On Tuesday evening, after weeks of tantalizing leaks about what he says is his tell-all memoir, hours after the nation watched him on “Oprah,” his first salvo in a nationwide book-selling blitz, James E. McGreevey went home—to Woodbridge, the town he served as mayor prior to taking office in Trenton in January 2002.
The setting was the imposing Woodbridge Community Center, a modern multi-use facility for kids’ sports and citizen gatherings that locals credit McGreevey, who resigned the New Jersey governorship in August 2004, with creating. On the far side of Main Street from the Community Center sits a massive office edifice bearing the giant letters “New Jersey Turnpike Authority,” a fitting reminder of the scope of enterprises over which the Garden State’s chief executive holds sway.
A swarm of television, radio, and print journalists staked out the Community Center’s vast parking lot and as McGreevey’s expected 6 p.m. arrival slipped past 6:30, those hoping to tape reports in time for 7:00 broadcasts worriedly phoned producers back at the studio warning that might not happen. On hand along with the media was a group of several dozen New Jersey gay rights activists eager to welcome their fallen governor—however belatedly—to their struggle.
Steven Goldstein, a former political consultant, now rabbinical student—who as head of Garden State Equality, the state’s LGBT lobbying group still just a couple of years old, has been passionate and dogged in drawing attention to the demand for marriage equality—organized the Woodbridge gathering. He explained what brought him and his colleagues to a parking lot under threatening skies to cheer McGreevey on.
“We’re here today not to endorse a governorship but to offer support and acceptance the way we would to any member of the community,” he told Gay City News later in the evening, as McGreevey entered his third hour of signing copies of his new book for an enthusiastic crowd numbering several hundred. “Perhaps many of us, perhaps myself included, still have big problems with his governorship and would still not vote for him if he were running today.”
Then referring to conversations he had with Gay City News reporters and editors two years ago at the time of McGreevey’s resignation, Goldstein continued, “We understood the complaints that he was wrapping himself in the mantle of being gay. But it’s two years later and I’ve gotten to know this guy personally… When someone comes to you and says, ‘I’ve changed, I’m a different person,’ and even says, ‘I am going to support your biggest issue, marriage equality in New Jersey, and I am willing to work for it and I screwed up and the reason I didn’t support marriage equality as governor was because I was a closeted gay man and you called me on it and you were right’—well how do you turn your back on this?”
Still, Goldstein, perhaps because he was such a critic of McGreevey in 2004—particularly upset that the governor had put the man he now says was his lover, Golan Cipel, in a job described as a homeland security role, for which he was not qualified—is aware that there are many skeptics out there.
“People ask, ‘What are you getting from this?’” he acknowledged, and then quickly, decisively added, “We’re getting the most prominent gay politician in history coming to terms with marriage equality.”
Goldstein is convinced that Garden State Equality, anxiously awaiting a state Supreme Court ruling on a same-sex marriage lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal in June 2002 (widely expected by mid-October) can use McGreevey for either alternative—to help the gay community protect a positive ruling from any effort at a constitutional override or to dig in for the more arduous task of advancing marriage equality legislation in Trenton.
When considering how useful the former governor could actually be in any such public campaign, it’s almost as if there are two completely different universes that coexist without knowledge of each other.
Since he resigned, gay audiences and many gay publications have treated McGreevey like another in the ever-growing constellation of celebrities. Letters printed in The Advocate were uniformly positive. When McGreevey made an appearance at the Empire State Pride Agenda’s fall dinner two months after announcing his resignation as he tenaciously held onto the seat long enough to block—temporarily as it turned out—Senator Jon Corzine’s designs on the office in a special election that did not happen, he was greeted by a standing ovations and hoots of approval.
Tuesday evening, as Garden State Equality’s leaders introduced the former governor to those assembled, Joan Hervey, Goldstein’s deputy, told McGreevey, with his new partner Mark O’Donnell standing by, “I will always remember where I was at the moment I heard you were resigning. You made that speech and I was breathless. You portrayed all of the story of everyone of us who has had to come out in one way or the other... Certainly very few people have had to come out the way you did. Your integrity and your journey to true love and to a beautiful relationship is inspiring and heartwarming to all of us.”
