With a new HBO documentary and a revived career away from politics, the former governor sits down with South Jersey Magazine to talk about using the past as a tool to move forward.
There are two men who appear in the beginning of Fall to Grace, a new documentary debuting on HBO. One is a magnetic political superstar. He rubs elbows with the likes of Clinton and Gore and delivers fiery, impassioned speeches from behind the podium. With powerful political ties and jet black hair, he is charismatic with an intimidating streak – everything we imagine a New Jersey politician to be. The other man is disarmingly ordinary. He mows his lawn and warmly greets random strangers. He counsels drug addicts and spends Christmas Day ministering to female prisoners. With his closely shaved gray hair and relaxed blazers, he has the effect of a thoughtful college professor.
The two men, from all appearances, have nothing in common. Except for one thing: They are both the same man. They are both Jim McGreevey.
Or, to be clear, one man was Jim McGreevey. He is not the man who, when asked to recall his lowest moment, tells South Jersey Magazine that “the ego can be a dangerous entity.” The man who, as Fall to Grace director Alexandra Pelosi puts it, “does more good work than everyone I know on the island of Manhattan.” A man who shucked off all manner of public ambition and yet, through his intimate work with a small group of broken women, may hold the key to fixing our country’s broken prison system.
How does a disgraced ex-governor get from there to here? To quickly recap the familiar part of McGreevey’s story:
* Taking the political fast track, he ascends from mayor of Woodbridge Township and a seat in the state Senate to become governor of New Jersey in the 2001 election.
* Amid rumors and a pending sexual harassment lawsuit, McGreevey holds an Aug. 12, 2004, press conference in which he resigns as governor, outs himself as gay and reveals he had an affair with Golan Cipel, his self-appointed homeland security adviser.
* He pens a memoir titled The Confession and undergoes a messy divorce and custody battle with his ex-wife Dina Matos, the proceedings of which provide countless pages of juicy tabloid fodder.
For most of the public, that is where McGreevey’s story ends. They would be surprised to discover the degree of equilibrium that has returned to his life. Seven years ago, McGreevey met Mark O’Donnell, a wealthy financier; the partners live together today in a mansion in Plainfield. They share custody of Jacqueline, the daughter McGreevey, 55, fathered with Matos. By all accounts, he leads a fulfilled life. “I would say,” says State Sen. Ray Lesniak, who remains a friend, “he’s peaceful, content and happy. … He’s not hiding who he is.”
McGreevey’s resignation was a bombshell, but it’s clear the moment represented his turning point. “The worst day of his life was the best day that ever happened to him,” says Pelosi. From there, the act of rebuilding his life began to take shape. Having always wrestled with the idea of joining the seminary, the former Roman Catholic became an Episcopalian and attended the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church with the goal of becoming a priest. “Seminary provided me an ideal three years, not only to look at life in the rear-view mirror, but most importantly, in the front view,” says McGreevey. “[It allowed me] to try and make sense of life, but also understand where I could be of most service.”
The answer to that came from a dean at the seminary, who suggested McGreevey participate as an advocate in a prison re-entry program. The work proved gratifying, and he followed his newfound passion closer to home at the Newark-based Integrity House, where he crafted a spirituality curriculum to help others battle the disease of addiction.
Through the program, he counsels women who are jailed in the Hudson County Correctional Center. In group and one-on-one sessions, he urges them to find God and a purpose, and to take ownership of their lives. He helps them find mentorship upon their discharge from the jail, and doggedly follows up to try and make sure they don’t fall back into their addiction-addled ways.
Pelosi’s footage in the prison reveals the unabashed affection the women have for McGreevey, and he for them. “Jim is a very personable human being who has a great deal of caring for other people,” says Rev. Geoffrey B. Curtis, the rector at All Saints Episcopal parish in Hoboken, where McGreevey received training in his bid to become a priest. “It is very evident when you are in conversation with him that he is a very compassionate and considerate person.”
It’s clear why they gravitate to him; as a man who has surmounted his very public failures, he speaks from experience about walking the necessary steps back toward stability and happiness. “I often say that I am that woman in jail,” says McGreevey. He draws no distinction between himself and the women he tends to. They all must follow the same path.
And it’s clear McGreevey has found his calling. Asked about his future career path, he matter-of-factly states, “I’ll always be working in prisons with prison advocacy.” His plans of becoming a priest, he admits, are shelved for the near-term. Despite having his degree and completing his training, the church denied McGreeevey’s previous attempt.
