Jim McGreevey is seeking redemption. Is it for the right reason?

Jim McGreevey

by Terrence T. McDonald, New Jersey Monitor

The summer of 2004 was not a great one for Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey.

On June 30, a major McGreevey fundraiser, Charles Kushner, was fined more than $500,000 by federal election officials for improper campaign contributions to McGreevey and others.

A week later, another major McGreevey fundraiser, David D’Amiano, was indicted on charges that he extorted $40,000 in cash and campaign contributions. McGreevey was cited, unnamed, in the indictment, though not charged.

One week after that, the feds charged Kushner with hiring prostitutes as part of a scheme to interfere with a federal investigation of his crimes.

The next day, McGreevey’s commerce secretary, William Watley, resigned after reports surfaced that he funneled state money to family members and his businesses, a scandal that led to jail time for Watley’s chief of staff.

Oh. And McGreevey was still smarting from the embarrassment, two years earlier, of appointing Golan Cipel, a poet with no experience in global affairs, to be his counterterrorism adviser, post-9/11. Cipel resigned after he couldn’t get security clearance because he was not a U.S. citizen.

Which leads us to August 12. That’s when McGreevey came out as a “gay American” in a press conference, admitted to adultery, and said he would resign that November.

Which of these scandals do you think the public still remembers? Yep, just that last one.

This is all on my mind as I consider McGreevey’s bid for political resurrection, his just-announced campaign to seek the Jersey City mayoralty when it’s up in two years. Making his campaign official Thursday, McGreevey leaned into his redemption story.

“Clearly I’ve made mistakes in my life, for which I acknowledge and I apologize, but I also think that, God willing, I can give something back,” he said.

New Jersey was abuzz on August 13, 2004 after Jim McGreevey announced he was gay and resigning as governor. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This has me wondering what kind of shelf life the scandal that forced McGreevey’s resignation has. When he delivered his “I am a gay American” speech, George W. Bush was still in his first term as president. Saddam Hussein was still alive. Someone old enough to vote for this first time this year was still a year from being born.

Does a political scandal that old matter?

No, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, who teaches political sciences at the University of Houston. Rottinghaus just wrote a paper after researching half a century of political scandals from the White House to statehouses.

“Scandals don’t hit like they used to,” Rottinghaus said. “The longevity of their political problems is significantly shrunk in a more polarized and partisan era, so the short answer is it won’t matter as much.”

The nature of McGreevey’s chief scandal — him coming out of the closet — makes it matter less, Rottinghaus added.

“You’ve got a change in cultural mores about what is and is not acceptable,” he said. “What was considered taboo years ago may not be considered so anymore.”

But what about … the other stuff? Like putting his secret boyfriend on the state payroll for a six-figure job he was unqualified for and surrounding himself with guys who committed crimes. Not to mention Cipel’s claims, which McGreevey denied at the time, that he was the victim of unwanted advances. Should voters today give him a pass for all this, too?

Bill Matsikoudis, an attorney who worked in various roles in the McGreeevy administration, told me I’m being unfair.

“Jim McGreevey was dealing with all kinds of people, like any governor was, and just because some random contributor was involved with a crime has zero to do with who Jim McGreevey was. The people he hired were the best and the brightest,” Matsikoudis said.

It’s fair to say not everyone in the McGreevey administration was a crook. But Kushner wasn’t just any contributor — he was McGreevey’s single most prolific donor and McGreevey tried to put him in charge of the damn Port Authority. Contemporaneous news reports call D’Amiano one of McGreevey’s friends, not just some rando.

As for Cipel, McGreevey is already trying to rewrite history. In an interview with David Cruz Thursday, McGreevey downplayed the role Cipel had in his administration, saying he was just “counsel to the governor, he wasn’t homeland security.”

But when McGreevey hired Cipel, he told the Record Cipel would be his “eyes on ears on security issues.” As someone who served in the Israeli military, Cipel was “uniquely qualified to point out weaknesses,” he said.

“If we’ve learned one thing since Sept. 11, it’s that homeland security is all about communication. We’ve got all these agencies out there but we’ve got to make them work together. It’s all about coordination. It’s all about intelligence,” McGreevey said then.

After Republicans criticized Gipel’s hiring, McGreevey told reporters Cipel “offers a great deal and had already made significant contributions to state security.”

Sure sounds like someone hired for a homeland security post to me.

I have no doubt that McGreevey is sincere about his redemption story. But the redemption story he’s peddling to voters now is about him coming to terms with being gay and stepping out on his wife — both things that were none of our business in 2004 and are none of our business now.

What should concern voters is he doesn’t appear to feel he needs to redeem himself for his other misdeeds as governor. That’s the redemption story we need to hear.

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