UNION COUNTY, NJ — Sen. Raymond Lesniak was hard-pressed to think of a regret in his political career while he sat down for an interview with LocalSource at the Suburban Golf Club in Union on Oct. 17. He paused for a long time, thinking about it.
“One of the things that popped into my mind earlier was that I didn’t run for governor earlier, but I don’t know that you can call that a regret because that wasn’t on my mind,” he said.
Lesniak, who is not running for re-election to the state Senate after an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, was equally at a loss as to what he’d miss in the Senate.
“Sad to say, I can’t think of anything,” he said with a chuckle.
Lesniak, 71, has served in the state Legislature for almost 40 years, representing Union County first as an assemblyman in the 21st and 20th districts, then as a senator for the 20th District since 1983.
The Union County native grew up in the Bayway section of Elizabeth and went on to sponsor major legislation, such as gay marriage and the abolishment of the death penalty.
He has become frustrated with the state Legislature after all this time, part of his reason for running for the gubernatorial nomination. Lesniak wanted his platform to be heard during that race, but admits he didn’t have enough resources to make that happen.
“No one paid much attention to me because I didn’t have the money to get it out on a statewide basis,” he said.
Lesniak, who is the second-longest serving lawmaker in New Jersey — behind Sen. Richard Codey — said his grassroots organizing skills will be effective in influencing public policy. And that’s what he plans to focus on after leaving office in January.
He has already filed papers to create a nonprofit organization that will act as an “advocacy line” for the same issues he’s been championing during his tenure, such as civil rights and the protection of the environment and animals. The working title of that organization is Turning Your Passion into Action.
The senator also said he is in talks with higher education institutions to set up a Lesniak Institute for Public Advocacy. The project would include lecture series and classes to teach younger generations how to become involved and effectively create public policy.
“The process of getting grassroots people involved, as opposed to my colleagues in the Legislature, is in and of itself more invigorating,” he said. “I started the grassroots movement during my political campaign and I believe it’ll be more effective on an issues basis.”
Lesniak’s replacement in the Senate will inherit his senatorial courtesy to appoint members to the Kean University Board of Trustees, the institution’s governing body.
The senator has been supportive of Kean University President Dawood Farahi, even through several scandals. And while he’s had a “beef” with the Kean faculty union’s president, James Castiglione, has generally been supportive of other labor unions, like firefighters.
“No organization is right all the time,” Lesniak said. “When the labor unions fight for featherbedding or … against efficiencies in doing their job, I’m going to oppose them. I’m not going to blindly support anyone or any philosophy.”
Castiglione said in a brief statement that the faculty union, the Kean Federation of Teachers, “wishes Senator Lesniak well in his retirement.”
Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan, the Democratic frontrunner for Lesniak’s seat, has been an outspoken critic of Farahi throughout the years. And Lesniak and Cryan have butted heads recently too; he paused for a moment before speaking about Cryan.
“Joe Cryan has been a very responsible sheriff and Assembly person, so I expect he’ll be of good service to the county,” Lesniak said.
The senator retired from the law firm that once bore his name, Weiner Lesniak Law Group, in January. The firm has made millions from public contracts after Lesniak made campaign contributions to local politicians, The New York Times reported in 2006.
“I’ve been retired from the law firm since January. I may hook up with another firm after I leave the Senate,” Lesniak said. “A firm of counsel so that I can broaden my public advocacy, because right now I can just represent myself.”
For example, he’s currently representing himself in an appeal of a $225 million settlement with ExxonMobil over pollution from oil refineries in Linden and Bayonne, Lesniak said. Lesniak still has several bills he’s sponsoring that are in the pipeline. He plans to push at least two through during the lame-duck session, including his criminal justice reforms for expunging individuals’ records and an expansion of the recovery high school in Roselle named after him.
State Assemblyman Jamel Holley, a Democrat who represents the 20th District, which includes four Union County municipalities, called Lesniak a “progressive champion” in an Oct. 23 statement. He said there was no “prouder moment” for him than standing next to Lesniak in his home to officiate one the first same-sex marriages in the state in 2013.
“Senator Lesniak’s service to Union County and the state of New Jersey is unparalleled,” Holley said. “He’s been a progressive champion and I know that he will continue to be among our state’s most prominent advocates for social and economic equity, and animal rights. New Jersey residents will benefit from his work as a public servant for generations.”
Despite nearly 40 years in politics, Lesniak considers himself an outsider, and asserts that both the Democratic and Republican parties in the state have become too powerful.
Standing up to powerful interests, like the petrochemical industry and the Catholic church, have made him into what he considers a “hybrid,” both an outsider and establishment politician.
“The injustice always drove me,” Lesniak said. “The reason I was so effective was because I was an insider in terms of institutional politics. But to be able to be an insider to work the institutional politics, I had to be part of the establishment.”
Lesniak said he’d never run for state Senate again, but does not rule out running for a statewide gig.
“Statewide office, I would consider it, but it’s not on the top of my to-do list,” he said.