Lesniak – A Consequential Political Career, with an Autobiography Worth the Read

I’ve known Ray Lesniak for 30 years, since the day I arrived in Trenton in 1992 to begin my tenure as a Senior Policy Advisor on the Assembly Republican Majority staff.

At the beginning, there was nobody I despised more than Ray Lesniak, then serving as the Democratic Senator representing the 20th legislative district, which included as its principal municipality his home City of Elizabeth.  My feeling about him was universally shared among my fellow Republican staffers.  Ray had very sharp elbows, and his partisanship was intensified by his concurrent service at that time as New Jersey Democratic State Committee chair, selected at the request of the then Governor Jim Florio.

After Christie Whitman was elected governor of New Jersey, I joined her administration as Assistant Commerce Commissioner, serving under the then Commerce Commissioner Gil Medina.  I was most fortunate to serve under Gil, for he gave me a number of interesting assignments that helped me build my profile and career.

Two such assignments concerned the City of Elizabeth.

The first was Gil’s appointment of me as Chair-Designate of the New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone Authority.  Under the leadership of Mayor Chris Bollwage, a Lesniak ally and in my view one of the most effective urban mayors in modern New Jersey history, Elizabeth had one of New Jersey’s most successful Urban Enterprise Zones.

The second concerned state financing of the then prospective Jersey Gardens Mall – and on that issue, Ray and I had a most acrimonious encounter.

Initially, we had a sharp disagreement on the forms of state financial assistance to be provided to the Jersey Gardens Mall project.  Ray wrote a letter to Governor Whitman claiming that I was costing the City of Elizabeth 7,000 jobs by my insistence on a certain structure of the financing.

This hardly engendered a feeling of affection towards Ray on my part.  Yet after that, he and I, through intermediaries worked effectively together, along with Senate President Don DiFrancesco and produced a financing structure highly satisfactory to all interested parties.  There was never again any hostility between Ray and me.

When the Jersey Gardens Mall was opened in 1999, the developers placed an advertisement in the Star-Ledger thanking approximately twenty people for their efforts in bringing the project to fruition.  I had left the Commerce Department in late 1998 to become the Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.  Yet I was one of the twenty people the mall developers thanked in the Star-Ledger advertisement.  I always thought Ray had something to do with it, in spite of our original antipathy.  I have been proud since then that Jersey Gardens Mall became one of the most successful mall projects in the state.

During the first term of the Whitman administration, I worked closely with Chris Bollwage, and my admiration and warm feeling towards him grew, in spite of our political party difference.  This naturally resulted in the continuing good feeling, although not closeness between Ray Lesniak and me.

A dramatic change in our mutual relationship occurred in the summer of 2019.  A close relative of mine who is a casual wagerer on National Football League games asked me if I knew Ray Lesniak.  He told me that among the NFL wagering community, Ray Lesniak is a major hero because of his US Supreme Court victory that enabled states to legalize sports betting.

Although I had not spoken to Ray in some time, I called him knowing full well that he would love hearing about his adulation among a large sector of NFL fans.  I was not wrong, and we ended our conversation by agreeing to have lunch together at Jerusalem Pizza, my favorite kosher eatery in Elizabeth.

This led to a number of lunches at which we exchanged old war stories and our current thoughts about Jersey politics.  In spite of my famed volubility, Ray did most of the talking.  We were supposed to take turns paying for the lunches, but I ended up paying for every single one.  Ray is one hell of a negotiator.

Then, one morning in July, 2019, I awakened to some terribly distressing news.  Salena Lesniak, the love of Ray’s life whom he had recently married, had passed away unexpectedly.  Naturally, I went to the funeral home to pay my respects to Ray.

What I saw at the funeral home was terribly saddening.  Ray has his friends and foes, but nobody can dispute that he is a man of enormous emotional and physical strength. Yet the Ray Lesniak I saw at the funeral home was a man totally broken in spirit.

I joined with other friends of Ray in spending a lot of time with him in the weeks that followed the funeral.  He went on with his life, but I will always feel that Salena’s passing impacted Ray negatively more than anything else in his life.

