Sundance

01.18.13

Jim McGreevey Says He’s Given Up Politics, Embraced a Simpler Life

Once a young pol whose rise was dashed in a coming-out scandal, the former New Jersey governor says he’s done with politics, which is too driven ‘by ego, by self’—and he's focused on family, faith, and his job working with women prison inmates.

Jim McGreevey—who forever will be remembered for his declaration, “I am a gay American,” as he resigned the governorship of New Jersey amid a sex scandal  eight years ago—is nothing if not likable.

He has a virtuosic talent for connecting with human beings, especially fragile human beings, and he clearly revels in exercising that talent, dazzling anyone he encounters with people-pleasing charm and then basking in reflected affection.

It’s easy to see why the female prison inmates he works with—several of whom are featured in Fall to Grace, Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary about the ex-governor’s new life, premiering Jan. 18 at the Sundance Film Festival and on March 28 on HBO—trust and accept him. It’s also understandable why McGreevey would be somewhat amazed that a successful politician—namely Chris Christie—doesn’t seem to care if he’s likable or not.

“I almost winced at his reaction to Speaker Boehner,” McGreevey tells me, shaking his head and laughing at New Jersey governor Christie’s recent takedown of the House Republicans for delaying federal aid to the victims of superstorm Sandy.

“Tradition is, you don’t blow up the United States speaker of the House, least of all from your own party. But if you could see the damage at the Jersey Shore, I think the governor was properly just outraged. These are people’s lives, these are people’s homes, these are people’s jobs. People are hurting, people died, and the time for silliness, debate, and procedural motions is over. And Chris—in his usual subtle, nuanced way—said what ought to have been said.”

We’re sitting against a back wall at Gene’s, a linoleum-floored Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village whose décor, McGreevey assures me, hasn’t changed since before World War II. It’s a place, he jokes, where you half-expect “someone to run out of the kitchen screaming ‘the Nazis have attacked Poland!’” At 55, his gray hair cropped in a buzz-cut, he wears jeans and a navy sweater with a tiny hole forming at his left elbow—hardly the picture of a power broker. Then again, neither is Christie.

Unlike Jon Corzine, who was elected governor in 2005 in the aftermath of his fellow Democrat McGreevey’s downfall, Republican Christie has gone out of his way to show respect for his battered predecessor, whose political career abruptly ended when his secret lover, Golan Cipel, threatened to go public. The handsome Cipel was an Israeli citizen whom Governor McGreevey had put on salary as New Jersey’s unlikely (and unqualified) homeland security adviser.

But that was long ago. Last year Christie conspicuously named McGreevey to a state task force on opiate addiction (PDF) and met with him to discuss Integrity House, the drug treatment center where he’s a salaried staffer as an addiction recovery specialist. First lady Mary Pat Christie, meanwhile, joined McGreevey in a public ribbon-cutting ceremony for Integrity House’s Newark facility for recovering women ex-cons and their children.

“The governor has a longstanding commitment to treatment,” McGreevey says. “He served on the board of an organization, Daytop New Jersey, that specializes in addiction treatment for juveniles—so this is part of his DNA.”

“I was the quintessential young man in a hurry.”

I ask if he thinks Christie should run for president, an office that McGreevey himself was once widely assumed to covet. “I was the quintessential young man in a hurry,” he says. (This was before he came out at that nationally televised press conference and spent six months under treatment in a trauma and addiction center in Arizona, and both he and his former first lady, Dina Matos McGreevey, the mother of their young daughter, Jacqueline, engaged in a bitter, tabloid-ready divorce, wrote competing confessional memoirs and willingly turned themselves into ratings-drivers for Oprah.)

“Ultimately I’m a Democrat,” McGreevey says. “But I think [a Christie campaign] would provide for a very different Republican presidential candidacy than what we’ve seen in the past. And given that the governor enjoys the breadth and width of support that he does in New Jersey, it would demonstrate his capacity to be embraced by a much larger bandwidth than has happened in recent elections.” Translation: Why not?

McGreevey, who until his crackup had been running for office more or less continuously since 1989, claims he’s personally finished with elective politics. “I’m completely done,” he insists, never mind that it’s possible these days for an openly gay candidate not only to be elected to a House seat and a powerful committee chairmanship (e.g., Barney Frank of Massachusetts) but also to win statewide office (freshly minted Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin).

