Ray Lesniak: “I was a progressive before there were progressives”

After thirty-nine years of unabashedly progressive legislation, New Jersey State Senator Raymond J. “Ray” Lesniak is not afraid to brag: “There is no other legislator in the history of the state of New Jersey, or in any other state, that has sponsored more progressive and more effective environmental protection laws than I have.”

Indeed, Lesniak has been intimately involved in historic environmental legislation. He was assigned by the Byrne administration to be Assembly Foreman for the 1979 Pinelands Protection Act where his job was to obtain the necessary votes to pass the NJ State Assembly. In 1984, he sponsored the Safe Drinking Water Act. In 1985, he sponsored the Pinelands Development Credit Program, to “protect environmentally-sensitive land, while working with landowners to promote appropriate economic development.” All these bills were passed and signed into law.

UPDATE

  • 4/24/2017: Nosey’s law was not vetoed because it didn’t pass the legislature. Lesniak played golf with Trump on a different course.
  • 4/27/2017: Corrected belief on marijuana being a gateway drug, and the marriage equality bill.

Lesniak has not just created laws, he’s personally defended them in court. Over the past century, ExxonMobil has left widespread contamination at two former refinery sites in North Jersey, and gas stations throughout the commonwealth. The state sued the company in 2004, originally arguing that it was entitled to $8.9 billion for remediation. In 2015, Governor Chris Christie reduced this amount by 97%, settling for $225 million. Lesniak has been fighting this reduction since before the settlement was officially announced and is taking the Christie administration to court next month in an attempt to overturn it.

Environment: From ECRA to ISRA

In 1980, Lesniak sponsored the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act (ECRA). It became the first law in the country to require companies to pay for the clean-up of properties before they could be sold. In 1987, the Environmental Law Reporter called it “one of the newest and most powerful hazardous waste cleanup statutes in the nation.”In 1993, the law’s thirteenth year, Science Direct said, “New Jersey is the only state in the U.S. that has such a comprehensive law.” When companies later tried to argue that the newer national Superfund law allowed them to ignore New Jersey’s ECRA law, Lesniak took them to court and won.

In 1993, ECRA was replaced with the Industrial Site Recovery Act (ISRA). On page two of a Villanova study of the law’s transition, it stated that ECRA’s “original sponsor, State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, has admitted that ECRA was an obstacle to economic development in New Jersey.” However in our interview*, the audio of which is at the top of this article, Lesniak insisted he meant the opposite—that he was expressing the business community’s sentiment, not his own. Lesniak called ECRA “the best thing for economic development in the state of New Jersey, [and the business community] now realizes it was a lifesaver for our economy.”

While both ECRA and ISRA have the same “transactional based cleanups,” the study says ISRA “modifies the worst aspects of ECRA [but is] only a first step.” In important areas, however, ISRA “represents true reform.” During our interview, Lesniak agreed, stating that ISRA protects the environment without being overly restrictive to business. He concluded, “I prefer to start with very strict requirements and then adjust accordingly, as long as the original intent is being adhered to.”

Environment: Climate change

Lesniak believes in the science of climate change. His first priority in fighting it is to stop the three major New Jersey pipelines and invest instead in renewable energy. He has testified against all of them: Pilgrim, PennEast, and Pinelands. He talks about creating a world-class mass transit system and implementing smart technologies for lights, thermostats, and hot water heaters. In the interview, he referred to his environmental platform which aims to make New Jersey fossil fuel-free by 2050. “If we allow these pipelines to go through,” he says, “we will make New Jersey fossil fuel dependent for an additional century.”

When Lesniak was asked during a recent town hall meeting if his opposition to the three pipelines means that he is 100% against all fossil fuel pipelines and fracking, his answer was simple and emphatic: “Yes.”

