Flash(point): Gordon

Many municipalities have their own Environmental Commission that acts as the public face of their town or city’s environmental education and action wing, whether increasing awareness about local wildlife, PFAS in water, planting native trees and flowers, polystyrene collection, proper disposal of household chemicals, and more. The American environmental movement itself is about sixty years old, with Earth Day having celebrated its 54th year in 2024. But what many readers may not be aware of is that Fair Lawn’s Robert M. Gordon, who has shifted from a long career in the public sector to private, had a role in championing the environmentalist movement at its infancy.

With a natural air of gravitas born from years of public service both in the back rooms and in the forefront, the soft-spoken Gordon is also affable and down-to-earth. Better known as Bob, Gordon began his governmental career in the 1970s with the Congressional Budget Office, later becoming elected a councilman and mayor of his town of Fair Lawn. Gordon, a Democrat, would climb higher still, serving as an Assemblyman and then State Senator. In 2018, he assumed a commissioner’s seat on the Board of Public Utilities.

Insider NJ sat down with Gordon at one of his favorite local establishments to reflect on some aspects of his career and gain his insights on pressing current affairs.

“My parents were not political people, but they were well informed,” Gordon told Insider NJ. “They had never been involved in politics. I can remember, as a 10-year-old, being allowed to stay up late for the Kennedy election returns in 1960, and I remember listening to the inaugural address, a very snowy Washington, and the famous American poet who was one of the speakers there. So, I had an interest in what was going on in politics and public affairs. I also think a major factor in getting involved was some cousins of mine who were very involved in the civil rights and the anti-war movement. One of my cousins was either a founder or leader of an organization called Women’s Strike for Peace.”

Gordon said that his cousins’ activism was an influence, but he also came of age during a pivotal time in American history.  “When I went to college, I remember being interested in the 1968 election campaign. I mean, it was a tumultuous time when I graduated in ‘68. It was the year of the Tet Offensive. Bobby Kennedy was killed. Martin Luther King was killed. I think I was probably a Republican at that point. I had a Nelson Rockefeller sticker, but I didn’t have a car then. I’m not sure that my father was a Democrat. My mother, I think, was more of a Republican. I’m not sure that they were registered with a party.”

It is noteworthy, continuing the Gordon family tradition, perhaps, of mixed political alignments, that Gordon is married to Gail Balph Gordon, a Republican attorney with Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader.

While his parents were not particularly political, per se, Gordon said that his father was an outdoorsman who shared his love of nature with his son. This would have a huge impact on his life in later years, shaping much of his political career and public aspirations. “I was going on camping and canoeing trips as a kid,” Gordon said. “I cared about the outdoors. The environmental movement is what drew me into public life. I remember at the Boy Scout Jamboree reading ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson. When I got to college, they were exploring the development of an environmental studies major and I got very involved in that cause. I was in the college Outing Club. I started taking Environmental Studies courses, in what became a minor, and I helped organize the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, on my college campus.”

Life would soon take Gordon to the nation’s capital.

While a sophomore, Gordon said he applied for an internship in Washington DC which came with a small stipend, but also an opportunity to apply for other jobs in the capital. “It was an exciting time,” Gordon said. “I was going to work for the Senate Interior Committee. It was the early ‘70s, Edmund Muskie and Gaylord Nelson did a lot of writing for laws that are still important today. But I heard about a White House program, and I thought ‘that would be pretty interesting’. I believe that because Richard Nixon wasn’t very popular with people in their college years, I may not have had a lot of competition. But I got selected for an internship with something called the White House Conference on Children and Youth.”

When asked if he was still a Republican, working for the Nixon administration, Gordon laughed. “Well, no, actually, that summer was important because working for Richard Nixon turned me into a Democrat.”

Gordon said that he affiliated himself with the new Environmental Protection Agency, but was assigned to another new entity at the time, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. “The Council on Environmental Quality still exists within the Executive Office of the President. They were writing the first report on the environment, so I got flown out to San Clemente and I got a really bad case of Potomac Fever. I really enjoyed this. I decided I liked Washington and that I was going to do this in future summers, but I felt more comfortable with Democratic philosophy.”

Gordon’s public life trajectory was about to take a turn towards defining his future career. “The following summer, I applied for the only Democratic congressman in the area, who was a relatively new member of Congress, named Robert Roe. Roe went on to become the dean of the congressional delegation and the chairman of the Public Works Committee. He had been mayor of Wayne and became a lifetime friend. It was when Congress was writing the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and he was on the Public Works Committee, when he took me under his wing. It was really a fascinating experience. Ostensibly, I was there to do constituent service work, like the other intern grunts, but I was also going to committee hearings with him.”

Since those days in which Gordon’s love for environmental advocacy and policy were planted in the political soil, the country has changed and transformed dramatically. One of the foremost changes in the political climate is discourse itself where respect is an almost bygone concept and cross-the-aisle cooperation replaced by the tyranny of the majority.

“I grew up in another era, when people revered the president: people like FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy,” Gordon said. “They were partisan people, too, and there was respect for the institution and the office.”