“It’s just so ridiculously expensive,” McGreevey laments. “And as I watched the Lincoln movie, I recognized that certain things haven’t changed—the wheeling and the dealing, and how Lincoln had to secure votes for the 13th Amendment.” He adds: “Politics is so much driven necessarily by ego, by self, by sustaining the money chase, the political chase, the message chase, building and maintaining coalitions.  And now, for me, it’s getting up, it’s my family, my faith, it’s the ladies with whom I work.”

But even if McGreevey doesn’t contemplate a return to politics, that doesn’t stop him from being politic. When I ask for his thoughts on the jockeying between Newark’s 43-year-old mayor, Cory Booker, and New Jersey’s 88-year-old senior senator, Frank Lautenberg (who apparently authorized an anonymous aide to trash Booker as “shameful ... self-absorbed, and disrespectful”), McGreevey says blandly: “Cory is grappling with the decision of whether or not to run for the United States Senate … I think that’ll work itself out in time. The political dynamic of New Jersey is always hardball.”

No more hardball, of course, than McGreevey’s divorce, alimony, and child-custody battles with Dina (who became his second wife in 2001; he has another daughter, Morag, from his first marriage to Canadian Karen Joan Schutz, whom he met on a vacation cruise, married in 1991, and divorced six years later—having furtive sex with strange men all the while).

“Life goes on, and life works,” McGreevey says, adding—probably wisely—that “I prefer not to discuss” the War of the McGreeveys, nor even whether a truce has finally been declared. “It’s been eight years.”

The messy divorce, and the lurid publicity it generated, reportedly figured in McGreevey’s being denied ordination two years ago by the Episcopal Church—to which he’d converted from Catholicism after coming out. He’d gone on to study and receive his master’s in divinity from the General Theological Seminary with the goal of becoming a priest.

“For me, being gay—and the [Catholic] Church had taught—was ‘abominable sin.’ It was worthy of hell,” McGreevey says, explaining why he fled the religion of his Irish-Catholic upbringing. “That’s also what’s sad about me and my friends who are Catholic, whether they’re gay or straight, or straight and divorced. It’s just that religion and faith ought to be a place of support, of nurturing, of transcendence, as opposed to condemnation … In many ways, religion can become paternalistic, regimental, rigid, patriarchal, and be stifling as opposed to ennobling.” As for his ambition to be a priest, “for now,” McGreevey says, “I’ve put that up on the shelf.”

It has been seven years since McGreevey clapped eyes on Australian-born financier Mark O’Donnell at a fundraiser for a nonprofit. It was like-at-first-sight, as O’Donnell recounted during his September 2006 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote his boyfriend’s book, The Confession. Now they each wear a golden commitment ring—“His is simpler … not as nice,” McGreevey jokes—and live together in a 17-room Plainfield, N.J., mansion designed by Frederic Law Olmstead, the landscaper of Central Park.

“Mark is a great blessing,” McGreevey says. “‘Somebody has to afford your good works,’ Mark says. He’s incredibly supportive and understanding in my work with the women. Not only by virtue of the stories I bring home, but also hearing the phone calls of the women who are in trouble, the women who relapse, the women who have problems with their children. They call at all hours.” O’Donnell, who is six years younger, seems supremely patient with his famous partner. “If anything,” McGreevey says, “I’d drive him nuts—never the inverse.”

McGreevey and O’Donnell would like the option of marriage, but “we don’t have gay marriage in New Jersey,” McGreevey says—because last February, his friend Chris Christie vetoed the bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage.

“I look forward to the day when marriage is accepted fully,” McGreevey says. “There ought not be gradations of marriage; all persons ought to be treated equally. We passed domestic partnership when I was governor [and in the closet]. I was not publicly in favor of gay marriage then … But there can’t be one status for straight America and a lesser status for gay America … My sense is that the public is far ahead of the political class, and especially for the next generation, it’s a yawn. The shelf life of those who would oppose it is diminishing rapidly.”

So, I ask, has he lobbied the governor?

“No,” McGreevey answers. “I’m not involved in politics any longer.”