When Raymond J. Lesniak speaks during legislative hearings, people tend to listen.
The Democratic state senator from Elizabeth — first elected to the body in 1983, after five years in the Assembly — has built a reputation as someone who gets bills passed.
That distinction has increasingly become important to the state’s business community, as Lesniak has developed an economic focus as chairman of the Senate Economic Growth Committee. From championing Internet gaming to sponsoring the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program that encourages development, Lesniak has put himself at the center of business interests in Trenton.
It’s a role he’s grown into, Lesniak said.
“I’ve become more and more able to be bold in my policy initiatives, without being concerned about ruffling any feathers or upsetting any apple carts,” he said.
Lesniak prides himself on being outspoken about how he sees things, so he doesn’t see any problem with calling Gov. Chris Christie “the most vindictive governor that I’ve ever served under” while still offering him praise.
“In many areas, the governor’s not been reluctant to do what’s necessary to change the governmental structure in order to get our economy going and get jobs created,” Lesniak said, citing civil service and pension and benefit reform as key areas. “I’m not saying that I agree with all of them — or the way they were done — but I do agree that things have to change, and they are changing.”
Lesniak is responsible for introducing elements of reform, too, such as the Economic Stimulus Act he crafted in 2009, which introduced the Economic Redevelopment and Growth grants, an incentive program that funds projects through future tax revenue.
“It’s the most powerful economic development and job creation tool that any state in the nation has,” Lesniak said, citing Revel Entertainment‘s casino and American Dream Meadowlands, née Xanadu, as two projects that, “without the ERG, would have been just white elephants.”
“Now, because of ERG, they’ll be employing thousands of people, thousands of building trades jobs, thousands of permanent jobs and bringing tens of millions of dollars of revenue in the state of New Jersey. That’s the power of ERG.”
Carl J. Goldberg, a principal with Roseland Property Co., in the Short Hills section of Millburn, said the ERG law is a good example of Lesniak putting his experience to good use, by building bipartisan coalitions for bills that improve the state’s business climate.
“It’s changed the entire mindset on what it’s like to do business in New Jersey in a decidedly positive way,” Goldberg said. “I think the strength of the ERG program is the ‘but for’ test — that in order to be eligible for this type of assistance, they have to be doing something that (is) creating new tax revenues that would not exist but for the project itself.”
Lesniak’s next push is likely to win less support from the private sector — a bill barring employers from disqualifying ex-offenders from employment, with an exception allowing employers to excluded applicants whose crimes relate to the particular job to which they apply.
“If the doors to employment are unreasonably closed to them, they’re not going to ex-offenders for long, they’re going to be repeat offenders,” Lesniak said. “I think it’s important for the business community to recognize that.”
The senator’s agenda has put him at odds with some old allies, such as Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter. Tittel, who volunteered for Lesniak in his unsuccessful 1980 mayoral bid in Elizabeth, said the candidate “was a reformer running against the machine — I’m not joking.” During the 1980s, Lesniak built a reputation as an environmental champion, sponsoring measures affecting pollution, toxic cleanups and wastewater.
The two have since parted ways, but remain cordial.
Of Lesniak’s legislative acumen, Tittel said the senator is “one of those people that makes Trenton a very unique place. He can be a lot of fun, and also he can be pretty hard to deal with.”
Veteran State Street lobbyist Arthur Maurice, president of Tonio Burgos & Associates of New Jersey, said the combative Lesniak has matured into a statesman.
“It’s one thing to have great ideas, but another when you want something done,” Maurice said. “When you have an idea, there is no question that on economic development and job issues, you want someone who can understand them — who can be persuasive in his arguments, but also knows how to accomplish them, knows how to get bills through. And that’s Ray Lesniak.”
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