Five former governors tell it like it is

A one-of-a-kind meeting of New Jersey’s past governors – Brendan Byrne, Thomas H. Kean, James Florio, Christine Todd Whitman and James McGreevey – drew a battery of media and many of the state’s movers and shakers to NJPAC’s Chase Room on Thursday afternoon.

The Governors’ Summit, an hour of congenial reminiscences, collective knowledge and occasional slap-downs, was moderated by NJ Spotlight Editor John Mooney before an invited audience of 180 guests. Coordinated by Ruthi Byrne, wife of the two-term Democratic governor (1974-1982), the event was sponsored by Sun National Bank and PwC.

Many of the pointed comments centered on the state of public education, with Kean (R, 1982-1990) posing a challenge to the state to stem the migration of “some of our brightest and best” students to campuses outside New Jersey.

“If you think the cost of education is bad, wait until you find out the cost of ignorance,” remarked Florio (D, 1990-1994).

A question concerning recent controversies over hiring practices in the Rutgers University athletic department brought a sharper response from the participants.

“I’d say to the politicians, shut up about this issue,” Kean said. “Every politician advising them what to do at this point is not helpful. … Were there mistakes made? I think so, but that’s not what’s important. Let Rutgers alone. Rutgers will clean up its problems.”

When asked to offer advice on Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign strategies, Whitman (R, 1994-2001) suggested he focus on his re-election, then excel at his work. “Frankly, if you don’t do the job here well, the next ones don’t come along,” said the former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

governers-thumb.jpgShe also turned to McGreevey (D, 2002-2004), who now educates and ministers to incarcerated women, and expressed disappointment at his choice to resign from office as well as admiration for his doing so. “I know that his passion for the state made that a very difficult decision,” she said.

As is his custom, Byrne broke up the panel by unpacking bits of folksy humor, including this observation: “In New Jersey, if you’re not getting something for nothing, you’re not getting your fair share.” As for New Jersey’s reported $34 billion debt? “I could have run the state for the rest of the century on $34 billion,” he quipped.

A special hour-long broadcast of the Governors’ Summit may be heard on June 6 at 6:30pm via Jazz 88.3 FM/WBGO.org.

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