In the aftermath of John Kerry’s electoral defeat, Democrats have begun a conversation among themselves about the importance of being able to speak to, for lack of a better term, voters of faith. The Democrats, everybody seems to agree, just cannot manage to connect with Americans, particularly Christians, who regularly attend worship services. They voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush this year. As the Democrats try to figure this one out, there is in the wilds of New Jersey a Democratic politician who talks unabashedly about spiritual values, about God and about his reliance on the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Not so long ago, Raymond Lesniak was a single-minded, hard-charging, brass-knuckled political leader from Union County in northern New Jersey. He was (and remains) a state senator, a prominent attorney and an old-fashioned political boss with immense power in his home county. If you believe the nonsense that political bosses belong to another era in American politics, you clearly have not spent much time in New Jersey. The state is loaded with them. Some of them, it should be noted, have been remanded to the custody of the state. But others remain free to peddle their influence as best they can.
Lesniak, 58, attended Catholic school in Elizabeth, the city he still calls home. He received his law degree from St. John’s University in Queens, where, he notes, he studied canon law because it was required. He began his political career in 1977, when he won election to New Jersey’s State Assembly. He earned a promotion to the State Senate in 1983, and very quickly made it clear that he intended to be a power in the turbulent world of New Jersey politics. When the mayor of Elizabeth turned against Lesniak and had him thrown off the Democratic Party list, Lesniak ran on his own, won and then took over the local party organization. That’s how you get noticed in New Jersey politics.
During an interview in his law office in Parsippany, N.J., Lesniak shared a story to illustrate just how single-minded he was during those early years in politics. I was fighting a hard primary campaign one year, and I was campaigning on a Saturday afternoon in a market area in Elizabeth, he said. And while I’m there, I see my opponent, and he’s buying vegetables. He’s not campaigning. He’s buying vegetables. I said to myself, How in the world can he be shopping when he should be out campaigning?’ That’s how hard-charging I was. I wouldn’t take a minute out from what I was trying to achieve.
That hard-charging attitude did achieve the intended results. Lesniak gained a reputation as a man not to be trifled with. He also wrote some of the state’s most progressive environmental legislation. But his reputation was tied not to legislative accomplishments, but to his ability to use raw political power to achieve his ends.
Then, quite recently, this man who seemed to be in control of all he surveyed discovered that his power may not be as unlimited as he and many others thought. He was dating a woman Lesniak is single and has never marriedbut was preparing to end the relationship when the woman herself broke up with him. Even though he was prepared to end the relationship, he couldn’t handle how it happened. He, after all, was supposed to be in control.
I was depressed, not clinically, but down and out, he said. I started reading self-help books, and that led me to spiritual books, and that led me to a 12-step program and a prayer book. And I read about that first step, about turning my will over to God. And it hit me: Things are not really in my control; they’re in God’s control.
That realization changed his life. He now talks openly of his transformation, about surrendering my will to God, about the importance of forgiveness. These sentiments, let it be said, are not often heard in political discussions among trained professionals. Lesniak told the story of a colleague who was on the receiving end of a Lesniak pitch about forgiveness. He had a bottle of Chivas Regal by his desk, Lesniak recalled. He grabbed it and pretended to take a drink.
His journey of discovery prompted him to start a group called Democrats for the Soul. Members regularly work in a soup kitchen in St. John’s Church in Newark, and throw parties for senior citizens at the Brother Bonaventure Nursing Home in Elizabeth and at children’s hospitals. We don’t just raise money for these groups, he said. We actively participate. We want to achieve an intimacy with the people we’re trying to serve.
Lesniak believes that his spiritual awakening has extended his life, because he no longer is obsessed with control and because he now understands the limits of his own power and the unlimited power of God. Other politicians, he admitted, have watched this transformation with a wary eye.
But one political colleague in the midst of a personal crisis has sought him out for help and guidance. Former Governor James E. McGreevey of New Jersey recently resigned after admitting to a homosexual affair with a member of his staff. Lesniak has become McGreevey’s confidant and comforter in recent months. We pray together once a week, Lesniak said.
Would the Raymond Lesniak of a decade ago have been able to help a man like McGreevey in his moment of despair?
Lesniak paused for a moment.
Certainly not, he said with a knowing smile.