As scandal swirls around New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie like the snowstorm that accompanied his second inauguration, he would do well to remember the magnificent mother of 10 he defeated by defaming her in his very first bid for public office.
He should remember Cecilia “Cissy” Laureys and the old tough guy’s axiom that what goes around comes around.
The year was 1994, and Christie was a 31-year-old attorney running for a seat on the seven-member board of Freeholders in Morris County. The incumbents included Laureys, who was known to many as “Ma” and was as good a person as was ever in politics. She was someone who proved that you can be a loyal Republican and still be a true champion for human services and the environment.
At her core as both a mother and a politician was a guiding emotion that would make a cynic scoff.
“The simple truth is that Mom genuinely loved people,” her youngest child, Christopher Laureys, said in her eulogy after she died last summer. “She loved listening to them… Understanding them…Helping them.
Christopher added, “I don’t think anybody loved a crowd as much as mom did…So much that she gave birth to one.”
She was the first woman on the town council in an overwhelmingly Republican realm and some had continued to see her as not the right kind of woman to hold office.
“She wasn’t that pearl-wearing Republican with perfectly coiffed hair and one-point-two kids,” Christopher said this week. “She was a female Colombo.”
Christopher was making reference to the TV detective of the 1970s.
“A rumpled little Italian grandmom people were very inclined to dismiss or underestimate,” Christopher went on to say of his mother. “She was happy to let them believe what they wanted.”
Her opponents would then discover that she was cracklingly smart and resoundingly resolute.
“Mr. Christie got the better of her once, not twice,” Christopher noted.
Ma Laureys was a lifelong resident of the town of Netcong and graduated with a degree in history from St. Elizabeth’s College in 1952. She taught kindergarten and then fifth grade until the birth of her first child. She had nine more children over the next decade.
Her husband, Edward Laureys, was a onetime Marine turned butcher earning a butcher’s wages, and some of the working principles she would later bring to town and then county government arose from the exigencies of raising 10 kids with modest means. Her youngest child, Christopher, would recall in his eulogy, “I remember making lunches for the entire school week on Sunday nights, how mom would have us all circled around the kitchen table, working in a smooth running assembly line. I remember how we had to reuse the wrinkled brown paper lunch bags with our names on them week after week. And how every empty plastic bread bag had to be cut in half and reused as sandwich Baggies with the help of the hundreds of twist ties mom had saved.”
She saved the newspaper comics all year to use as wrapping paper at Christmas. She kept the kids busy building little houses and forts out of empty juice cans while she played recorded classical music.
Christopher would add, “’Conserve and recycle’ wasn’t a feel-good eco-friendly slogan in the house I grew up in. It was just how things were done. I remember her showing me how to turn a bleach bottle into a piggy bank for saving pennies. I remember how she trained me to take over the newspaper route that had been handed down brother to brother, showing me how to manage both money and customers in a way that was responsible and fair.”
She was a conservative in the truest sense.
“A conservative, you conserve,” Christopher said.
Siblings were expected to assist each other in the family’s boisterous Cape Cod style house with its one large barracks rooms with three bunk beds for the six boys and two rooms for the girls. They were sometimes joined by children she took in who were in need of shelter and comfort and guidance.
And, even as she learned to make as much as possible with what she had, Ma Laureys did not forget those who were struggling with even less while facing challenges such as age or disability or addiction. She established a grass roots charity Friends In Serving Humanity, or FISH, that provided transportation to those who would otherwise have difficulty getting to a doctor or a dentist or going grocery shopping. The volunteers prominently included her children.
“Any of her teen children with a license were fair game to recruit as well,” her son, Thomas, would say in his eulogy. “The lesson was simple. People help other people.”
In the meantime, she would do a half dozen loads of laundry a day. Each child would come home to find his or her clean clothes neatly folded at the bottom of the stairs.
But one would be mistaken to imagine the Laureys household as a Jersey version of the Waltons. Christopher notes, “We were a loud Irish-Italian household. There was no small talk at dinner. It was all big talk…like politics and religion. And disagreements.”
She read three newspapers every day and encouraged her children to think for themselves and develop their own opinions.
“We were supposed to question,” Christopher recalled.
The result was three archconservatives, three flaming liberals and four centrist moderates.
“She didn’t want robots who agreed with her,” Christopher said.
She was personally against abortion, but she did not shun those who were pro-choice. And she was one pro-life person who repeatedly opened her home to teenage women who had become pregnant out of wedlock.
Pa Laureys shared Ma Laureys continuing love of history and the whole family—all 12 of them—would manage to squeeze into their wood paneled Ford station wagon for trips to museums and to colonial Williamsburg.
“I don’t know how it was done, but it was done,” Christopher said.
A similar miracle would be performed at a motel.
“All of us packing into two tiny rooms,” he recalled.
There was also a week of camping at Stokes State Forest.
“In one giant tent,” Christopher said.
Her fourth born child, Brian, was diagnosed with nonverbal autism, but she refused to consign him to an institution. She kept him home and helped organize local efforts to assist others suffering similar challenges.
When her youngest child was finishing college and her immediate duties as a mom were nearly done, Ma Laureys’ necessity-born interest in conservation as well as in human services and history along with her love of people and crowds all combined to propel her into public life. She announced her candidacy for the historically all male Netcong town council.
“She found the story of the wider world very interesting and wanted to be part of that story,” Christopher would remember. “When I came home from college, she went out into the world.”
She already knew half the town from her many efforts on behalf of those who needed help, but she still lost by 18 votes.
“And ran again,” Christopher was happy to recall.
She won the second time and, among other things, she established Netcong’s first recycling program, applying to natural resources a principle that had governed her household.
