When a Gay Governor Asked For Help

Gay Politicos Discuss Advice They Gave McGreevey in the Countdown Hours

Daniel Zingale was dropping his children off at his parent’s home on August 12 just as he does every day before work. As he stood in their kitchen at 7:00 in the morning, his cell phone rang and he stepped out on to the porch of his parent’s California home for an extraordinary 20-minute phone call.

James E. McGreevey, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, was about to come out of the closet. McGreevey’s people were calling to ask Zingale, a longtime gay politico, how that should be done.

“They wanted someone involved who had done this before,” Zingale said. “My response to them was no one has done this before because we’ve never had a governor come out of the closet before.”

A few hours earlier in Washington, D.C., Steven Fisher had received an identical call. He could not describe how he felt.

“It’s new, it’s like when you hear something for the first time,” said Fisher, the communications director at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest gay lobbying group.

Throughout the day, until McGreevey went on television late in the afternoon to say “I am a gay American,” Fisher and Zingale were talking with Jamie Fox, McGreevey’s openly gay chief of staff, other staffers and consultants who work with the governor. They were educating the staff on how to talk about being gay.

“I was interested in what kind of language he would use, what kind of signals he would send to America,” Zingale said. “People forget that for years the formulaic construction was ‘I’m not gay,’ ‘I didn’t do it’ or ‘I sinned once and will never do it again.’”

At HRC, which runs National Coming Out Day and regularly advises politicians on how to discuss gay issues, the concern was similar. Fisher huddled with Mark Shields, his deputy, Cheryl Jacques, the executive director, and Harvey Hurdle, HRC’s chief operating officer.

“We wanted to make sure that the language was as strong as possible, that the way the language is used, the way it is communicated to the American people is as strong as possible and that the American people understand in the most accurate terms what it is to be gay,” Fisher said.

Fox, Fisher and Zingale have known each other for many years. Fox headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when Zingale was HRC’s political director from 1994 to 1997. Fox’s involvement in New Jersey politics dates to 1983 when he worked for Robert Torricelli, then a member of Congress. Fisher joined Torricelli’s staff in 1990.

When Zingale ran AIDS Action, from 1997 to 1999, he hired Fisher to be his communications director and he recruited Fox to serve on its board.

In 2000, Zingale went to work for California Gov. Gray Davis. Fisher was Zingale’s spokesperson. As one of his last acts as governor in late 2003, Davis made Zingale a member of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. His term in the $114,000-a-year job expires in 2007. Fisher returned to Washington and joined HRC.

Whether these men crafted a successful message for McGreevey is unclear. For some gay men and lesbians the governor’s speech was effective because so many of them understood his experience.

“All of us in the community have been watching this story not with legal eyes, not with political eyes, but with deeply personal eyes,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, a new statewide political organization in New Jersey. “None of us had to come out to 300 million Americans… but the core of how Gov. McGreevey came out was the core of how we all came out.”

Michael Blake, president of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, said it was an unhappy moment.

“My personal reaction is I’m saddened,” Blake said. “The governor has been good friend of mine and, on the whole, a good friend of the GLBTI community in New Jersey.”

McGreevey saw a small bounce in his approval rating, from 45 to 47 percent, but that is moot. When he came out he also admitted to having had an affair with a man and said he would resign on November 15.

What is also notable about the event is how restrained Zingale and HRC are about the advice they gave, the questions they asked, and what they are willing to disclose about what they did. Zingale said he was asked by McGreevey’s staff to keep some details private.

Throughout the day, Fisher and Zingale told McGreevey’s staff that being gay and cheating on your wife, as McGreevey did, does not mean that he had to quit.

“We said we do not think the governor should have to resign because he’s gay.” Fisher said.

When Fisher and Zingale learned later in the day that McGreevey would resign, both men said they did not ask why.

“The last thing I remember saying was, ‘Is it negotiable? Would the governor be willing to talk to me about it?’ and I was told no,” Zingale said.

Fisher could not remember if he asked why the governor was ignoring HRC’s advice.

“I don’t remember, I honestly don’t remember,” he said. “What we do is we provide information on coming out and the best way to do that.”

When Jacques appeared on “Nightline” on August 12, the late night news show, neither she nor Fisher told “Nightline” about HRC’s assistance to McGreevey.

“We were never asked,” Fisher said and added “We haven’t had a single complaint about that.”

