“Friendship is born at that moment
when one person says to another:
What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
As a politician and as Essex County Executive, Jim Treffinger was a classic: brash, boastful and smart. In fact, some would argue he was too smart for his own good.
A Gary Hart Democrat turned hybrid Republican, he was a fiscal conservative and a social progressive. Come to think of it, the GOP just doesn’t make them like that any more.
As a political maverick, he earnestly believed in his ‘rising tides lifts all boats’ ideology. At the same time, he advocated strongly for ‘”less government is better government, ” and once campaigned for the elimination of his own job.
His so-called GOP reformist agenda in 2000 led to one major mistake in his political career when he announced his support for John McCain’s bid for the presidency in 2000, turning his back on endorsement entreaties from George W. Bush.
He was advised, more likely warned, that Bush would win the nomination and very possibly the general election. He trusted his instincts and lost. It was all down hill from there.
* * *
It was October 28, 2002, the day they slapped the cuffs on him. Jim Treffinger had left for work that morning, early, as he usually did, in a hurry to get to his office. He remembers he didn’t have time for breakfast.
The reason that sticks in his mind, he says, is because on his way to the Federal Courthouse his arresting officers actually stopped for a cup of coffee. They asked him even though he was wearing wrist irons, if he wanted one.
He remembers it all very vividly, slow motion in his mind, he says, like the play back of an old 20th century newsreel.
Up to that moment, Jim Treffinger was a fortunate guy in many ways. He acknowledges that. A family man with a loving and supportive wife, two accomplished daughters and a skies-the-limit future. His was a good narrative, as they say in politics.
Born in Newark, adopted at age 4, he was raised in Maplewood in a Democratic household. His was a Catholic family, JFK was his early hero and he claims he just didn’t know any Republicans.
His educational credentials are impressive: St. Benedict’s Prep, Undergraduate degree from Seton Hall in Philosophy (magna cum laude), the University’s first Fulbright Scholar with a Master’s Degree from the University of Bonn & Marburg in Germany. Add to that a JD degree from Rutgers School of Law.
He had prodigious success in New York City as a corporate and insurance lawyer in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s and a stepping stone political career first as a Verona Township Councilman, then Mayor, then Essex County District Freeholder and finally in 1994 defeating (some would argue aided and abetted by) the county Democrats and winning the office of County Executive.
He was a Sunday school teacher, and a Gary Hart delegate in 1984. He turned Republican when he astutely realized that Essex County was ripe for a populist message of anti-tax increases and Democratic autocratic rule.
The second Republican to win the County Executive’s office in 17 years under the current form of government, he ran as a ‘reformer.” His Democratic predecessor had resigned after a federal conviction. Treffinger went on to win a second four-year term in 1998.
For the Republican Party, at that point, Treffinger was New Jersey’s highest-ranking county official. He had promise and potential as a statewide candidate.
Two years later, he ran for the United States Senate finishing third in the Republican primary behind then State Senator Bill Gormley and the eventual 2000 winner, Congressman Bob Franks.
Extenuating circumstances surrounding his fall, of course, was that he was, once again, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the spring of 2002, hoping to face off against incumbent U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli.
He remembers what a friend said to him in those days, only half-jokingly:
“Jimmy, as far as the state Republicans are concerned, you’ll always be that ex-Democratic, working-class, Catholic school boy from Seton Hall. Be careful. These people have farms with funny names.”
The feds raided his office in April that year, six months before his arrest, carting away what they usually take with them: computers, files, schemes and dreams.
Treffinger withdrew from the race when it became clear he was a target of a federal investigation. He had run out of options. The winner of that 2002 Republican primary was Doug Forrester.
* * *
In many ways, for us mere mortals at least, his story is a tragic tale, much like Icarus of Greek mythology, who was gifted with a pair wings made of feathers and wax.
According to the myth, Icarus’s father, Daedalus, advised his son while making their escape from Crete, to fly neither too high nor too low. He was sternly warned of complacency and hubris.
Icarus ignored the warnings. He flew too close to the sun, his waxed wings melted and the feathers turned to dust.
Icarus sensed his demise, struggled mightily, but fell to the sea and drowned. It’s a classic case of hubris, the proverbial pride before the fall.
Treffinger, a two-time U.S. Senate candidate, must have sensed that his career (and life as he knew it) had melted before his eyes that morning.
They spread him across the hood of one of the half dozen cars dispatched to his home. It was quite a show.
With a helicopter hovering overhead, making enough noise to wake the entire west Essex suburbs, they hauled him away in front of his wife and neighbors.
If anyone could appreciate the mistake of flying too high, it was Jim Treffinger. This was, after all, a guy, who in his spare time, enrolled at Columbia University for graduate classes in Medieval Studies, just as a hobby.
Indicted on multiple counts, he eventually pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice, as he says, “in order to avoid trial.” They put him in prison for a year.
But, it’s what he did while in that federal lockup at Schuylkill, Pennsylvania and afterwards that led him to what he refers to as his ‘road to redemption’.
Talking with him, there is little evidence of rancor and bitterness and, if he has any, it’s well hidden.
A voracious reader of history and philosophy, he used his time in prison to offer classes for fellow inmates. He taught them law and economics. He joined prayer groups both Jewish and Christian. And, he came away from that experience, in his words, “hopefully a better man.”
But, what few actually know about Jim Treffinger is that just a week before his arrest, (he even cites the date October 17, 2002) he had “accepted the Lord.” or as some would say, “he was born again.” Cynics would claim he knew what was coming. But, he begs to differ.
He had left the Catholic Church. Mentored by a spiritual advisor from the church he now pastors, he remembers that on the morning of his arrest he quoted to himself the biblical passage Romans 8:28.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Though his waxed and feathered wings had melted that October morning, in his mind, with his newfound spirituality, he was determined to land on his feet. He was released from federal prison in December 2004.
* * *
One of the first people to contact him after his prison hiatus was now U.S. Senator Cory Booker. According to Treffinger, his friends were hard to find in those days but he notes that Cory offered him solace, wisdom and calm advice.
He also speaks reverentially of Assemblyman Tom Giblin. “He looked in on my family that year and made sure they were ok. I’ll always be grateful to him.”
And Doug Forrester, the man and former rival who ultimately won the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2002, also contacted Treffinger to offer him what many would consider an extraordinary gift. It seems that with politics, as in sports, it’s only the fans that stay mad.
An honors graduate of Harvard and Princeton’s Theological Seminary, Forrester gave Treffinger a copy of C.S. Lewis’s famous sermon, The Weight of Glory.
He suggested that he read it carefully, knowing that, of all people, Treffinger had the intellectual capacity to understand and appreciate its wisdom. He did.
According to Treffinger, he was then encouraged by Forrester to enroll at Princeton’s Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity Degree in 2006. He completed his three years of study in 2009, the same year the man who put him in jail became Governor of New Jersey.
Not only did Doug Forrester mentor and encourage Treffinger after his feathered wings had melted, Doug Forrester paid Jim Treffinger’s tuition at the Theological Seminary in Princeton, in full.
Jim Treffinger first served as school administrator, then church official, Executive Pastor and now he’s the Pastor at Brookdale Christian Church in Bloomfield where he preaches from the pulpit and mentors a robust congregation.
It’s where he landed. It’s where he does the Lord’s work. It’s where he feels redeemed.