Parole Board? Why the fuss? If you’re new to New Jersey you might not realize why opposition is growing to Gov. Christie’s appointment of Freeholder Jack Kelly to the NJ Parole Board, a news item that normally wouldn’t get much notice. Maybe you don’t know the guy’s history. Or the name Laurel Hester.
Laurel. Her story has already been made into two movies – the Oscar-winning documentary Freeheld, and a feature film also called Freeheld, starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Steve Carell. But below, I have brief video of the real Laurel, close to death, fighting for every breath. But talking justice.
Eleven years ago, Laurel got lung cancer. She was an investigator for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office; with a 24-year history. One of the first women there to achieve the rank of Lieutenant. Cases she handled included drug rings, organized crime and murder. Laurel was in love with a woman named Stacie Andree and they lived together in a little house in Point Pleasant. Laurel’s bosses knew she was a lesbian; it wasn’t discussed at work. It was a different world then. Before marriage. Before civil unions. Laurel and Stacie registered a domestic partnership in late 2004; it was all there was. The law allowed local governments the option of allowing employees to select domestic partners as pension beneficiaries. But Laurel worked for Ocean County. They hadn’t adopted that provision.
When Laurel realized she might not make it, she went to the Ocean Freeholders to ask them to change their policy, so Stacie could inherit her pension benefits. A straight, married person of Laurel’s years of police service would be able to pass on those benefits to a spouse without question. But without a change, Stacie wouldn’t be able to afford to keep that home she shared with Laurel.
Jack Kelly, sanctity of marriage: All 5 Ocean Freeholders voted no. Jack Kelly said that allowing homosexual public employees to pass their pensions on to domestic partners “threatened the sanctity of marriage.”
Metastasis – two kinds: Laurel’s lung cancer spread fast, then metastasized to her brain. Through the Fall and into Winter, she weakened. But people from all over NJ began showing up at Freeholder meetings to fight alongside Laurel, and then in her name. Near the end, she was carried into the county meeting on a gurney. There were hundreds of people with her.
Garden State Equality: Laurel died in the early morning of February 18, 2006, but before she died, her struggle focused the marriage equality movement in New Jersey. And Garden State Equality filled the seats and organized people both gay and straight into a fierce and well-articulated political force. It was the real birth of the marriage movement here, and it was Blue Jersey’s real birth too. They – all of us – made Ocean County a national story. And Laurel’s determination made clear what the stakes were for gay families – what was missing from the rights they could count on. Straight people suddenly got it. Other NJ counties and towns extended the benefits to domestic partners of employees. But it cost her. Laurel spent almost a year fighting. The pressure on the Ocean Freeholders was immense; and they finally relented just before Laurel’s death, with her already in hospice care. Kelly? Didn’t show up for the vote.
Karma has EVERY right: Nothing in Jack Kelly’s professional experience or education qualifies him for a position on the Parole Board. And nothing about him suggests he has the judgement to have that kind of power over the future of incarcerated people – or the safety of communities. This won’t even be his first patronage windfall or the first job this hack got that he had no qualifications for. But for me, it’s this: Karma has every right to be a bitch to this guy. Meet Laurel Hester, just before her death, in a Garden State Equality ad on Blue Jersey’s channel. She was a distinguished law enforcement professional 24-years employed by Ocean County. And Jack Kelly – despite many chances – never said Yes to her:
“I wanted to be a cop since I was a kid. I wanted to right a wrong. To somehow make things right for other people.” – Laurel Hester
In memory of Laurel Anne Hester, August 15, 1956 – February 18, 2006