Jim McGreevey: Crushed by the closet

For years the New Jersey governor hid that he’s gay. Then he resigned amid a flurry of scandals. A behind-the-scenes look at how his double life clouded his judgment

BY Advocate.com Editors

September 13 2004 11:00 PM ET

Two weeks after
coming out, admitting he had cheated on his wife of four
years with a man, and announcing that he would resign
effective November 15, New Jersey governor Jim
McGreevey made his first public appearance, in
Atlantic City. The politicians as well as the 300 union
leaders and members in the room continued to clap for
him even as the governor tried to speak.
“Please,” the 47-year-old said, trying to
quiet the crowd. “I’ve only got 80 days left.”
Earlier that day McGreevey urged a minor league
baseball team to rehire an announcer who was fired
after dedicating the Village People song
“YMCA” to the governor during a game.
“An apology from the announcer should be enough
of a response to what was perhaps an unfortunate lapse
in judgment,” McGreevey said in a statement.
If McGreevey felt he could not give himself the
same break, perhaps it was because his own lapses in
judgment had gone much further, for much longer. His
gay love affair, if that’s what it was, was simply
the proverbial straw that broke the back of his
beleaguered administration.
Until his confessional August 12 press
conference, McGreevey had been a textbook closet case,
leading a double life that ultimately proved
destructive. His coming-out was a perfect storm of
controversy, as the whirlwind of his exploding closet
scattered with it the numerous interlocking financial
and patronage scandals that many observers believe
were the real reasons he resigned. At the eye of the storm
were McGreevey’s repeated failures of judgment,
including those concerning a man in his early 30s
named Golan Cipel.
“The governor made a mistake and did
inappropriate things driven by frustrations of the
closet and not having the emotional and physical
outlets that all human beings need,” says
Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, who weathered
his own scandal over relations with a male hustler in
1989. “In my case, I found it was hard to meet
people—being closeted—in a normal way, and I
had the occasion to use hustlers and made up for the
emotional gap by being too close to them. McGreevey
and I hooked up with guys who were predatory and saw an
opportunity to exploit us.”
Adds Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the
Washington, D.C.–based gay advocacy group Human
Rights Campaign: “The dangers of the closet are
true regardless of who we are, regardless of
occupation or family circumstances. Being in the closet
means lying and deceiving, and that is always going to
be a hard thing, particularly for people who by nature
are not dishonest but who are caught in the
circumstances of not being truthful because they do not feel safe.”
Other than the governor himself, the person most
hurt by McGreevey’s lies is his wife, Dina
Matos McGreevey, who had collapsed in tears just three
days before her husband’s press conference upon
learning he was gay. Nevertheless, she stood by him on
August 12. “The whole thing was so surreal. I can
tell you she wasn’t happy. She was in
shock,” Dina’s friend Lori Kennedy told
a New Jersey newspaper.
Dina met McGreevey in 1996 on a media junket for
local Portugueselanguage media; she was a successful
public relations executive. McGreevey’s first
wife, a librarian named Kari Schutz, had tired of his
political ambition and in 1994 moved with their
daughter, Morag, to Vancouver, Canada. They divorced
in 1997. (“We’re supporting him
100%,” Kari said recently, emphasizing that their
breakup was over his job, not his sexuality.)
In 1997, McGreevey came within a sliver of
unseating New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman.
“When he ran in 1997, he ran as a single man
whose first marriage had failed,” says David Twersky,
director of international affairs for the American
Jewish Congress and a contributing editor for the
New York Sun who has known the governor for
years. “I believe one thing he set out to do was to
marry and court Dina and have a child in time for the
cameras to pick this up for the next election.”
By the time Jim and Dina married in October
2000, most political watchers expected that
McGreevey—then the successful mayor of Woodbridge,
N.J., the state’s sixth-largest
municipality—would make it to the
governor’s mansion in the 2001 election. With about 9
million residents, making it the 10th-most populous
state, New Jersey’s is one of the most powerful
governorships in the nation.
