For Bryant, the end of a long, successful career

Posted: March 30, 2007

After nearly 30 years on the New Jersey political scene, State Sen. Wayne Bryant had climbed his way to the top.

Yesterday, the Camden County Democrat took the fall of a lifetime.

Bryant, once one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, the man who drew national headlines for his work in welfare reform and went on to become the go-to guy on the state budget, was reduced to a much humbler role: The latest in a long line of politicians busted for alleged corruption by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.

Whether he is convicted of a crime remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Bryant's long, colorful and often controversial Statehouse career has come to an end.

"This is a regrettable day," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden), who has known Bryant since both were elected to the Camden County freeholder board 30 years ago. "During his 25-year legislative career, Wayne Bryant championed welfare reform, state scholarships for high-achieving high school students, and urban renewal measures. Today's news threatens to overshadow all of those worthy achievements."

It caps a bad year for Bryant, who lost his only son, 37-year-old Wayne Jr., to hernia complications last April. In September, amid the probe leading to yesterday's charges, he gave up the powerful chairmanship of the Senate budget committee. And just a few weeks ago, as investigators closed in, he announced he would not seek reelection later this year.

He is leaving behind a political life he was, quite literally, born into.

Bryant was raised in the historically black town of Lawnside, Camden County, where he still lives with his wife, PATCO assistant general manager Cheryl Spicer, and where reminders of the Bryant family's influence are everywhere.

Bryant's grandfather Horace Bryant was the first black calendar clerk for the state Assembly. His uncle Horace Bryant Jr. was New Jersey's first black state cabinet minister. His father, Isaac, an IRS supervisor, was president of the Lawnside school board. His older brother, Isaac, has just retired as deputy commissioner of the State Department of Education. And his younger brother, Mark, still serves as Lawnside's mayor.

"Public service is deeply rooted in him," said longtime friend Melvin "Randy" Primas Jr., until recently the state-appointed CEO of Camden.

After getting his degree in political science from Howard University, and his law degree at Rutgers University, Bryant joined the Black People's Unity Movement in Camden, led by the fiery and militant James "Poppy" Sharp.

Taking his place in the movement alongside other up-and-coming South Jersey African Americans - including Primas - Bryant headed a program that helped minority contractors get work.

Not long afterward, he made his first run for office, and landed a seat on the Camden County freeholder board.

Theodore "Ted" Hinson, a former Camden City political boss, said he met Bryant back then, when he was "an ambitious rising star." But, Hinson said, Bryant's foray into politics wasn't "all about ambition. He had considerable black consciousness."

Driving Bryant, Hinson said, was "a combination of ambition and compassion."

After serving two years on the freeholder board, Bryant won a seat in the state Assembly, where he went on to become majority leader - and to make a national name for himself as a pioneer in welfare reform.

In 1992, Bryant persuaded the Legislature to deny additional cash benefits to welfare mothers who had more children while on the dole.

It was his version of tough love, and not everyone - including much of his African American base in Camden - loved him for it. But the move drew national attention, and won him a lot of respect from his political peers.

They saw in Wayne Bryant a man who stuck to his principles, no matter how much controversy ensued. They also saw a keen mind.

"Wayne has always impressed people who have known him as very bright, if not brilliant, with a capacity to bring people together," Roberts said.

Bryant's career, like Roberts', would benefit from his alignment with powerful South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George E. Norcross III and the political machine Norcross led.

In 1995, Bryant moved up to the state Senate, where he continued to impress his colleagues with his knowledge of issues and the political process. And his style.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D., Union) called Bryant "a very practical politician who just got things done. But at any point in time, he could take the floor and give a firebrand speech and captivate everyone in the audience."

Bryant would go on to land the coveted chairmanship of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Fellow legislators said he was a natural; when it came to the budget process, they said, there was no one more knowledgeable.

Already known for taking care of his district, Bryant was now in a position to steer even more money to his base. He used his influence to champion a 2002 bill that funneled $175 million into depressed Camden, which he has always called "my city" despite living in a mansion in Lawnside.

Critics say the move - and Bryant's attitude toward Camden in general - was more paternalistic than compassionate.

And while ostensibly helping others, Bryant also has gained the reputation of someone who helped himself.

For example, $1 million of the Camden bailout money went to a federal health-care center run by Mark Bryant. Bryant's own law firm, Zeller & Bryant, also got $270,000 to do redevelopment work for the city. And two schools that received a portion of the funds - Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey - ended up giving Bryant part-time jobs.

One of those jobs - with UMDNJ - would ultimately lead to his downfall.

Critics say Bryant yesterday got what he's had coming for a long time.

Clarence Still, who grew up in Lawnside and said he once had high hopes for Bryant, said the senator was driven solely by greed.

Said Still: "I can't think of anything Bryant has done that was not self-serving."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or

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