My core group of supporters still felt I should serve out my term, but not run for reelection. I wasn’t convinced that was penance enough for my transgressions. What I did was not just foolish, but unforgivable. Hiring a lover on state payroll, no matter the gender, was wrong. I needed to take my punishment—and to begin my healing out of the fishbowl of politics. At the last minute, I decided to rewrite the last section of my speech.
We held the press conference that afternoon. Members of my staff were crying uncontrollably as I entered the statehouse, holding Dina by the hand. Accompanying me that day was the last thing in the world she wanted to do, but she was the picture of composure in a crisp blue suit and a guarded smile. We took our place on the dais before a hundred microphones, next to my unhappy parents.
I thought I would be queasy, racing through my resignation in a blur of words. But an easy silence fell on my mind and everything seemed to stand still. It was as if nothing mattered in the world besides this moment.
History books will all say that I resigned in disgrace. That misses the point entirely. Resigning was the single most important thing I have ever done. Not only was I truthful and integrated for the first time in my life, but I rejected a political solution to my troubles and took the more painful route: penance and atonement.
If my relief at finally coming out made me momentarily ebullient, I soon sank into an agonizing depression. A week before the press conference I had enjoyed a relevance and influence. Now I was trivial and inconsequential.
I felt a need to be doing something. And so during the last days of my administration, in total secrecy, I began drafting an executive order that I knew was going to detonate like an atom bomb. I wanted to take on the “pay-to-play” system of New Jersey politics. No one benefited from pay-to-play more than I did. Under my rule, the party had raised tens of millions from developers and lawyers who then were awarded handsome state contracts in return. The system, though perfectly legal, was morally corrupt and indefensible. I’d taken a million ethical shortcuts to climb the ladder, all the time thinking that that was the only way to amass enough power to serve the collective good. But in the end I’d done a great deal of damage.
There was no way a politician with a future in New Jersey would strike a meaningful blow to the system. But to borrow George Wallace’s phrase, I was “the lamest lame duck there could be.”
My order prohibited donors from receiving significant state contracts if they had given any money to a winning gubernatorial candidate, the ruling state party, or the ruling county party boss within eighteen months of the contract’s disbursement.
At the end of my political career, I was as integrated on a policy level as I’d become on a personal level. It was my proudest moment.
On November 15, 2004, I left Drumthwacket and the statehouse for good. I tried to imagine what our lives would look like once we’d put this behind us. There would be a divorce and complicated negotiations about raising our daughter. I prayed that Dina would find happiness and maybe even the strength in her heart to stop being angry.
For my future, I forced myself to imagine a career in public service that didn’t involve elected office. I doubt that it’s possible to live as a totally integrated person and succeed in the backrooms of America’s political system. That, more than my sexuality, would prevent a comeback. Nonetheless, I hoped to find a place in public life where I could perform a valuable service, where I could be uncompromised and of use.
Mostly, I allowed myself to picture a life organized in harmony with my heart. I fantasized about being in love, really in love—ordinary, boring, romantic love, the kind that takes you into old age, the kind my parents still have.
James McGreevey now lives in Plainfield, New Jersey, with his partner, financial adviser Mark O’Donnell. He is working as an education-policy consultant.