Had the producers of the national news show known, however, they would have revealed HRC’s efforts. They might have had a hot story about what happened behind the scenes and HRC would have a chance to boast on national television.

“We would have appreciated it if she would have told us,” said Emily Lenzner, spokesperson for “Nightline.” “We did not know that anybody from the HRC had consulted with McGreevey. If we had known, we would have done a full disclosure.”

The reluctance of HRC to be more out front about its discussions with McGreevey’s staff may stem from what Zingale and Fisher kept calling the “circumstances surrounding the affair,” circumstances that they said they were not told about, that they did not ask about, and that they learned about in press reports with the rest of the nation.

When McGreevey came out, when he confessed to adultery, he was also effectively admitting that he put his boyfriend on the state payroll.

In 2002, Golan Cipel, McGreevey’s alleged boyfriend, was hired to be the governor’s special assistant on homeland security at a salary of $110,000 a year. He could not get a security clearance for the job—he is an Israeli national reported to have with no relevant job experience—and he was made “special counsel” to McGreevey, according to the Home News Tribune, a New Jersey paper.

Cipel lasted just months in his state job and then he was hired by MMW Group, a public relations firm that had significant business with New Jersey. Weeks later he was hired by State Street Partners, a lobbying firm that went on to hire James Kennedy, the best man at McGreevey’s wedding and his best friend.

The McGreevey administration has been dogged by corruption since taking office.

On August 18, Charles Kushner, a real estate developer and a major McGreevey campaign contributor, pled guilty to trying to blackmail a witness in a federal investigation into federal campaign funding irregularities. There is no evidence that McGreevey is a subject of this investigation.

The Daily News reported on August 18 that Kushner sponsored Cipel’s work visa in the U.S. and employed him at a public relations firm.

David D’Amiano, a McGreevey fundraiser, was indicted in July on federal extortion charges. While some evidence in that case suggests McGreevey’s involvement, he has not been charged in this case.

All of these circumstances certainly make McGreevey’s coming out less than prideful. They could also subject HRC to charges of having provided aid and comfort to a corrupt politician. But Gay City News found no one in the community who would make that charge.

On the contrary, even people who saw McGreevey’s coming out as a crass public relations gambit to distract attention from his unethical behavior said the governor deserved the HRC’s help.

“They should have helped him,” said Ethan Geto, president of Geto & de Milly, a lobbying firm.

Geto said McGreevey “exploited the fact that he is gay in a cynical, political way,” but the moment still benefited the wider community.

“Some of the language they helped craft I think made his life and the trials and tribulations that accompany a life in the closet more cogent and more sympathetic to the average American,” said Geto, a longtime gay and Democratic Party activist.

And the core function of queer community groups, any group, is to assist the community from its best to its worst members and McGreevey is one of those members.

“Given the pervasive homophobia in many quarters of society he, in effect, deserves some help,” Geto said. “Anyone who has lived in the closet, who knows its pain, its suffering, deserves help. In that sense it’s sort of a service we provide as a community.”

Emily Giske, a longtime Democratic Party activist and an HRC board member, echoed that view even as she made it clear that HRC was not approving McGreevey’s behavior.

“I think that there are a lot of people in the LGBT community who are extremely disappointed in the circumstances of Jim McGreevey’s coming out,” Giske said. “A lot of friends and colleagues of mine were very disappointed that Jim McGreevey chose to come out not when he was on his way up, but when he was on the way down.”

Nevertheless, the community had worked with McGreevey on pro-gay legislation. He was a friend and now he belonged.

“They weren’t endorsing what he was doing,” Giske said. “They didn’t say we endorse him.”

Community solidarity may not hold if there are more revelations about McGreevey. In an interview on August 17, Goldstein was sympathetic toward McGreevey even as he was outraged by the governor’s behavior. The following day, he called Gay City News to say “In the first few days, you want to give somebody like the governor your full-throated support. After that many of us say to ourselves ‘My God, this man put his lover on the state payroll in a job for which the lover was totally unqualified.’”

That outrage might become “more salient” with time, Goldstein said and HRC might feel some of that anger.

“To what extent did HRC help?” Goldstein said. “If the HRC helped him to come out and on the wording I don’t think that any of us would have a problem with that. If it went beyond that to outright political advice, that’s a different story.”

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