How Ray Lesniak Became a Force in NJ’s Bruising Political World

In "Cultivating Justice in the Garden State," Ray Lesniak details 50 years in politics.

Ray Lesniak book cover

Ray Lesniak, a longtime Assembly member and state senator, grew up in Elizabeth.

In Ray Lesniak’s recently released book, Cultivating Justice in the Garden State: My Life in the Colorful World of New Jersey Politics, the former power broker from Union County details how he became a major force in the bruising world of state politics.

A longtime Assembly member and state senator, Lesniak grew up in a working-class Polish immigrant family in Elizabeth. He later attended Rutgers University, dropping out twice and enlisting in the Army, before earning his degree and going to law school.

He says he wrote the book, published by Rutgers University Press, to lay down the record on his accomplishments during his past 50 years in politics.

“I’ve passed some of the most significant laws on environmental protection, LGBTQ, criminal justice reform, social justice, and animals rights of anybody in the state,” said Lesniak in an interview. “A lot of people see me first and foremost as a power player, which I was, but as I write in the book, you need power to get good things done.”

A former New Jersey gubernatorial candidate who lost the primary to Governor Phil Murphy in 2017, Lesniak recounts in the book the key causes that he championed, including a landmark Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act, and bills on marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, and the abolition of the death penalty.

The book has an introduction by former President Bill Clinton, who became friends with Lesniak after Lesniak supported him when he was running for the White House in 1992.

It also has chapters on the saga of former Governor Jim McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 under pressure after it was revealed that he was gay, as well as on Lesniak’s loyalty to Rutgers University.

After decades as a Democratic party boss and self-described “dealmaker” in Trenton, the most remarkable thing about Lesniak’s colorful career is that he avoided the traps that snagged so many other Jersey players that ended up disgraced. Even when close friends like McGreevey and former state Sen. John Lynch crashed and burned in corruption scandals, Lesniak skated by unscathed.

Earlier this year, a political consultant who worked closely with Lesniak became the focus of yet another Jersey scandal. Appearing before a federal judge in January, Hudson County campaign adviser Sean Caddle pleaded guilty in a murder-for-hire hit on Michael Galdieri, a rival operative from Jersey City.

Caddle’s plea and delayed sentencing have fueled a storm of speculation that the feds are pursuing some dirty business that could end up soiling other Democratic insiders.

In our recent interview with him, Lesniak said he is as shocked about Caddle as everybody else. And angry— especially after Caddle called him up on the day his plea became public.

“I’m angry that while he was working on my campaign, he was plotting somebody’s murder,” said Lesniak. “That’s what I’m angry at.”

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