“You don’t waste them, we only have so much it,” Christopher said.
She was named Recycling Volunteer of the Year for the State of New Jersey and proved just how serious she was about environmental issues when heard that the board of freeholders in Morris County was contemplating the construction of a mass-burn incinerator near the town’s water supply. She decided to run for a spot on that governing body. She was not deterred by warnings that she was up against a slate of incumbents with a $400,000 war chest and an entrenched political machine.
“She never shied away from a fight,” Christopher said. “’Mind Over Money’ was our campaign slogan.”
She mounted a grassroots campaign against the machine and was the top vote getter. The county’s new freeholder continued to champion the environment and human services. Her desk was piled with files crammed with facts on seemingly every issue as she proved to be something that those who first met this Colombo-like mom would never have expected.
“She was a wonk,” Christopher said. “Information; she was really hungry for that stuff.”
She applied the frugal efficiency by which she had lived.
“The first freeholder board 20 years to cut taxes,” Christopher said. “And they improved quality of life.”
She was nearing the end of her first term in 1994, when a newcomer to the political scene named Chris Christie announced his candidacy. Christie learned that a gadfly with the county’s Democrat minority had asked for the minutes of a closed freeholders meeting that had among other things concerned personnel matters. The board followed the advice of its counsel to keep the papers confidential and, as a matter of procedure, the Morris County prosecutor reviewed the decision.
Just as the primary neared and the playoffs between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers had even non-hockey fans glued to the TV, Christie aired a TV commercial than ran some 400 times. The ad showed Christie sitting on a sofa, his wife beside him, bottle feeding their new baby as he falsely reports that the incumbents on the freeholders board were “under investigation” by the county prosecutor.
“That’s why I propose a strict code of ethical conduct for all elected officials,” Christie says.
The prosecutor immediately made it clear that he was only engaged in a routine inquiry and that there was no investigation. But the damage was done, and Ma Laureys was among those unseated by Christie and his running mate. Christie came in first.
“Nobody saw that coming,” Christopher would recall.
Ma Laureys was devastated.
“My mom loved the job,” Christopher later said. “I think that was why it really hurt when she lost.”
She also worried that what happened to her might deter others from going into politics.
“She would say, ‘I got into this for the right reasons…if they see what happened to me, they’re not going to do it,’” Christopher would recall.
She decided that she was going to reclaim her reputation and her seat.
“It was the first time I ever saw her fight for her, not for somebody else,” Christopher reported.
She filed a lawsuit charging Christie with slander. His immediate response was that Ma Laureys was being a sore loser who “just can’t accept the election’s over.”
“Once you get into politics, you have to expect to lose and if you do, you have to be able to do it gracefully,” he told reporters.
Ma Laureys kept pursuing the suit, seeking not money, but an apology. Christie ended up settling and publishing a letter of contrition in the newspapers.
“These advertisements were not appropriate,” Christie wrote. “I fully intend, in any future campaigns in which I am involved to be much more sensitive of the impact of such tactics.”
His campaign at the moment was for reelection to the board of freeholders. And an unbowed Ma Laureys was opposing him in the primary. He came in dead last.
“Republican voters in Morris County not only put me back in office, they restored my good name,” Ma Laureys said to rousing cheers in her victory speech at the Republican post-primary gathering at the Hanover Marriott.
She knew just how to celebrate.
“She said, ‘I’m going to Disneyworld,’” her son, Kenneth, would recall. “She literally went to Disneyworld and took all her grandchildren.”
Christie had given a concession speech at the Marriott and many in the crowd made a point of ignoring him and continuing their conversations as a sign of their disapproval. He was met as he came off stage by a man who said, “I came to watch you kiss your career goodbye.”
But Christie had connections in the financial world and he went on to become a top fundraiser for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. Christie was rewarded with an appointment as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.
As the state’s top federal prosecutor, Christie made a reputation for himself by mounting actual investigations against politicians who really did have egregious ethical lapses. Ma Laureys had forgiven him and even endorsed him when he successfully ran against the incumbent governor, Jon Corzine.
“My mom forgave him because she said he apologized and he wasn’t going to do it again,” Kenneth would recall.
That did not mean that Ma Laureys imagined Governor Chris Christie was not still Chris Christie.
“Mom would say, ‘I’ve learned in politics, you have to forgive, but if you’re smart, you also don’t forget,’” Kenneth remembered.
Ma Laureys was reelected to the board of freeholders in 2000 and she ran again in 2003. She had in the meantime suffered a stroke that caused her to sometimes substitute words that are closely related and there were some rumblings that she could be beaten.
But she could still write and read. She delivered a speech that in Christopher’s words, “blew people’s heads open.”
“She said, ‘I spent my whole life helping people with disabilities and now I have one. I can still do this job,” Christopher would recall.
She was victorious again and served one more term, which she decided would be her last. She had remained a member of the town council and continued to serve on it until last year, when she retired after a quarter century. Her son, Thomas, was then elected on with the decency she imparted to all her children.
Ma Laureys died on July 7 of last year.
“She did not know how to be idle,” Christopher later said.
She was buried at Stanhope Union Cemetery. Her tombstone said it all.
“Beloved mother of ten and servant of God and community. She made her corner of the world a better place.”
She would not likely have been surprised by Christie’s present troubles involving Bridgegate as well as the alleged use of Hurricane Sandy relief funding to secure backing for a development project.
“Like any bad little boy, he keeps breaking the rules,” her son, Kenneth, said this week.
But, even if Christie proves to be telling the truth and is found not to have been involved, his present troubles are a kind of justice, a coming around of what he once caused to go around.
Lest you despair for a political figure worth admiring, just think of Ma Laureys.