I have gone through this lengthy explanation of my relationship with Ray Lesniak because I feel that my readers are entitled to full disclosure in judging the credibility of my discussion of Ray’s career and the book. I am a friend of Ray, and while I have come to admire him, I am not an uncritical acolyte.   I believe in biography, not hagiography, and I would not hesitate to criticize Ray severely if circumstances warrant it.

In this vein, I refer to the current controversy surrounding Ray and his involvement with super pacs.  I don’t fault the media for its speculation, but I have seen nothing thus far evidencing any illegal or unethical conduct on his part.  And that will remain my view unless and until I see any evidence indicating to the contrary.

And now for my assessment of Ray’s career and review of his new autobiography, Cultivating Justice in the Garden State: My Life in the Colorful World of New Jersey Politics.

Except for the then serving Senate presidents, the two most consequential New Jersey State Senators over the past three decades have been Democrat Ray Lesniak and Republican Bill Gormley.  Ironically, like my relationship with Lesniak, I started off on the wrong foot with Gormley when I first served on Republican legislative staff.  He and I clashed regarding a school construction bond issue he was sponsoring.  And similar to my relationship with Lesniak, I developed a warm friendship with Gormley and was in fact an ardent supporter of his 2000 candidacy for the US Senate.

I know of no other Democratic New Jersey state legislator who had a greater impact on salient statewide issues beyond his legislative district than Ray Lesniak.  And these were issues that will affect basic values and the quality of life in the Garden State for decades to come.

Among these issues on which Lesniak was the lead legislator and secured the passage of landmark legislation were the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act (ECRA), the New Jersey Tax Incentive program to spur economic development, the above-mentioned Jersey Gardens Mall project, and the abrogation of the death penalty.  There were also the two court battles in which Lesniak served as the lead legislative advocate : 1) the Jersey court battle that established the right of gay marriage; and 2) the aforementioned US Supreme Court victory that enabled states to legalize sports betting.

One can argue whether the impact of these Lesniak-advocated causes was positive or negative.  It all depends on your political philosophy and affiliations. While I feel the impact was positive, I understand that reasonable minds can disagree.  What is beyond dispute, however is that the accomplishment of Lesniak in effectuating these measures was indeed monumental.

The Lesniak autobiography, Cultivating Justice is basically a book as to how Ray got it all done.  I have in the past taught New Jersey politics and government university courses, and this book would well qualify for the mandatory course reading list.

Yet this book will likely be remembered also for two matters from the world of politics outside policy making.

The first is the friendship Ray Lesniak established with Bill Clinton in 1992.  Ray played a major role in Clinton’s election, both in fundraising and strategy.   It is hardly surprising that Bill Clinton wrote the forward to Cultivating Justice.

The second is the role played by Lesniak as consigliere to former Governor Jim McGreevey.  Ray Lesniak was instrumental in the election of Jim McGreevey, and he was the only person McGreevey could trust during his final days before his resignation.  The book captures better than anything I have read to date the pathos and tragedy of McGreevey as he prepared to depart as governor, as well as admiration for his post-Governor recovery of his life.

Finally, the book describes how Lesniak created an academic legacy for himself: The Lesniak Institute for American Leadership at Kean University.  I am proud to have participated in one of its 2020 election programs.

There are two aspects of the style of the book that I found noteworthy.

The first is the “pragmatic progressive” tone that has governed the Lesniak agenda.  The irony is the similarity of this tone to the pragmatic progressive theme of Governor Phil Murphy.  This similarity is remarkable in that these two gentlemen have not always seen eye-to-eye.

The second is the most readable style of the book.  Many complex matters are covered, which often results in a style of circumlocution.  Yet Cultivating Justice has a style that is trenchant without being tedious.

Ultimately, Ray Lesniak made a difference in the lives of the New Jersey citizenry and in its politics.  This book is an excellent chronicle of what that difference was and how it was made.  Indeed, this is what makes Ray Lesniak’s autobiography well worth the read.

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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