Story by Wendy Plump. Source.
New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak is the longest-serving alumnus in the legislature, a tenure that has been marked by his unabashed advocacy for progressive causes dear to him.
You can ask New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) about almost anything, and he will answer with the kind of candor that you would expect from a guy from Elizabeth—a refreshing, and rare, quality in any politician. Ask Lesniak RC’71 about Ellen DeGeneres hosting the Oscars: “I didn’t get the pizza thing. I prefer Jimmy Fallon.” Or about where he lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey: “I moved from a poor area to a not-as-poor area.” Or the fate of his first run for an Assembly seat in the late 1970s: “I was too stupid to realize I had no chance of winning.” (He won.)
His candor is in keeping with his predisposition to confront the big, intractable social issues that have been the foundation of Lesniak’s distinguished, 36-year career in the New Jersey State Legislature. Lesniak, Rutgers’ longest-serving alumnus in the state’s capital, has championed the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey; the Marriage Equality Act; expanding eligibility for a state drug-treatment program to include multiple offenders (one of whom once robbed him at gunpoint); and environmental initiatives to clean up one of the most heavily industrialized regions in the nation, also known as his hometown.
“I do have an inclination to take on bold and difficult challenges; that’s just in my genes,” says Lesniak. “I love challenge. I never go in expecting to lose. I always expect to win, and don’t let up until I do. The bigger the challenge, the more I am determined to meet it head-on.”
This determination even includes his years at Rutgers, which Lesniak described as “rough.” He dropped out a couple of times. He was drafted. He switched from arts to engineering. Finally, in 1971, he got his degree, with a major in economics, before earning a law degree from St. John’s University. Today, he is a partner at the law firm Weiner Lesniak.
Lesniak’s underdog attitude has something to do with his father, who quit school to work full time. “He was a brilliant man,” says Lesniak. “He managed a chemical factory and had only an eighth-grade education. I guess my fierce determination came from him.”
But other, less obvious factors played a role in his political evolution. Describing an earlier version of himself as being a callow, ambitious young politician, Lesniak once supported the death penalty because it was a “popular” law. But after meeting with a coalition of family members of murder victims, and witnessing their compassionate repudiation of the death penalty, he did a full turnaround.
“I was very taken by testimony in the judiciary by these families, and their peaceful demeanor,” says Lesniak. “We were the first state in decades to abolish the death penalty, and thankfully others have followed.” When governor Jon Corzine signed the bill into law during the holiday season of 2007, it was one of the proudest moments of Lesniak’s life.
Lesniak describes himself as an early supporter of gay rights, if not an advocate for them. Again, circumstances altered his stance when a state Supreme Court decision in 2006, Lewis vs. Harris, backed civil unions—but not marriage—for gay couples. So Lesniak deepened his support to become a prime sponsor of the Marriage Equality Act, which became law in 2013 following the Assembly and the Senate’s passage of the bill in 2012.
“If it’s not a marriage, it’s not equal. People don’t recognize civil unions,” Lesniak says. “It’s a lot bigger than two gay people being able to get married. It’s about acceptance of two human beings.”
Despite a reputation for embracing a progressive agenda, Lesniak will champion causes favored by the business community when, in his view, it largely benefits New Jersey. As chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, Lesniak sided with Governor Christie in supporting tax incentives for industries that do business in the Garden State. As usual, he is blunt in his explanation.
“We are a state that’s difficult to do business in,” he says. “Our real estate is scarce, so it’s expensive. We are a union state—God bless us; I love the unions—but that means higher wages. We have a Byzantine governmental structure that has 565 municipalities, and you have to go through that process. All those things combined made me realize we have to provide tax incentives for business to create and keep jobs here.”
After nearly four decades as a politician, Lesniak has retained his fervor for public service. The Senate is more combative than in the past, he says, and there is less camaraderie. But the legislature, comprising the Senate and Assembly, still gets things accomplished.
That optimism, however, does not extend to the federal government. “That has sunk to new depths,” he says. The problem, roughly and broadly stated with his usual brio, is that politicians will do whatever it takes to win. Lesniak says he should know. He used to conduct himself the same way. At the beginning of his career, he would do whatever it took to win elections.
“Thankfully, I have evolved. Now, I do whatever it takes to better serve the public.”