That is certainly not the reception that McGreevey’s tentative return to public life is inspiring among New Jersey political insiders and those who cover them in the press.
“He wasn’t a gay governor, he was a bad governor,” Democratic State Senator John Adler told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
McGreevey’s successor, Richard R. Codey, who has since Corzine’s election as governor returned full-time to his role as Democratic state Senate president, explained the book to the Inquirer this way: “‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned, and let me tell you some of those sins,’ He didn’t tell everything.”
Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney was not shy about suggesting what a full list of sins would include—in addition to the hiring of Cipel, the conviction of Charles Kushner, McGreevey’s former chief financial supporter, for tax fraud, illegal campaign donations, and threatening a witness; the conviction of David D’Amiano, a key money man, for blackmailing someone hoping to win influence with the governor (a case in which McGreevey was caught on tape making an obscure reference that could be interpreted as a code word); the sudden retirement of State Senator John Lynch, an ally, after scrutiny by the FBI; and a federal investigation into the business practices of Gary Taffet and Paul Levinsohn, who ran his successful 2001 gubernatorial campaign.
“From what I read, McGreevey chose ‘Oprah’ for his first sit-down because he knew she’d focus on his personal transformation instead of his political degradation.”
For Alfred P. Doblin, editorial page editor of The Record, the prospects that McGreevey would in fact tell all were dubious.
“The public doesn’t know where the fake McGreevey ends and the real one begins,” he wrote.
The former governor has not been completely immune from gay critique this week. In the online Huffington Post, Hilary Rosen, the former head of the Recording Industry Association of America, whose partner Elizabeth Birch was the longtime leader of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote, “Lots of people struggle with their sexual orientation but they don’t go and put their unqualified dream date on the public payroll. And they don’t use their internalized homophobia as an excuse for all of their failings as a public servant.”
Not many people on hand Tuesday evening—LGBT New Jerseyans and Woodbridge townies alike—would have talked about McGreevey in this fashion, but that is not to say that they didn’t harbor their own doubts. Each of more than half-a-dozen interviewed, when pressed, acknowledged that the Cipel hiring—and perhaps much more—were amiss in his administration, and most agreed he really had to resign.
Still, there was unmistakable affection.
Mark, a 35-year-old gay man who lives in Asbury Park, explained he was there “to say hi and show my support.” His connection to McGreevey was not clear until he was asked what he thought of the resignation.
“It inspired me to come out to my family,” the man said with evident emotion.
Steve and Fred are a Woodbridge couple who have been together for 38 years and have known the former governor as a neighbor. Steve explained that as a young man before Stonewall it had not been a hard choice for him to come out. Still he had compassion for McGreevey’s life of concealment.
“Unfortunately, so many people have to go through the anguish and the anxiety, to struggle for so long,” he said.
But Doug Laverty, a Garden State Equality board member from Clifton, there with his partner, James Roche, even while expressing his affection for McGreevey, was the only one Tuesday night to make this point: “By him stepping down and his using his homosexuality to step down was just not fair to the gay community.”
And that leads to perhaps the biggest riddle—just why did Jim McGreevey, the self-proclaimed gay American, resign his office? The former governor’s appearance in Woodbridge did not allow for press questions, but his co-writer, prominent gay author David France, offered a dead-certain explanation that clearly suggested McGreevey has always been upfront about the precise nature of his failings.
“He says he realized immediately that having violated his trust as governor and having hired this guy on in the first place and brought this scandal to the office and that he made those mistakes so dramatically that he had to pay the price,” France told Gay City News while McGreevey signed books.
Still, a poll of New Jersey voters last month found that 77 percent believed he resigned because he is gay. Only nine percent mentioned ethics as the cause, with 13 percent saying they could not recall.
As most of us understand, it’s no accident that so many Americans falsely believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11.