Multiple reports painted the Episcopalian church as wary of his rapid conversion (the church does allow gay priests), and wanted time for McGreevey to create distance from his controversial past. For what it’s worth, McGreevey seems to have his hands full with his current vocation. “Just between family and my work with the women, it requires a substantial amount of time, going from jail to court visits to community work,” he says.
“It’s rewarding, and at this point of my life, it’s where I’m blessed to make the greatest contribution.”
As for a full return to the big top of politics, that is a future no one close to him foresees. McGreevey has copped to having all the wrong motivations for entering politics: to stroke his ego and fill his constant need for admiration. Having spent time with him during the past two years, Pelosi feels this current version of McGreevey is incapable of being a politician again. “I think I have a really good sense of that, because I’ve been around enough people who have that kind of ambition,” says Pelosi. (And she should know, having filmed several political documentaries in addition to growing up in a political family as the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.) “I don’t smell the scent of [that] ambition on him for a second. I don’t think he would even consider it. He’s in a much better place. He has a whole new value system.”
Yet even though McGreevey hasn’t actively courted the spotlight, attention is finding him due to his success. The recidivism rate through his Hudson County Correctional program is 22 percent—a massive improvement over the nation’s rate of 66 percent. The U.S. Department of Justice has lauded the program as one of the top two in the country and a model of reform.
“The way we do prisons and jails in America is largely a failure,” says McGreevey, who was an assistant prosecutor and parole board director early in his career. His passion on the subject surges through as he speaks at length about the failings he sees. He cites the “staggering financial burden” placed on a country where one out of 32 people are in the system—either in prisons or jails, on probation or on parole. He casts dismay over the fact that drug-addicted and violent women are cycled through without any attempt to heal them. It drives him nuts that prisoners aren’t expected to work. “In our program, everybody works,” he says. “Everybody gets up in the morning, brushes their teeth and makes their bed. For me, it’s about changing behavior.”
Others have begun to listen. Gov. Chris Christie last year named McGreevey to a state task force on opiate addiction. Fall to Grace shines a light on the plight of jailed women as much as it does McGreevey. “Having a high profile individual like Jim as a ‘champion’ of this cause,” says Robert J. Budsock, the president and CEO of Integrity House, “has helped increase awareness at the highest levels in the state, the criminal justice system, and within the counties that we serve to the fact that individuals can reinvent themselves, achieve a sustainable recovery, and lead productive and fulfilling lives.”
And there is no greater example of that than McGreevey. This Jim McGreevey feels that connection, and he refuses to let it go. “We all share a life journey,” he says. “We all have ups and downs. And we all want the same thing: a good family, a hopeful future for our journey, and to be guided to try and do the next great thing.”
Before the ‘Fall’
How a reluctant film subject began to see the whole picture
Alexandra Pelosi heard the stories of Jim McGreevey—the good work he was doing, his life after his very public fall—and thought it would make a good documentary. But when she approached the ex-governor and his partner Mark O’Donnell with the idea, they declined. “He never really wanted a documentary about him, so [it] made it very difficult,” recalls Pelosi, a filmmaker and author with an inclination toward political subjects. “When you make a documentary about someone, you get them to sign a release.
He never signed a release.” Undeterred, the New York City resident hung around and pestered McGreevey enough to allow her to follow him.
The result is Fall to Grace, which is scheduled to appear on HBO Thursday, March 28. Despite his initial reluctance, McGreevey is unflinchingly honest in the film, on everything from the ignominious end of his political career to the Catholic church. The distance between him and his days as a politician clearly shine through. “I think a really sharp-eyed viewer would [see] that this is my take on politicians,” Pelosi says.
Shot over the course of two years by Pelosi with a single camera, the film closely follows the work McGreevey does in the Hudson County Correctional Facility. The struggle of the jailed women to overcome addiction and re-enter society receives almost as much airtime as McGreevey himself. Pelosi frets the film could pierce the comfortable little bubble of his life, but McGreevey (who attended the premiere of the film at Sundance with Pelosi) is thrilled that the focus is cast elsewhere. “I think what’s special about the film is not particularly me,” he says, “but the stories of these women, whose transcendence is a powerful testimonial to the human spirit.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 12 (March, 2013).
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