Yet the seeds for McGreevey’s eventual
downfall were also sown in 2000. In March he went to
Israel, where he met Cipel, a masculine, dark-haired
spokesman for the mayor of Rishon Lezion, the town that
McGreevey visited as part of his outreach to New
Jersey’s Jewish community. That same month,
Twersky says, McGreevey likely proposed to Dina.
The question of when McGreevey and
Cipel’s sexual relationship began—and
what each man’s motives were—remains
unanswered, but Cipel became a confidant of the future
governor very quickly. Within two years
McGreevey’s supporters had arranged for Cipel
to relocate to the United States.
Such duplicity is not indicative of the values
on which McGreevey was weaned. When Jim was a boy, his
father, Jack, a former Marine drill instructor, filled
his young son’s head with stories and lessons of
World War II. During the 2001 election McGreevey told voters
of the discipline he knew as a child: Jack made him
bounce a quarter on his bed every morning to make sure
the sheets were pulled perfectly tight.
As a young boy McGreevey had a knack for
chatting up grown-ups and always wore his Catholic
school uniform perfectly, and as a teen during the
turbulent 1960s he supported Richard Nixon. As a young man
his résumé was as carefully put together as
his bed linens: There was his undergraduate education
at Columbia, a law degree from Georgetown, and a
master’s from Harvard. He swiftly evolved into an
ambitious politician—a moderate Democrat—who
thrived on perfection.
At what point he realized he was gay is
unclear—perhaps even to the governor
himself—but his desire to succeed as a politician led
him to hide his sexuality, a moral compromise that
presaged his eventual undoing. To win the 2001
governor’s race he constructed the image he
thought he needed to project, with his new wife and a child
on the way. “In 2001 there were pictures of
Jimmy holding his infant on television in the
hospital,” Twersky says. “At the time we
said, ‘This is manufactured like a Hollywood movie.
This can’t be real.’ ” McGreevey
won the election in November 2001 by an impressive 15% margin.
But after taking office in January, the
governor’s slide into the murkiness of New
Jersey politics and patronage was quick. Between
November 2001 and April 15, 2002, he hired into his
administration 53 people who had worked on his
election, showing little concern as to their levels of
experience. One of those was Cipel, who became New
Jersey’s homeland security adviser, acting as liaison
to federal intelligence and security officials.
McGreevey had scrapped a plan by his predecessor to
hire former FBI director Louis Freeh for the position and
instead selected Cipel, a man with no apparent
qualifications for the $110,000-a-year job.
The political response was swift, as
McGreevey’s opponents and media watchdogs
clamored for an explanation. By March 2002, Cipel was
forced to step down, in part because as a noncitizen he
could not receive federal clearance to review
top-secret data. Kept on as an adviser, Cipel did not
leave the state’s payroll until August of that year.
After that, he took cushy PR jobs in various private
firms in New Jersey, often arranged by
McGreevey’s friends. One company terminated his
employment after 30 days, it has been reported, because
Cipel often didn’t bother to show up for work.
The spotlight on Cipel only fueled whispers that
McGreevey was gay. Yet the governor seemed oblivious
to the growing gossip. In 2002, a Newark
Star-Ledger feature story detailed how the governor
showed up for a walk-through of a town house Cipel had
acquired near the governor’s Woodbridge home.
McGreevey’s stage management of
Cipel’s life is indicative of an overarching
trait that New Jersey reporters observed about the
freshman governor: He seemed to have an obsessive need to
control nearly every facet of state
government—and yet frequently found himself
forced to justify dubious decisions. He had to explain, for
example, why he spent $70,000 of taxpayers’
money to visit Ireland, where he stayed at expensive
hotels and drove around in a rented Mercedes,
ostensibly to improve trade relations. And he seemed
inconsistent on gay rights, opposing marriage equality
while signing a sweeping domestic-partnership bill
into law.
McGreevey did not appear to learn from the early
missteps in his administration. Between 2002 and 2004,
problems escalated: His commerce secretary, chief of
staff, and chief counsel resigned amid allegations of
conflicts of interest. One of his nominees for the state
supreme court had to step down after it was discovered
she drove to her hearing on a suspended
driver’s license. And just months ago
McGreevey’s biggest contributor, real estate
developer Charles Kushner—who gave about
$500,000 to the campaign—was accused of hiring a
prostitute to entrap his own brother-in-law, to
blackmail him into not cooperating with a federal
investigation into possible violations of campaign
contribution laws and tax fraud.