This elicited a cheer from the crowd which was filled with Bernie Sanders supporters. In addition to agreeing with his view, they were also perhaps reminded of a memorable moment during the 2016 Democratic primaries, when, during the Flint, Michigan debate, when Hillary Clinton was asked if she supported fracking. It took Clinton eighty-two words to essentially say, “Yes, I support fracking with conditions.” To the same question, Sanders responded, “My answer is a lot shorter: No. I do not support fracking.”

Lesniak said, “I don’t mince words. I take a stand.” He paused to clarify that there are times when he is less decisive, but, “for the most part, I have very strong views, and I fight for them, and I get ’em done.”

Criminal justice reform

An issue where Lesniak admits to having a less definitive answer is marijuana. He is the only prominent Democratic candidate for governor who does not support legalization. He agrees with research declaring that marijuana is not a gateway drug, but Lesniak’s experience with the students in his recovery school (described below) leads him to believe that it is indeed a gateway drug “for some, particularly youth.” In a June 2016 editorial, Lesniak stated that, “The current evidence-based science says ‘no’ to legalization of marijuana while social justice concerns say ‘yes’ to decriminalization.” In other words, he supports eliminating the harshest of penalties such as jail time, but not lower-level penalties such as citations and fines.

There is a plethora of research that says that marijuana is not harmful and also reduces ailments and aggression, but Lesniak cites a contrary 2015 study that analyzed the effects of legalized medical marijuana in Colorado (it was not legalized for recreational use until a November 2016 referendum). The study showed dramatic increases in marijuana related traffic deaths, emergency room visits, calls to the poison control center, and exposure of those under eighteen, including babies. It showed a modest increase in drug-related crimes and no decrease in the black market. Because of this conflicting information, Lesniak believes that “more research is needed to determine the full impact of legalization.”

Beyond marijuana, Lesniak sponsored a bill that ended mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders—a law that has dramatically reduced the state’s drug-related prison population and saved tens of millions of dollars. He says rehabilitation costs $20,000 a year per person, versus $50,000 to imprison them. To prevent recovering addicts from returning to the environment that enabled their addiction in the first place, he created the Raymond J. Lesniak Experience Strength and Hope Recovery High School, the only school of its kind in the state. He adds proudly that its first graduate has just finished her first year at his alma mater, Rutgers University.

Lesniak also sponsored a bill to end the death penalty, wrote a book on the subject, and delivered a speech in France in 2009 that earned him the country’s Memorial de Caen International Human Rights award. The Senator recalled that when Governor Jon Corzine signed the bill, Corzine told him privately that it “was the proudest moment in his life.”

On another important criminal justice topic, Lesniak says, “I have said from the get-go that Black Lives Matter.” When asked his opinion of “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” he said,

They diminish the fact that black lives have been put in harm’s way by our law enforcement community, to an incredibly higher degree than any other lives…. Black lives are in greater jeopardy for the same offenses [than] someone that looks like you or [me].

Lesniak emphasized he does not believe the problem is caused by law enforcement, but, rather, by the judicial system.

Interestingly, Lesniak strongly supports sports betting and online gambling, especially as part of a plan to save a struggling Atlantic City. The gambling industry calls Lesniak “a longtime champion of gambling in the Garden State.” In 2014, he sponsored a bill to expand online gambling to those residing outside the state, calling it “the $30 billion Big Kahuna.” Beyond helping Atlantic City, how does someone so sensitive to substance abuse support an industry that enables addiction of another kind? Although he did not answer directly, he assured that a significant amount of the tax revenue would be used for addiction counseling and for enhancing online gambling software to automatically detect addictive behavior by its users.

Money in politics

Our Revolution is an organization created by Bernie Sanders, so it’s no surprise who their members supported in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Who did Lesniak support? “I supported Hillary, but I was not involved in the primaries.” He says a major reason for supporting Clinton over Sanders was loyalty to her husband. Lesniak was close to the former president for ten years and also led the presidential campaigns of both Bill Clinton and Al Gore in New Jersey.

