King of the Queen City
Jerry Green has become a political power in Plainfield and beyond.
By BOB CONSIDINE
PLAINFIELD -- The first ceremonial shovels were being readied for the ground to commemorate a new senior center on East Front Street. But before the first dig came the acknowledgment of the foundation.
"He always supports you," Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said to the crowd at the July 3 event. "He's representing the 22nd District -- but he's ours."
Somewhat in contrast to the enthusiastic applause, Assemblyman Jerry Green languidly strode to the podium and spoke in his typically measured tones about how a project like this gets off the ground.
It wasn't thrilling. It was just the truth.
"A lot of people in the city may not want to accept it, but the people around the state of New Jersey understand the position I hold in Trenton when it comes to these types of functions," Green said. "Basically, it comes down to my committee. And if I feel it's good enough for the state, I pass it on to the governor."
This would also seem like a no-nonsense explanation of how and why Green, 68, has emerged as a powerful figure in Plainfield and the 22nd District, particularly in recent years.
In fact, over the past month, Green has seen the long-awaited groundbreaking of the $15 million senior facility that met his plan of being free to the city, as well as approval of two budget changes he solely supported in Gov. Jon S. Corzine's notably tighter $33.5 billion budget -- one that appropriates $9 million in charity-care funding for the Solaris Health System at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center and another that provides $450,000 to Plainfield's Operation CeaseFire.
Back in March, Green's bill to establish a joint committee to ensure access to affordable housing was also signed into law. He's also flexed his political muscle locally with his involvement in the recent of resignation of Paula Howard, the Plainfield Board of Education's superintendent and his wish that an aging special-needs hotel in the city close.
But those who work with Green say his rise has been years in the making, constructed by his own deliberate way of discovering before deciding, his approach of applying his savvy business sense to housing and local government efforts, and his willingness to look past party lines and racial demographics for the greater good, even if it rubs some the wrong way.
All from a former butcher-turned-businessman who didn't get truly rolling in politics until his 50s.
"He is the true definition of a Horatio Alger story," said Charlotte DeFilippo, chairperson of the Union County Democratic Committee. "He started, really, with nothing. But he needed to be the master of his own fate, which I have found to be very beguiling. He's very low-key. He thinks very carefully before he speaks. And he wants to believe there's good in everyone. I think by his very nature, people listen to him -- and ultimately, I believe, that's what power is."
Some 30 years before he was trying to trim fat in state government, he tried more literal means. He graduated from Roselle High School and trained to be a butcher with the Foodtown chain.
He sought a quick promotion.
"I became a manager because I didn't want to be in a freezer the rest of my life," he recalled.
Green was a quick study. He learned how to work with budgets, to be sure, but also how to manage co-workers and the public at large. At one point, he found himself as the boss of a friend he had met through management training. And this friend was taking two-hour lunch breaks with no fear of repercussion.
Green would ultimately threaten his job.
"He said, 'But we're friends,' " Green recalled. "I told him I hear what you're saying, but it's business with me. Nothing personal."
Green was also dabbling in the real estate market, buying his first two-family dwelling at the age of 21. By his late 20s, he was making it a career. He also embarked on another career, as owner of an upscale club in Roselle called Mr. G's.
As a young and increasingly influential person in the community, Green found himself hearing the issues of local youths.
"Kids in the community approached me because they felt I could understand the problems they were going through," he said. "Up to that point, I had only just voted. But I was starting to become aware of how I could help a community by understanding politics."
City to state
So Green got involved. Working under the tutelage of Roselle Mayor Anthony Amalfe, Green was appointed to the town Planning Board in 1975. By 1981, now living in Plainfield and serving as the town's Democratic chairman, he had decided to take a greater leap into local politics.
He was met with instant resistance while running for the Union County Board of Freeholders in 1981. Leaders of the Baptist church weren't exactly wild about a club owner running for local office.
