John Degnan is pretty much a walking symbol of the Irish American dream.
He has held high political office in New Jersey and was also a top executive with the Chubb insurance company. Just this week, Degnan was nominated by New Jersey governor – and possible presidential candidate – Chris Christie to serve as chairman of the embattled Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
It has been a long – and ironic – journey for the Degnans from Ireland to the boardroom.
“My grandfather was an Irish immigrant who wasn’t literate,” Degnan told an interviewer from Rutgers University in 2006.
“He was a part-time gardener for (the Chubb family) in Llewellyn Park (New Jersey) where the Chubbs had an estate. Two generations later there is not a Chubb left in the Chubb Insurance companies, and I have one of their offices.”
Even the interviewer, NJN News reporter Michael Aaron, seemed taken aback by this swift advancement.
“Let me get this straight, your grandfather was a gardener for a Chubb … and you are now (vice chairman)?”
Well, if Degnan has lived the American dream he is now walking into what has been a nightmare for the embattled Christie. If Degnan – a registered Democrat – rights the rocky ship that is the Port Authority, Christie’s presidential aspirations might get back on track.
On the other hand, if Degnan presides over a body that remains dysfunctional and coughs up yet more unflattering revelations for Christie, it could be the final nail in a coffin that will be buried bearing a “Christie 2016” sticker.
Furthermore, powerful critics have already slammed Degnan as too cozy with Christie.
“John Degnan has demonstrated not once, but twice, that he will not be the independent watchdog the Port Authority needs,” Democratic State Senator Ray Lesniak has said.
“Under previous Attorney General Dave Samson, the Port Authority became a subsidiary of Christie’s re-election and presidential campaigns. Based on John Degnan’s recent history, we can’t expect that to change.”
Lesniak was referring to previous times when Christie called upon Degnan for advice and assistance. First, when Christie failed to renominate Democrat and former State Supreme Court justice John Wallace in what critics called a hyper-partisan move by Christie.
Degnan also served on a gun violence panel that made no major recommendations in the wake of high profile gun crimes. Insiders have suggested that Christie does not want to seem soft on the Second Amendment, an issue of vital importance in the Republican race for president.
Lesniak’s harsh words could spell trouble for Degnan and Christie. The state Senate – in theory anyway – is supposed to advise and consent on Christie's nomination for the Port Authority chairmanship.
Despite Lesniak’s criticisms, supporters note that Degnan has an impeccable political resume.
He was born in 1944 in West Orange, outside of Newark. He attended Catholic schools all the way up to college, before heading off to Harvard Law School. In the mid-1970s he became a close advisor to fellow Irish American, New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, who eventually appointed Degnan to serve as state attorney general, a position Degnan assumed when he was just 33 years old.
Degnan served as attorney general until 1981, when he resigned to run for governor. Degnan had Byrne’s endorsement, but did not connect with voters and finished fifth in a crowded primary field.
Degnan then entered the private sector, rising up the ranks at Chubb.
The Degnans of north Jersey are a prominent Irish American political family. His uncle, Ben, served as mayor of West Orange while his father served as a judge.
Taking part in the Rutgers research project, documenting Byrne’s time in office, Degnan spoke at length about the Irish and politics in New Jersey.
“Like most immigrant groups…politics was a way up and out for the Irish Catholic community in Essex county. They did it for two reasons. They broke out of the stereotypical buckets they were put in. And they also did it in my experience based on a real perception that they could influence the lives of people they cared about.”-
The question now is this: will Degnan’s own considerable influence help – or hinder – Christie’s drive to the White House?
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)