayed on message better than Jim McGreevey.”
Sires acknowledged the impact of the other issues at the time.
“I think he just made a couple of bad appointments, bad judgment calls,” he said. “I don’t think it would have hurt him at all being gay.”
Times have changed
McGreevey preferred to talk about the change in attitudes toward those of a different sexual orientation. Although born in Jersey City, McGreevey spent his formative years in central New Jersey.
“It was largely required to keep it [homosexuality] quiet growing up as I did in middle class New Jersey,” he said. “There were not ‘out’ gay people where I grew up. People thought it was a psychiatric illness when I grew up. The rules have changed in healthy ways, although there are many who still struggle in the Midwest and in certain regions in the South. But as a society, we’re moving in the right direction.”
McGreevey said he realized he was “different” when he was about five or six.
“I knew I was different even when I was on the playground at St. Joseph’s grammar school,” he said. “I just didn’t know why. At six or seven or even eight, it’s hard to actually understand sexuality. But I knew in some basic way, I wasn’t like many of those around me. As I got older, it became more and more apparent.”
By the time he reached junior high school and later high school, he had become adept at keeping quiet about it.
“It was a difficult circumstance,” he said. “There is a longing in your heart that is diametrically opposed to the normative values of your peers. Being gay at the time was a condemnation of masculinity. In my generation, being gay as seen as not being masculine. There were gay people, but they were private.”
People like Jane Savage and David Rothenberg – a close friend of his still – became heroes to him.
Police officer, poet or priest?
He entered politics, he said, because Irish boys of his generation either became police officers, poets, or politicians, and poetry was a very limited profession. For a time, he flirted with the idea of becoming a Jesuit and even became a candidate for priesthood. But he couldn’t commit to it.
“I remember telling my spiritual advisor that I couldn’t surrender to the Will of God,” he said.
As a result, he went to law school and eventually politics, keeping his orientation secret as he rose to become one of the most powerful Democrats in the state.
“I kept it closer to my heart,” he said, saying he could not imagine at the time that there would be openly gay candidates, gay marriage, or even an African American president.
“I didn’t have a choice of coming out and still being political,” he said. “I was grappling with something fundamental. I knew this was not who I really was. When I did come out, my family and friends were accepting. Today when I talk to friends, we see the country grappling and it is changing for the better.”
Is he a role model?
At the time, many gay groups came to his support. But he doesn’t see himself as a role model.
“This involves human sexuality and we have to understand it within the confines of our own experience,” he said.
After resigning, he went back to seminary for three years and then took up a ministry post in Harlem.
“This was life-changing and it taught me what second chance is all about,” McGreevey said. “Many of the men and women I met were yearning to do something different with their lives.”
It was a kind of field education, teaching him that he did not need to feel ashamed.
“I was with murderers and others, and thought, ‘How can they look down on me?’ ” he said.
And oddly enough, they accepted him.
“The more I opened up my heart to them, they more they embraced who and what I am,” he said.
In more than one way, McGreevey said he had come full circle, currently working in the HUB section of Jersey City a few blocks from where he grew up.
“It is very refreshing to work with people who yearn to live,” he said, “and I admire the courage and grit of ex-offenders who are trying to make their lives more productive, and appreciate that they think I have something to give them. We didn’t start out in the same place, but we all live with an outsider status.”
Art Schwartz and Joe Passantino contributed to this story.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.
Gay activists look back at speech
Ten years on, the LGBT community in Hudson County has decidedly mixed feelings about ex-Gov. Jim McGreevey. While several gay activists and citizens acknowledged the difficult context of McGreevey’s coming out of the closet, they still think America has a long way to go before they accept homosexuals, and that closeted gay Americans have a way to go to accept themselves.
Barbara Milton and Kay Osborn were one of eight couples to be married by Mayor Steve Fulop in Jersey City at midnight on Oct. 21, 2013, the day same-sex marriage became legal in New Jersey. Milton said McGreevey’s milestone could not be separated from the “thousands of ordinary people who dared to be brave like that in their day-to-day lives.”
The achievements of the past 40 years, she said, would never have come to pass if those thousands, including McGreevey and herself, had not “dared to be who they really are in all the little ways.”
For Radames “Ray” Velazquez Jr., there was a much more direct connection between McGreevey’s public announcement and his own decision to be brave. When McGreevey made his “Gay American” speech in 2004, Velazquez was a Hudson County freeholder representing Jersey City. He “had for the most part been living my life open but not necessarily open in my public life.”
McGreevey’s announcement, he said, “made me reflect on the time and what was happening, and it seemed that because there was this discourse going on…that it was just the right time for myself to come out as well.”
Unlike McGreevey, Velazquez remained in public office, finishing his term as freeholder and subsequently serving as a municipal judge, councilman-at-large, and deputy mayor in Jersey City. He is now a lawyer in private practice.
W. Jeffrey Campbell, the executive director of Hudson Pride Connections Center, said the progress of the last 10 years can be seen in Robin Roberts, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Collins and other prominent figures “coming out on their own terms.”
By comparison, said Campbell, McGreevey “may have been forced out of the closet by other things that were going on in his life.” In this way, Campbell added, McGreevey represents an older generation that grew up with “a belief system that they could not have the political or corporate level of existence that they…wanted to achieve and also be out.”
Milton, Campbell and Velazquez agreed that a lot still has to be achieved in terms of acceptance in America.
“We’ll know we’ve arrived when a gay married man runs for governor and wins,” Milton said. She did say that if a state governor came out today, “there would not be that gasp” that accompanied McGreevey’s announcement.
Velazquez said his gut feeling was that an openly gay and qualified person could be elected governor in New Jersey. His own experience in Hudson County, he said, was that his sexual orientation was a non-issue.
“If you’re going to come out and be in politics,” he added, “this is probably one of the safer and more welcoming areas for that to take place.” – Carlo Davis
Remembering that day
Several Hudson County public officials had vivid memories of the day Gov. McGreevey resigned.
“That particular announcement didn’t really shock me,” said Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff last week. “The circumstances around it did.”
“The way I remember it, the resignation was triggered more by the relationship,” he said. “I think the individual was doing work for the state and there was a cloud over that.”
As for the admission that McGreevey was gay, “It was different 10 years ago, but to me it wasn’t that big a deal. Particularly in this area of the state, it’s fairly common. It might have caused different reactions in different areas.”
McGreevey had announced on the morning of Aug. 12, 2004 that he would be holding a press conference that afternoon, leading to much speculation.
Secaucus Town Administrator David Drumeler missed most of the early commotion.
“My wife was going into the hospital for an outpatient procedure and I turned off my phone,” he said. “I turned it on when she was done and it was lit up with voicemails. I just remember people I worked with wondering if I had any insight what he was announcing.”
“I had spent some time with then-Governor McGreevey,” he explained. “I was chief of staff to the county executive back when McGreevey was mayor [of Woodbridge] and running for governor. My firm represented Woodbridge in a number of police related matters.”
“I remember going home and watching on TV,” he continued. “I was somewhat surprised and my wife was even more shocked. Watching it live just adds to the shock.”
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner didn’t see it live at all – he was on vacation in Hawaii and found out about it afterward.
“I got a call from congressman [Albio] Sires, who was then speaker of the State Assembly,” said Turner. “He was the first to tell me that the governor was going to step down.”
“It came as a total surprise,” he said. “And I have to say not only was it a total surprise, it was also a regretful situation in many ways, because the governor had been a very good governor. Putting aside the personal situation, he resolved the EZ-pass situation, I think he just gotten the Highlands Act approved, and we were all getting our share of funds to do very worthy projects in North Hudson.” – Art Schwartz