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Jim McGreevey:
Crushed by the closet

Jim McGreevey:
Crushed by the closet

923_mcgreevey

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

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 resume 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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