The year was 1985. I was a freshman member of the legislature in my mid-20s. I had been elected after a tough campaign beating a popular Republican incumbent, yet, knew virtually nothing about government and the way it worked. I used to think that if you made speeches on the floor of the Legislature, or got lots of bills passed, you were doing “good government”. But it wasn’t until I met with Cary Edwards, who at the time was Governor Tom Kean’s chief legal counsel, that I really started to understand how this game worked.
Governor Kean had line item vetoed several spending bills from the state budget, and some of those items were mine. When I was called into the governor’s office to meet with Cary Edwards, he couldn’t have been more of a gentleman. He was a class act in so many ways, but he also made it clear what was and was not acceptable. What I mean is Edwards talked to me about what true “bi-partisan cooperation” was all about. Compromise. Give and take. He also made it clear that the verbal sniping that I was doing against the administration to score cheap political points in the Democratic Party Caucus or in my district back home weren’t particularly helpful in working effectively with the governor of the opposite party.
It was in fact Cary Edwards who talked to me—on the merits—about specific Kean policies like the Transportation Trust Fund, which would provide a stable source of funding for crumbling roads and bridges in the state. It was Edwards who explained to me the benefits of specific Kean programs on education and the environment, again, on the merits, and the positive impact these policies would have on the people of New Jersey, be they Democrat or Republican. The bottom line was that it was then that I began to understand how effective government really worked, something you don’t see very much these days either in the Statehouse in New Jersey or in the Capital in Washington. Sadly, Cary Edwards passed away this week, way too young at the age of 66, after battling cancer for several years.
In addition to being chief counsel to Governor Tom Kean, he served as the state’s Attorney General, was a member of the Assembly and also ran twice for governor. Sure, Cary Edwards was a Republican, but he wasn’t the kind of Republican you see today. People like Senator Jim DeMint, a hardcore, right-wing ideologue who there is simply no talking to. I’m not convinced Cary Edwards would have been a fan of this whole Tea Party thing. That’s right, he was a Republican who had his beliefs, but what was set in stone was not ideology or a conviction that he was right on everything but, rather, a desire to accomplish meaningful actions. Unlike the Tea Party, Cary Edwards didn’t hate government, but rather was always hopeful about what government could accomplish under the right circumstances.
Cary Edwards was committed to trying to do the right thing, as opposed to just believing he was always right. He was a moderate, which sometimes seems to be a dirty word in politics these days. It’s why he didn’t win the Republican primary for governor—twice. He wasn’t “conservative” enough. He would have been a great governor. He would have been bold, imaginative, fun to listen to, and someone of tremendous integrity. I can’t tell you how many times early on in my career after I left the legislature in 1986 that I reached out for Cary who gave me advice on so many things. He was always there, whether it was helping me understand who to talk to about a particular subject or where to go in Disney World. That’s right, Disney World. Cary loved talking not just about policy and politics, but family trips to Disney World. He was obsessed. He would go all the time and kept saying to me, “Come on, Steve, what is wrong with you? You haven’t gone to Disney yet?” Finally, when I took my family a couple of years ago, it became clear to me what Cary was talking about. I wish I had gone sooner. I also wish in the last few years while Cary was sick (but fighting as always to get funding and support for the NJ State Commission of Investigation where he served as chairman) that I had reached out to him more.
We’ve lost some pretty special people on the New Jersey political scene recently. Not too long ago it was Bob Franks. This week it is Cary Edwards. Both of them just happen to be moderate Republicans, but what they had in common was decency, character and a tremendous love for the state of New Jersey and its people. You are never going to replace Cary Edwards. Ever. And for those who knew him, they know exactly what I’m talking about. He will be missed indeed.