"You're put in an awkward position because I have a liquor license as part of my investment career," he said. "But it also put me in a position to make sure that whatever I was doing, I was doing it right. Having a liquor license made me look at everything twice."
Once he became successful, he wanted to know more about where his tax money was going and why, so he ran for the Union County Board of Freeholders. He served his first term from 1982 to 1984, then ran into a Reagan-era roadblock for four more years, before his next term from 1989 to 1991. He was also chairman of the board in 1990.
"I was working with different committees, countywide, whether it was the planning board, economic development," he said. "And it really became more and more interesting to me."
So Green took the next step and ran for the Assembly in 1992. It would be the start of eight terms as assemblyman, first for District 17 and later for the realigned District 22. He currently is chair of the Housing and Local Government Committee, is a member of the Health and Senior Services Committee and is the Assembly's Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore. He is running for a ninth-term in November.
Over the course of the past 16 years, he has been making his political mar with housing development and state policy.
"I wouldn't be where I am without Jerry Green," said General Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts. "I trust him with my life."
Green was somewhat slow to introduce legislation in his early years as Assemblyman. In 1996 and 1997, he was the primary sponsor of only 11 bills. But as he became more comfortable with the law-making process, Green became more pro-active. He was a primary supporter of 15 bills from 1998 to 1999, 23 in 2000-01, 50 in 2002 to 2003 and 65 in 2004 to 2005.
"I think there's a learning curve for anybody when they first work in the legislature," Roberts said. "You develop an understanding of the procedures and a command of the issues. Now his role has really grown and his ability to lead has grown. He's now a key member of our leadership team."
One breakout moment for Green was in 1999 when he helped re-secure Abbott District status for Plainfield after it had been lost a year earlier. Once the city was re-established as a "special needs" area, it meant an automatic $12.5 million for area schools.
He recalled it as a time he would go to bat for Plainfield in Trenton, even if it meant not adhering solely to the party lines.
"I had to step during the Whitman administration to get Plainfield back," Green said. "It was good for the city and it was good for the kids. I had to support (Christine Todd) Whitman's budget, because it included funds for Plainfield. It showed me you have to work with everybody if you want to get something accomplished."
Once he became chair of the Housing and Local Government committee 51¼2 years ago, Green would make sure to abide by his own personal policy of supporting a good idea, no matter who came up with it.
"What I like the best about him is he really understands what it means to support bills that are about good government," said Alison Littell McHose, a Republican assemblywoman out of District 24 and another member of the Housing and Local Government committee. "Jerry is very much a behind-the-scenes type of guy and he is one of the fairest chairmen I've ever worked with. He really makes an effort for both sides of an issue to be heard."
It was four years ago when Green endured the roughest road of his political career. He found himself in a cutthroat power struggle with the late Plainfield Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, who was championing a new Democratic leadership in the city.
Rashid Burney, one of the supporters in McWilliams's "New Democrat" movement, said McWilliams was equally as passionate about improving Plainfield.
"Al was trying to move the city forward, especially with redevelopment," said Rashid Burney, a councilman for the 2nd and 3rd Ward in Plainfield and member of the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment. "That was a cornerstone for him. He wanted a change in what was an entrenched City Hall." When Green's slate of City Council candidates were beaten handily by McWilliams' class in 2003, Green resigned as chairman of the city's Democratic Party and said he would not seek re-election -- avoiding what likely would have been a losing vote.
It was the end of a 20-year run.
"I just decided not to challenge it," he said.
Green chooses his words carefully when reflecting upon the contentious time out of respect for McWilliams, who died of renal cancer on April 6.
"He was a decent guy and he wanted to make change," Green said of McWilliams.
DeFilippo described the episode as a "small chapter" in Green's long career.
"He came up against an ambitious mayor who wanted to take (Green) out, and (McWilliams) prevailed," she said. "But you know the old saying -- whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger -- that really applied here."
That's because a third mayor term was not in the offing for McWilliams.