Reporters had a field day with
McGreevey’s mistakes, and the gay rumors
spread. One reporter asked him whether Cipel was his lover.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he replied. And
in the end, it was the affair with Cipel that the
governor cited as the reason for his resignation; the
announcement was prompted by the threat of a lawsuit in
which Cipel would allege sexual harassment by McGreevey.
The beginning of the end came on July 23, just
days before McGreevey and his wife were to attend the
Democratic National Convention in Boston. According to
reports, Allen M. Lowy, Cipel’s lawyer, left a
message with a receptionist at the governor’s
office, saying that his client intended to file sexual
harassment charges. At first the governor and his team
dismissed the threat.
But within days the situation took a radical
turn. Lowy, a New York lawyer, said his client
intended to allege in the suit that McGreevey had
tried to silence Cipel with a series of arranged jobs in the
public and private sectors. Plugging into the already
charged public outcry over Cipel’s role in the
administration, that twist called for a serious
response. Unbeknownst to his wife, who was photographed
smiling and apparently enjoying the Boston enclave,
McGreevey and his advisers spent much of the
Democratic convention considering how to handle Cipel, who
had allegedly demanded money to keep quiet. (On August 26,
Lowy seemed to back away from plans to file a lawsuit
and asked McGreevey simply to apologize to his client.
A McGreevey spokesman responded that the governor had
“nothing to apologize for.”)
Back home in New Jersey after the convention,
McGreevey decided he had to come out publicly before
Cipel filed his lawsuit. He called Daniel Zingale, an
openly gay California political consultant and former aide
to Gov. Gray Davis, for advice. Zingale says he
“raised the question whether it would not be
better to address the personal issues that [McGreevey]
was determined to take responsibility for that day
separately” rather than giving the appearance that
the governor was stepping down because he’s
gay. “I am absolutely confident that the people
of New Jersey would not want to remove him from his job
for being gay,” Zingale concludes.
McGreevey’s constituents in the gay bars
along the Jersey coast agree with Zingale. In the gay
mecca of Asbury Park at least, speculation about
McGreevey’s sexuality apparently stretches back to
when he was mayor of Woodbridge.
But while they’ve been among the first to
share McGreevey stories, jokes, and speculation with a
nod and a wink, many New Jersey gays still stand
behind their governor. “We think it’s a great
thing he came out, but we wish it were under different
circumstances,” says Anthony Burlew, the
bartender at Georgie’s in Asbury Park.
“One of my regulars said, ‘Look at Marion
Barry [the former mayor of Washington, D.C., who was
convicted of drug possession and was later reelected].
Everyone can reinvent themselves.’ Look at
Madonna. We all wish he wouldn’t resign.”
In the end, however, McGreevey decided he needed
to end his administration at the same time that he
came out to the world. In preparation, he came out to
his wife and got advice on his coming-out statement
from the Human Rights Campaign.
Although McGreevey did not mention the name of
his lover at his press conference, Cipel responded
quickly to the governor’s public statement. It
was not the consensual affair McGreevey claimed, Cipel
contended. “While employed by one of the most
powerful politicians in the country, New Jersey
governor McGreevey, I was the victim of repeated
sexual advances by him,” he said in a statement.
“I was the victim whose oppressor was one of
the most powerful politicians, who made sure to let me
know that my future was in his hands.”
To David Twersky, who knows Cipel well, his
statement casting himself as a victim of harassment
who was then bought off with favors seems
disingenuous. After all, Cipel benefitted from patronage
from the moment he arrived in the United States, well
before McGreevey took office as governor.
After the scandal broke, Cipel fled to Israel
and has granted only carefully orchestrated interviews
with Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. He
maintains that he is not gay and that he was the victim of
the governor’s unwanted advances.
