Richard Leone, Capable Liberal

Liberal intellectuals with managerial and political acumen are all too rare. Richard Leone, who passed away last week, was one of those people with an unusual combination of intellectual seriousness and practical skill, which he used to great advantage in both public service and public debate.  

Leone played a role on both the state and national stages. In his early 30s, as state treasurer of New Jersey, he was instrumental in bringing honest, progressive government to a state long known for its corrupt tendencies. Later, as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he did the same for an agency that the current governor of New Jersey has flagrantly abused. And for more than two decades, Leone served as president of the Century Foundation and focused its efforts on the critical issues of our time. Always more than a neutral manager, he made the case for liberal policy in well-turned op-eds and other articles.

Leone might have played a bigger role nationally. In 1978, five years after successfully managing the election campaign of Brendan Byrne for governor of New Jersey, Leone ran for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate. Unfortunately for him, that happened to be when Bill Bradley retired as a basketball star for the New York Knicks. Bradley beat Leone 2 to 1 in the primary.

At the American Prospect, we owe Leone a particular debt for his contributions as a long-time member of our board. I had additional connections with him. From 1999 to 2003, at his invitation and with his help, I ran the Century Institute, a summer leadership program in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for liberal college students from around the country. Living near each other in Princeton, we talked often about politics and the liberal enterprise.

Raised in Rochester, New York, Leone moved to New Jersey originally to do a Ph.D. at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and then became state treasurer at age 31 under Governor Byrne. It was under Byrne that New Jersey instituted a progressive income tax. Leone himself was directly responsible for the introduction of competitive bidding and other reforms in state contracts.

“To strike at the heart of political corruption and everything evil it represents in New Jersey,” Leone told the New York Times in April 1976, “you have to separate political contributions from government contracts, and this is what we have been doing for more than two years.”

Political scientists often assume that public officials always try to increase their power. As state treasurer, Leone was an anomaly in that respect. “I have set out from the very beginning,” he told the Times, “to reduce the power of the Treasurer and to make it awkward, if not impossible, for anyone who succeeds me to alter that reduction by grabbing back that power in the future.”

Of course, there is no permanent way to stop corruption or guarantee intelligent leadership, but Dick Leone set an example of public integrity and left a legacy of achievement that deserve to be remembered and honored. We need more like him.

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