Although he had won an unprecedented second mayoral term in 2001 and took the party chair in 2003, many found McWilliams' choice to offer one of his own candidates (Plainfield City Council President Linda Carter) as a challenger to Green's Assembly seat too divisive for the party. So McWilliams lost the endorsement of the Union County Democrats in his re-election bid as mayor.
McWilliams would run as an independent, but it was Robinson-Briggs who won the election. And it was Green who had served as a long-time mentor to the new mayor. Through that bond, Green's power in Plainfield had been fully restored.
In fact, after the June 2005 city primaries, Green had enough members of his slate back to get his chairmanship back with the Democratic Party. He received 45 of 68 tallies back then. And he won re-election to the seat unanimously, 68-0, last month.
"Well, it felt good to get it back, because no one wants to go out like that," he said. "You don't want to go out with a tarnished legacy."
"We all wrestle with local situations from time to time," Roberts said. "Jerry has always had Plainfield's best interest at heart."
Still, there was still the matter of Green working with those in city government who once flew the flag for McWilliams. Some say there are still chilly relationships between Green and McWilliams's followers, but others have learned to work together. "I really sat down with Jerry after the June '05 primaries," Burney said. "I knew we had to work together. I mean, we could sit there and argue and throw stones, or we can try to work together for the city. For me, I'd rather be sitting at the table and contributing.
"So we found common ground. In fact, some of the projects that Al started, we now work on together. We don't have to love each other. We're not always going to agree. But we want to work for the city and Jerry does carry a lot of clout in the state."
Robinson-Briggs is well aware of local skeptics who wonder if she is just a political extension of Green. But she refuses to let that temper her praise for the man.
"He's a politician, he's a businessman and he's a family man," said Robinson-Briggs, who previously served as president of the Plainfield Board of Education. "But I think the side of him that I don't know if everyone knows is he really has a good heart. He will try and help whoever asks him for help.
"I think sometimes people might try to take advantage of that part of him, but I can't tell you how much he goes out to help the people of Plainfield," she added. "We're really lucky to have him. I hope he runs for at least three or four more terms."
There are those who see the partnership between Green and Robinson-Briggs as a positive.
"If he is supportive to Mayor Briggs, I would say he does have Plainfield's best interests at heart," said Plainfield resident Nadya Lawrence. "From what I understand, he is in the background of a lot of things, but it's all very positive."
The senior center, to be constructed by Plainfield Dornoch LLC, is the first major project to pass site-plan approval since Robinson-Briggs became mayor 18 months ago. Green insisted the mayor does make her own decisions in the city, but maintained he is there to facilitate development -- and he doesn't apologize for it given his credentials.
"I think for the first time now, people are coming to Plainfield because they recognize that with me putting a team in place, they're not going to waste time or money," he said. "They know when it comes down to it, they're going to get a business approach.
"You can't take 25 years of experience that I've gained and then ask someone who's only been in office a year and a half to take it all on. So you teach them and you train them," he added. "And you know what? We saved $4 million because the previous administration wanted to go out and finance it."
With a supporting administration back in place, Green hasn't been shy in involving himself in Plainfield's issues.
In late May, Green requested to the City Council that the Park Hotel Board Home in Plainfield's downtown business district be closed and its residents relocated to smaller group homes. The home's license expires on Aug. 31. A license would only be revoked if the facility has significant violations, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.
Green said he and his staff did their own investigation and found something more than antiquated conditions.
"We realized the hotel was not just a hotel for (special-needs) clientele," he said. "We found the hotel is now becoming a low-income hotel and that less than 100 of the 180 that live there have handicap issues."
Whether Green gets his wish or not, he insists that large hotel-type board home is a "dying breed" and that New Jersey would not approve such a facility today. To be sure, it's the last one in Union County
"It was just a question of who wants to be responsible for locating them right now," Green said. "Eventually the owners are going to be like other owners, he'll find a developer or somebody to take it off his hands because eventually those patients will be put into another city. Now we've got a homeless hotel in the heart of downtown that won't survive."
