The Loss of a Legend

By Bill Castner

Last night New Jersey lost a legend.  Alan Rosenthal will never be replaced, never be forgotten and — by his beautiful wife Lynda, his family, his colleagues at Eagleton, his students, and hundreds of Democratic and Republican officeholders and nonpartisan staffers throughout the country to be sure — will be missed forever.

Alan was an academic but a realist.  He was brilliant but colloquial.  He worked in an ivory tower, but possessed some of the deepest state house relationships on both sides of the aisle I’ve ever witnessed in my life.  He authored nationally acclaimed books and had degrees from Harvard and Princeton but rarely gave a speech in which his self-deprecating humor and incredible wit weren’t on full display.  

He accepted absolute-guaranteed-to-anger-the-world-jobs in New Jersey (chair of the legislative ethics board, tiebreaker for redistricting commissions, chair of a committee to overhaul campaign financing to name a few) basically because, as he once said, “Christ, state legislatures gave me my career – I figured I can give back a little.”. You left your mark Alan.  We will miss you.   

One quick personal story.  Although not a distinguished graduate student at Eagleton by any measure, I was at least smart enough to schedule an appointment with Alan at his office at Woodlawn in December 1996.  I didn’t know Alan well, and he didn’t know me, but I told him that I really wanted an internship with the Office of Legislative Services to learn bill drafting.  Alan stared at me for a couple seconds, picked up the phone and called Albert Porroni, the Executive Director of OLS.  “Hey Al, listen, I got this kid here who wants to intern with you, he’s pretty good.  Can you find a spot for him?”  Lucky for me, that’s how I got my first job in the New Jersey State House.  I’m pretty sure Alan called me a kid because he didn’t know my name.

There are hundreds of stories just like mine – Alan basically making people’s careers.  

What I didn’t know or appreciate at the time was that a large reason an OLS even existed, or Senate and Assembly partisan offices for that matter — not only in New Jersey but in numerous state legislatures throughout the nation — was because of Alan Rosenthal.  Alan was really the leading academic in the late 1960’s and 1970’s that paved the way for the professionalization of modern state legislatures.  

Knowledge is power and state legislatures generally were subservient to and did not have the capacity of the Executive Branch in the 20th century:  less resources, less information, less knowhow.  Yet Alan firmly believed that if state legislatures were going to be an equal branch of government not just on paper but in practice they needed strong committee structures, strong ethics laws, and most importantly strong staff.  In New Jersey, former Assembly Speakers Tom Kean Sr. and Alan Karcher picked up on Alan’s work and strengthened the institution of the legislature here in New Jersey.  

The American Political Science Association and National Conference on State Legislatures gave Alan national awards based on his pathbreaking writings and contributions.  Alan Simpson, Paul Sarbanes, and Willie Brown are among the many who have cited Alan as being a major influential force on their careers and I can’t think of a former New Jersey legislative leader who hasn’t frequented Alan’s classroom at Eagleton and benefitted from his wisdom.

As an educator, Alan groomed an entire generation of future political leaders, staffers, operatives and lobbyists.  One time in his class on lobbying, he called up a student and said “pretend I’m a legislator and you’re a lobbyist.  Get me to support your bill.”  The student began with small talk with Alan.  “Hey, how is your wife?”  Alan’s quick response, “You know I’m divorced, right?  Lesson learned.

 As a bit of a contrarian, it is therefore classic Alan Rosenthal that his final book turned out to be on Governors.  But if you think about it, how could Alan not have been contrarian?  He loved state legislatures.  Who loves legislatures?  Alan did.  That’s why Alan was probably the only human being in New Jersey who seemingly loved the shutdown of state government in 2006.  He viewed it as the Legislature trying to show a spirit of independence and stand up to the Executive Branch.

It should not be surprising then that in 2001 Alan decided tested the old adage sometimes attributed to Otto von Bismarck:  there are two things you don’t want to see made, laws and sausage.  Well Alan traveled to a packing factory in Ohio to test the quote by observing modern sausage making for a piece he wrote in State Legislatures magazine.  His conclusion?  Sausage-making today is nothing like lawmaking:  sausage-making today is efficient, it is sanitary, and people actually work together.  On the other hand, lawmaking is much more accessible and definitely more complex.

Alan, I really hope you now will be walking around the halls somewhere up above like you walked around so many of those State House hallways throughout the years:  studying colorful characters, collecting and sharing wisdom with others, developing great friendships, and wearing a grey blazer with that old necktie with small prints of the state of New Jersey, basically doing what you love.

At Eagleton last year, Alan said one of his career goals was for the people he was writing about to read his books and say “this is how it is.”  So if you ever wonder how the State House works, what the secret handshake is, and why government and politics is such a beautiful thing, please read Alan Rosenthal’s books because yes, Alan, you nailed it: that’s exactly how it is.

Goodbye my friend and mentor.

Bill Castner is a former Executive Director of the Assembly Majority Office. He is currently a partner at Gibbons P.c.

The Loss of a Legend