Cipel’s insistence that he’s
heterosexual has a familiar ring to Twersky:
“He did not want to admit to this dark secret and
will take it to his grave,” the New York
Sun
contributor told The Advocate.
Although, Twersky adds, “when I knew him at
that time, he did not appear to be in any conflict. [His
story] does not comport with the facts. What did he
stick around for [if he was being harassed]? I think
he got greedy, and he thought he could set himself up
over this.”
Whatever the nature and frequency of the
governor’s liaisons with his onetime adviser,
Cipel never owned up to having a sexual relationship
with McGreevey, Twersky says. Recalling that state troopers
were angry with McGreevey for a leadership shake-up as
early as 2002, Twersky says he warned Cipel that he
had heard troopers were following him, looking for
evidence of a relationship between him and McGreevey.
“He said, yes, he knew already to be careful of
the state police, and I said, ‘They think you
are gay and you are McGreevey’s lover,’
and he says, ‘I know that it is absolutely untrue.’ ”
Until both McGreevey and Cipel share more
details of their relationship—so far, neither
has granted extensive interviews on the subject, and
both declined to speak to The Advocate—the
truth behind what McGreevey called an “affair”
will remain a murky mix of accusations and
speculation. The facts probably lie somewhere in
between the extremes of each man’s pat
characterizations of their relationship.
What does seem clear, however, is that
McGreevey’s resignation was not just about
Cipel. A lot more was at stake. The scandals over
fund-raising, conflicts of interest, and inept appointments
had hobbled his administration. Some speculate that
McGreevey simply used the revelation of his sexuality
as a cover to allow him to exit a hopeless situation
with an upbeat statement of personal growth, when in fact
his misbehavior with Cipel was only one example of his
many ethical missteps.
“If the threat of the lawsuit by Golan
Cipel had not been there, lots of people questioned
whether he would have made this statement [as the
reason for his resignation],” says Ingrid Reed,
director of the Eagleton New Jersey Project,
affiliated with Rutgers University. She believes
McGreevey’s stepping-down was his way of controlling
a situation that had spiraled out of control.
How much were McGreevey’s poor judgment
and lack of control influenced by the pressures of the
closet? Would he have been a better governor had he
uttered the tried-and-true phrase “And so my truth
is that I am a gay American” 20 years ago, at the
start of his political career? Or might he never have
been governor at all?
Gay men and lesbians assessing the impact of
McGreevey’s coming-out on the battle for
equality can only speculate about those questions, at
least until the governor decides to talk. What is known is
that coming out was a relief for McGreevey. Friends
and advisers who spent time with him the day of his
press conference described how his perpetual state of
tension seemed to have miraculously lifted. “His
level of comfort with himself went up, and there was
relief at finally being able to be himself,”
says Henry Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant and
longtime McGreevey friend.
To cultural observers, the lesson is one of the
hypocrisy of straight society, which condemns gay men
who cheat on their wives and yet forbids them from
marrying other gay men. “It is hard for people
opposed to gay marriage to come to a logical argument
to exclude gay people,” says gay columnist Dan
Savage. “Gay people are pressing to marry for
the same idealistic reasons that straight people imagine
that they should marry, which is love. To deny us the
kind of marriage that affirms what marriage should
mean, and to encourage us to enter into a marriage
like McGreevey’s—which undermines the modern
meaning of marriage—seems nuts.”
Despite calls for him to leave office
immediately from both Democrats and Republicans in New
Jersey, McGreevey has firmly stated he will stay until
November 15, with Richard Codey, president of the New Jersey
state senate, replacing him to serve out the remainder
of his term, which runs through January 2006, when a
newly elected governor will take over.
McGreevey’s political future—like
his marriage—seems doomed. But until November,
he’s still the governor. At the late-August
bill signing, McGreevey briefly shook hands with those in
the front row before he was escorted off the stage by
his state police detail. Several of the union workers
who had cheered him said the governor’s sexual
orientation and extramarital affair were of no concern
to them. “It’s how he treats the unions
that’s important,” said union carpenter
Mickey Jones, 66. “Who cares if he’s gay
nowadays.”

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