Regarding Bernie Sanders, Lesniak praised how “he has brought to light the dark side of the Democratic Party and the dark side of politics” by educating people on “the corrupting influence of money in politics.” Lesniak continued that “that alone has done a tremendous service to the future of this country.” Lesniak said that, like Bernie Sanders, he “would not have a chance in this election against [Phil Murphy’s] 20, 30, $40 million, if it wasn’t for social media.”

Speaking of money in politics, Lesniak was asked about how his support for candidates has often been followed by contracts for his law firm, Weiner Lesniak. (He founded the firm almost thirty years ago and retired from it in January, shortly before announcing his candidacy.) Lesniak replied, “Shocking, isn’t it? Are you supposed to hire people who donated to your opponent?” This is the same response he gave in 2006 to the New York Times:

“I don’t deny that,” Mr. Lesniak said of the connections between his support and contracts for his firm. “People say, ‘You raise money for people who get elected and then they hire your law firm.’ I go, ‘Shocking, isn’t it?’ Are you supposed hire people who donated to your opponent?”

Instead of hiring a firm that supported any candidate, I asked if perhaps one should only be allowed to hire a law firm with no interests in the election at all. Lesniak responded that, if that were the case, then “they are going to get very inferior representation…. You are eliminating some of the best law firms [in the state].” He acknowledged that some firms may abuse the campaign finance system in order to increase their position, but insisted that “Weiner Lesniak is not one of them.”

Lesniak and his firm operate strictly within the law, but does he believe that these laws are truly just? He said that, for “every single pay-to-play reform, it creates an opportunity to not only get around that reform, but hide it from the public. Until Citizens United is repealed, campaign finance reform just doesn’t work.” Unless that changes, he said there is nothing New Jersey can do to improve the situation.

Lesniak did suggest one concrete step that can immediately be taken to reduce corruption: take some appointment power away from the governor and give it to the people. For various boards around the state, including the Port Authority, New Jersey Transit, and the Pinelands Commission, he suggests that there should be at least a couple of seats appointed by organizations which are not beholden to politicians.

There are examples that suggest Lesniak has used lax campaign finance laws to his own advantage. In 2014, he created a national super PAC, fueled with nearly $200,000, and used it to overwhelm opponents in a local school board election—unpaid positions in a district with just 25,000 students. Lesniak’s chosen candidates took control of the board, winning two of the three seats. When asked about using a national dark-money entity in such a local election, Lesniak said, “I’m not going to stand by while the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson pour money into campaigns I don’t agree with.”

Lesniak has also dramatically revoked his support for a former political ally, as in the case of former Plainfield Mayor Mark Fury. In 1993, Fury, who was new to politics, won his first term with Lesniak’s endorsement and support. After a year in office, Fury claimed that Lesniak’s firm was overcharging the town and he attempted to pull Plainfield out of its contracts with the firm. In 1997, Fury lost his re-election bid, partially due to Lesniak withdrawing his support. Lesniak said “[Fury] lost because he lost all support in town. It was not a good choice on my part. He was not a good mayor.” When Fury’s successor took office, the contracts were reinstated.

After the experience, Fury left politics for two decades, returning only after Trump was elected president. [Disclosure: I interviewed Fury months before meeting Lesniak or knowing about their connection.] I later asked Fury about the incident, but he would only reply, “I will tell you this much: I was a very good mayor. I was a poor politician.”

Treating all living beings with dignity

Of Lesniak’s many passions, something that sets him apart from his fellow candidates is his leadership on the topic of animal rights. Lesniak has sponsored several bills to prevent inhumane treatment and poor conditions for animals. Two recent bills  have been signed into law by Governor Chris Christie: the first is a “trophy ban” barring the import of animal heads and other “trophies” hung on the walls by hunters, and a second banning the import of valuable animal parts, such as ivory tusks.