When former Plainfield Schools Superintendent Paula Howard abruptly resigned last month, Green also jumped right into that fray. His concerns were obvious. Plainfield, still one of 31 Abbott Districts in the state, didn't have anyone authorized to sign paychecks for the school's employees. And there was the matter of managing the day-to-day operations of the school system.
So he suggested perhaps someone from the state could fill in, in the short-term. Or have Howard -- who ultimately tried to rescind her resignation -- remain in the short-term for the important bookwork involved with school construction.
The school board reacted swiftly by conducting an emergency meeting to appoint its own interim superintendent and interim business administrator.
"My position was that, one, she resigned, but also she has a contract that gives her 30 to 60 days to be here," he said. "So that would have meant she would have been here to be able to (help) whoever else coming in where she's the point person and two, come back and (say), 'What can do now to move ahead?' You can't have a new guy come in overnight and do that kind of catch up."
Albio Sires couldn't help but laugh at the irony. The New Jersey congressman and former Assembly speaker had given Green the opportunity to be a deputy speaker in 2002. And Green gives Sires credit for "opening doors" for him.
But Green would still bust down his doors in his persistent effort to get state aid for the Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield.
"He was in my office every single day trying to save that hospital," Sires recalled. "The guy works hard. He knows the politics of it all and the time it takes to get things done. But still, he'd see me on the floor and say, 'You hear anything yet?' And I'd say, 'Jerry, we just talked two days ago.' "
In addition to getting charity-care funding for Muhlenberg, Green also saw to it that the hospital was able to conduct emergency angioplasties, even without cardiac surgery on site, after their application to do was denied in 1997.
"Jerry was very helpful in petitioning the Commissioner of Health in recognizing that Muhlenberg serves a unique population when it comes to minorities," said John P. McGee, chief executive officer and president of Muhlenberg. "Having those services when it's sometimes not easy to access a hospital has saved lives -- there's no other way I can say it.
"Jerry is one of the very few legislators I've worked with who has taken time out to understand this complicated industry and all of the nuances and it has had a direct impact on the physical health and the economic health of the people he serves," he added.
Green, who lost his father when he was 4 years old and is one of nine children himself, said no one is immune from affordability in health care.
"When you have so many families that are going without health benefits, that's a very scary thing," he said.
While it may be tough being Green, Green can also get tough. Last June, he joined State Senator Stephen Sweeney (3rd District) and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (4th District) in calling for a 15 percent cut in compensation costs for state government employees.
At the same time, he was one of the most vocal denouncers of Gov. Corzine's one-percent sales tax -- or "penny tax" -- increase last summer. Corzine threatened to shut down the state if his sales tax increase was not made into law. Green wasn't budging either.
"He was angry with me," Green acknowledged. "But he knows I'm a team player. He brought me into the office last year and says to me, 'Jerry, what's going on?' I said that these (lawmakers) really believe in what they believe in. These guys have to go back and justify raising a penny and not being able to give the public back some tax dollars. I was one of the 47 votes that said we're going to stand together as a team."
Green then looked up at a picture of him, Corzine and former President Bill Clinton above his desk.
"'Looking back, maybe that was the toughest decision I had to make, telling the governor I've got to support the caucus," he said.
But Green said all of his tough choices are in the name of how to serve the people -- or his customers -- best.
"Sometimes people have brought back a cooked roast," he said, recalling his food management days. "They didn't like the way it tasted. Well, OK, ma'am, do you want me to get you another one or do you want a refund? I'm going to take that one person and turn the store upside down for her."
Although he serves sporadically as a business consultant nowadays, he has cashed out on many of his real-estate investments and can afford to make his position as assemblyman is main job.
While some may view him as a mover and a shaker in Plainfield, Green said he would prefer to be known for his nuts-and-bolts business approach to politics at a time when it's most needed.
"I find that politics is changing," he said. "The world is changing. And the world is looking for people to basically respect each other. So I think one of the things I've learned over the years is respecting other people will take you a lot further."
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