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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 08/08/05        NJBiz online

The Day McGreevey Stunned Us All

by Ingrid Reed

A few weeks ago I started getting calls from press people planning special stories about the first anniversary of the announcement of Governor James E. McGreevey's resignation-the day he acknowledged being "a gay American" and said he would step down. The exploration of his legacy with reporters was always preceded by vivid memories of the circumstances under which they learned the news on that fateful August day: how early they heard about it, who told whom, who correctly guessed what the governor would say and what happened in the scramble to get out the news. For many people, the McGreevey resignation was one of those dramatic events that people remember in the context of place-where they were when they heard the news.

Rather than use this week's anniversary of McGreevey's August 12 resignation announcement to prematurely explore his legacy, this is an opportunity to reflect on what this unforeseen event says about New Jersey and its citizens. Here is my take:

We have respect. The governor's revelation that he is gay was accepted with respect and the understanding that in our society this public revelation was a difficult personal decision. The presence ofMcGreevey's parents and wife at the public event was admired and their privacy was subsequently respected. More important, there was respect for the law. The state constitution was interpreted to perinit the governor to stay in office a full three months after his announcement. While there was an energetic debate about whether he should leave or stay, when he did stay on there was no rioting in the streets.

There was also confidence that the law would be applied if any wrongdoing was found in connection with McGreevey's campaign contributions or his putting his presumed lover, Golan Cipel, on the public payroll. While speculation abounded, the presumption of innocence was respected, providing a good lesson for all the suspicions about wrongdoing in New Jersey politics today.

We are lucky. The cumbersome succession policy under which New Jersey operates could have produced a real mess. The Senate president who became acting governor could have been of the opposite party from McGreevey, resulting in a complete change of administration rather than the smooth transition that occurs when the same party stays in power. And the person holding the position of Senate president could have been much less experienced in government than Richard Codey, or he or she could have been a controversial figure selected by a narrow margin of senators.

It could also have been 2002, when the Senate was split 20-20 between Democrats and Republicans - this would have led to co-presidents sharing the role of acting governor. If voters pass the constitutional amendment to create the office of lieutenant governor that will be on the ballot this fall, we will have to continue to be lucky only until the measure becomes effective in 2010.

We pay attention. Even though New Jerseyans don't get much information about their politics from network television news - and many skip reading the daily newspapers that cover the state - they followed the McGreevey resignation closely and quickly figured out who Acting Governor Codey was and what he was trying to do for the state. Codey got an extraordinary amount of coverage when he assumed the governor's office. Clearly, New Jerseyans pay attention when there is a lot of news about the people and the issues they care about. Codey won high approval ratings within weeks of becoming acting governor and he continues to receive them.

Let's hope that New Jerseyans will continue to pay attention to the political campaigns this fall and to demonstrate respect, this time for the candidates. Having good luck is out of our hands.