Two other animal rights bills sponsored by Lesniak did not become law: Nosey’s Law would have banned the transport of elephants in train cars for entertainment. It did not pass the legislature. The other would have banned the gestation crates commonly used to hold pregnant pigs, which passed but was vetoed by the governor. Lesniak said he believes the veto was due to Christie’s 2016 presidential ambitions. He only half-joked, “There are more pigs in Iowa than, probably, people.”

Lesniak’s bill to ban puppy mills passed the legislature last month and is awaiting the governor’s signature. The drop-dead date is May 1st; with no action, the bill becomes law. The animal breeding industry stands to profit (“hugely,” according to Lesniak) if the bill is vetoed. Does Lesniak think this bodes well for its passage? “No it doesn’t. Let’s hope. He’s on his way out. I don’t want to speculate. Let’s hope he does the right thing.”

Regarding human rights, Lesniak has led the charge in New Jersey for LGBT rights and marriage equality. In 2010, he sponsored the New Jersey Marriage Equality Act. This is despite, at the time, its only being supported by thirteen of the state’s twenty-three Democratic senators. He also co-authored a book on the subject. In 2013, New Jersey became the fourteenth state to allow same-sex marriages and honor the licenses from other states. Lesniak hosted the first same-sex wedding in the state in his living room, with the ceremony beginning at 11:30 pm on October 20th, 2013; exactly one half hour before the law took effect. The couple were the lead plaintiffs in the suit against the state. Two years later, in 2015, the United States Supreme Court would make marriage equality the law of the land.

Closing statement and golfing with presidents

Lesniak begins, “Why I am running for governor”:

The passion that I have shown in being a champion for the environment, being a champion for women’s rights, being a champion for animal protection, being a champion for reducing income inequality [such as by] closing the education gap and supporting a minimum wage that’s a living wage. That record sets me apart from everyone else…. You show me someone who has a better record on the environment in this country. You show me someone who is better on criminal justice reform in this state or this country. Or on LGBT [rights]….


Yes, I am bragging. My record stands out. If I can get that message across I’ll certainly win this Democratic nomination and also the general election in November.

Our interview took place at the beautiful Suburban Golf Club in Newark, New Jersey. Aside from a single employee, we were the only ones on the upper floor of the building, surrounded by twenty already-set tables. There is a bar and spa downstairs that remained open, but the club had otherwise closed early due to the rain.

Lesniak pointed out the window and reminisced about beating President Clinton in a round of golf on this very course, near the end of Clinton’s second term. The scorecard from that game is framed and hanging in Lesniak’s home, with a note that says: “Ray, you won. Bill Clinton.”

Lesniak has also played golf with Donald Trump on Trump’s own course in Palm Beach; that time on the same team, and years before he ran for president (when he called himself a Democrat). What does he think of Trump’s golfing skills? “He cheats.”

I don’t say that indiscriminately! … It is well known in golfing circles that Donald Trump cheats at golf…. Golf is seen as a sport of integrity. You will see professionals report themselves [for a violation]. They say if you cheat at golf, you’ll cheat at anything.

As for Ray Lesniak himself, he does not pretend to be perfect. After the interview, while saying our goodbyes, he told me, “We’re not electing a pope.” He then smiled and joked, “Even the pope is not a pope.”


Postscript

Lesniak is the only New Jersey gubernatorial candidate (and if elected, may be the only New Jersey governor) ever nominated for a Grammy award. He played accordion in a polka band called “Jolly Rich and his Polka Stars,” whose 1972 album “Polkas With A Kick” was nominated for Best Album. The album cover art is below.

*Our interview took place on Thursday night, April 6, 2017, as a follow up to the New Jersey gubernatorial meet-the-candidate forum featuring Lesniak at Dadz Bar and Grill in Lumberton, New Jersey. The event, the fifth in a series, was hosted by Our Revolution: South Jersey, of which I am a founding member.

By: Jeff Epstein


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