Editor's Note: Guest blogger Barbra Casbar Siperstein was the first transgender member appointed and confirmed to the Democratic National Committee, and is currently a member of the DNC Executive Committee and the deputy vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. In addition to being the president of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, she's a published author, small business owner, veteran, and a grandparent.
So far 2014 has been a wild and eye opening year for politics in New Jersey. Early GOP Presidential favorite Governor Chris Christie, who some have referred to as the "Teflon Man", may actually have that impenetrable skin scratched by the "Bridgegate" scandal. But was the real reason for the order to close lanes on the world's busiest bridge a move against Christie's longtime political nemesis, State Senator Loretta Weinberg, a 78-year-old Jewish grandmother considered the state transgender community's political godmother?
Democratic Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, may not have been the only target of Bridgegate. The initial theory was that the lane closings were intended as retribution against Sokolich for not endorsing the Republican governor in his re-election campaign. New e-mail evidence suggests that the closings could have been aimed at Majority Leader Weinberg for blocking the Governor's state Supreme Court nominees. Fort Lee is in Weinberg's legislative district.
Bridgegate, Judicial Nominees, & the Weinberg Connection
Just one day before his Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an e-mail to the Port Authority suggesting "traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie made an extra loud kerfuffle at a press conference complaining that Weinberg and other Democrats planned to challenge his reappointment of tenured Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens. At the time they had not actually done so.
"I simply could not be party to the destruction of Helen Hoen's professional reputation," a fuming Christie told reporters at an August 12 press conference after he decided to remove Hoens, a Republican, from the bench in order to spare her the ordeal of being challenged. "I was not going to let her loose to the animals." Animals!
Then, on the morning of August 13, Kelly fired off her now-infamous email: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
The governor had been feuding with Weinberg and the Democrats over Supreme Court nominations dating back to 2010, when he torpedoed the reappointment of Justice John E. Wallace Jr.
"People are speculating now why this was done. The whole thing is bizarre,''...but I can't get it through my head,'' Weinberg said, "who said this is a way to exact retaliation on somebody: cause a traffic jam in Fort Lee?"
As a longtime politician, she said, the idea of political payback doesn't surprise her. She told the NY Post that Christie's tirade "rolled off our backs because we're kind of used to this behavior. Calling the people who were elected to run the state Senate 'animals'... We disagree with him therefore we are animals."
What kind of an organizational culture fosters this kind of vindictive mentality?
Weinberg also believes there's more to the story. "The governor hasn't come clean yet,'' she said. "Either he didn't want to know or he knows and he's not telling the truth."
So far Deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly has been fired, David Wildstein has resigned, as well as Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, and Christie's campaign manager, Bill Stepian, was taken out of contention as the new Chair of the NJ Republican State Committee and adviser to the Republican Governors Association. Chief of Staff O'Dowd's nomination to be NJ Attorney General has been put on hold. Who is next?
But back to my political godmother, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg...
The Birth of a Trans Godmother
In November 13, 2000, I was proud to be part of a group of trans and gender variant women, several from Fort Lee, who met with then-Assemblywoman Weinberg to introduce ourselves and present the reasons to create and amend laws to protect the lives of New Jersey transpeople. She was welcoming, honest, candid and supportive. Since that time she has been a primary sponsor or co-sponsor of every single piece of trans-inclusive legislation.
I was a newbie at that meeting and for the most part was quiet and listened and observed. There was something about her that was real and special that I could relate to. Since no one in our group stepped up, I decided to write the assemblywoman a letter of thanks for meeting with us. It was historic; it was the first time a group of openly trans people had met with a New Jersey legislator.
In 2003 Loretta was the prime sponsor of the New Jersey domestic partnership legislation. As a member of the Domestic Partnership Task Force, I had a chance to work with her and get some firsthand political, organizing and legislative experience and we developed a personal relationship. Her family and other state politicians have heard her tell the story about when, during a meeting at her Teaneck office, she received a phone call from California telling her she had become a grandmother for the first time. Everyone present came up to hug and congratulate her and when I did, I said, "I'm a grandfather too, you know!" We've been friends ever since.
In 2006 she signed on as a co-prime sponsor of our TransEquality Legislation (a gender identity specific employment, housing, and public accommodations nondiscrimination law) and led it to passage with a 65-5 vote. Governor Jon Corzine quickly and privately signed it into law in December, but sometimes we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
That same month Governor Corzine signed the civil unions law. As President of NJ Stonewall Democrats, I was also active in our marriage equality movement and was on stage for the signing. When I got up to speak, I was able to make reference to the Transequality law and the need for more LGBT equality while thanking and congratulating all who made the civil unions law possible.
As a prime sponsor of the civil unions bill, Loretta was also on stage for the ceremonies. Before she addressed the gathering - including the Governor, former Governor, Senate President, Assembly Speaker, many other elected officials and activists, she asked if she could tell the story from the day she became a grandmother for the first time. I didn't hesitate and said, "Yes, of course!" Ever since, she has told that story at political gatherings.
The Art of the Possible
As our political godmother, she has been there as a primary or co-prime sponsor for all our trans specific and inclusive LGBT laws - including the TransEquality and anti-bullying laws, amending the states bias crimes law, and outlawing reparative therapy. Now she is championing legislation aimed at modernizing the policy for transgender people to change the gender marker on their birth certificates.
I still follow her basic advice from that meeting in 2000: "Politics is the art of the possible!" We can talk all we want about political science, but it's the art of using all the tools available as well as the personal touch that can get the job done!
Earlier this year I was honored as a "Champion of Civil Rights" along with activists from the African-American, women's and immigration civil rights movements. Senator Weinberg introduced me; she recounted the "grandfather" story as well as a Woody Allen quote: "80% of success in life is just by showing up". Indeed, had I not shown up to that meeting that day in Loretta's office, I wouldn't share this bond with her.
The lesbian and gay leaders who organized that original meeting at Weinberg's office in 2003 did not invite me, I actually "crashed" it. Sometimes you have to be proactive. Political advocates who like to complain but don't move beyond their desks should think about it.