More recently, Gordon said, the breakdown of civic discourse has presented some tangible problems for actuating public policy as well. He expressed his frustrations with the difficulties in putting plans into action and fears that the United States as a whole will be held back by the slowness of its own improvement. “China built 1,000 turbines off its coast in 2022, we’ve built, maybe one. We can’t build infrastructure in America. You know, we have 80-year-old wires over transit, because people file lawsuits. I mean, look at what’s going on with offshore wind. Ocean City decided it doesn’t want cables 30 feet underground. So, they start litigation and delays. in China, of course, if you objected to infrastructure, you’ve probably disappeared. What bothers me is that we are engaged in a major competition with China over who’s going to dominate the 21st century. Is it going to be an authoritarian regime? Or is it going to be a democracy? Admittedly, a somewhat flawed democracy, but that is preferable to communist autocracy. The winner is not going to be the country with fourth rate infrastructure. This is really going to affect our ability to compete in the world.”

As China seems to continue to pursue a development-at-all-costs program, the United States is in a tenuous position, as far as domestic politics is concerned, with the impacts of climate change. Gordon said that New Jersey, to its credit, has been “a national leader” in a number of areas. Ambitious climate goals are well and good, but need to be practicable with a mind for fiscal realities. Meanwhile, as heat records continue to be broken year after year, the clock is ticking. “I think time is an issue,” Gordon said, “But I also think that this is something I said when I was on the Board of Public Utilities: we have to balance our climate goals against costs. If we ignore the cost impact of what we’re doing, then the people we’re trying to serve are not going to be able to live here. We’re going to drive them out of that state. If I’ve learned anything during my career, it’s that policymaking is a balancing act.”

Gordon said that a weakening democracy itself is a “national problem” which worries him, but he ties back to a solution so astonishingly simple that it must, in fact, ring true. “Jefferson said, ‘an informed electorate is the greatest defense against tyranny.’”

As far as education is concerned, the future governor of New Jersey could have some influence on the direction of public education, although this largely remains the purview of the districts themselves. Increasingly, the topic of “kitchen table” issues has been raised on the campaign trails—to what extent teachers should be responsible or required to teach certain subjects or leave them exclusively to the home. While the gubernatorial election is still a political lifetime away with various candidates and potential candidates jockeying to position themselves, Gordon is not sure that Democrats should be smugly confident one of their own will replace outgoing Governor Phil Murphy.

“I think that it’s quite possible that a Republican could get elected governor,” Gordon said. “I mean, the Democrats have a registration advantage but Jack Ciattarelli was still coming within three and a half percent of winning. My expectation is that the next governor is going to be a moderate regardless of whether he or she is Republican or Democrat. I would probably feel comfortable working on the transition team of either party. Clearly, I’m probably more comfortable with the Democrats but I’m less concerned about New Jersey because I think we still are something of a moderate state. The people I see as contenders for governor are all very capable.” Gordon dismissed the likes of radio host Bill Spadea, however, and his ilk of ultra MAGAs. “I don’t see them as emerging.” More realistic candidates might give Ciattarelli a run for his money, however. “There are others who are more conservative, like Mike Testa in South Jersey.”

Responsible stewardship, according to Gordon, is reasonably safe in the Garden State. “I’m less concerned about New Jersey’s future, but I am more concerned with what I see happening at the national level. I think, to a great extent, the politics nationally reflects the fact that there are a lot of people in this country who feel government has not responded to their needs, I mean, there were even policies that exacerbated their situation. An administration promotes free trade: learning economics, free trade was viewed as a good thing that leads to lower prices. A country that is good at a particular thing gets to specialize in that. But we didn’t count on tens of millions of people losing their jobs, because all the factories moved to China. People who had good-paying middle-class jobs lost them and are struggling. They feel people in Washington, of either party, have not been responding to their needs. So, they see the government as the enemy.”

Gordon, drawing off his long experience in government from the local to the national levels, said that foreign powers are exploiting the divides in American society, including known Russian interference even as recent as the 2022 midterm elections. Unity requires a sense of security among American citizens who must have their trust in their institutions rebuilt. “Democracy is weakened when large portions of the population feel at risk. Income distribution has become less equitable, people feel threatened by immigrants taking their jobs and believe anything. We are just seeing so many institutions that were important, like the press, not providing the foundation that a democracy needs. So, it’s troubling. My concerns are shared by a lot of people.”

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4 responses to “Flash(point): Gordon”

  1. I seem to recall that my father worked in a textile dye house, from before he was drafted into WWII through the 1970s,owned by a family named Gordon. Colonial Dye/Brewster Finishing, was located in Paterson on the banks of the Passaic River. My dad would tell me about the chemicals that the mill dumped in the river. Wonder if there is any relation

  2. No relation. Our company manufactured yarn, was named Morris Gordon, Inc., after my grandfather, and it was located at 21 Market Street, near the corner of Market and Spruce. BG

  3. Over 50 years of public service by this brilliant and thoughtful gentleman. There should be an award with his name on it.

  4. In a world where attention spans, depth of knowledge, and shared concern for the common good seem in short supply, we should all be listening to experienced and caring public servants like Bob Gordon. We can benefit from a “long-view” that teaches us that difficult problems take time to solve, that opinions are diverse and can be difficult to reconcile, and stewardship requires the courage to truly listen, chart a direction that seeks to balance differing views, holds to the facts in the face of public criticism, distinguishes self-interest from public interest and maintains an eye on goals that may only be reached in the hands of future stewards.

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