Angelo Genova goes from coffeehouse crooner to power player
Published in 2009 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
By Timothy Harper on March 16, 2009
Even though these days Angelo Genova is regarded as Mr. Connected in New Jersey law and politics, he still sees himself as the hippie-haired, guitar-strumming student teacher from his days at Montclair State. And why not? It’s the qualities he developed as a barroom entertainer that have helped him become the hugely influential attorney whose name is on the door at Genova, Burns & Vernoia in Newark.
From his earliest days as a middle child in a big family, he learned to be a negotiator and conciliator. As the student body president at Montclair State, he learned to speak truth to power. At the Jersey Shore bars where he played pop and folk songs to pay his way through college and law school, he learned to size up his audience. And as a student teacher, he learned how to make the points that would persuade his listeners.
Growing up, Genova never imagined he would do everything he has done: serve as the New Jersey Democratic Committee’s chief counsel, as he has done for much of the past three decades; serve as counsel to numerous campaigns; win a voting rights case that sent ripples through national politics; become an expert on employment and labor relations law; act as the state’s chief negotiator with unions, representing 40,000 state workers; advise four governors—Florio, McGreevey, Codey and Corzine; and inspire other young people from modest backgrounds to expand their dreams. Yet that’s just what happened.
Genova’s father’s parents were immigrants from Italy who settled in Philadelphia. During World War II, his father fought with the Seventh Army in Sicily, where he fell in love with the hat-check girl at a hotel in Naples. They married, she came back to America as one of the first war brides, and they ended up in Vineland, where Genova’s father worked as a high school math and science teacher—along with half a dozen other jobs, including driving a bakery truck on weekends, in order to support a growing family. Genova was the fifth of eight children; he had four older sisters and three younger brothers.
Angelo started working at age 9, delivering newspapers on his bicycle. He also flipped burgers, mowed lawns and worked in a department store. A music lover, he discovered as a teenager that people enjoyed listening to him sing and play the guitar. So he joined a garage band, and then later joined a duo that would perform songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and pretty much anything else that was on the radio. He learned how to adjust his material to the audience. At bars on the Jersey Shore he’d play Springsteen. In longshoremen’s bars in Philly, he pulled out his banjo and kazoo and played “Mummer” songs. In hockey bars, it was Canadian folk songs and the Flyers fight song. In coffeehouses, the quieter stuff.
In high school, he wasn’t the best student, but his experiences as a middle child helped him keep a foot in every clique. He became student body president, and when racial strife broke out in Vineland, his high school named him to chair a reconciliation group of white, Latino and African-American students. It was a great early lesson, he recalls, in “active listening and in tolerance.”
He headed off to Montclair State with the intention of becoming a high school history teacher. He received his bachelor’s degree in education. Because he, like his brothers and sisters, had to finance his own education, he played his guitar and worked as a dorm counselor, a job that gave him experience helping people sort through difficult issues, such as addiction or loneliness or depression. “I learned a lot from that experience,” he says. “I had to be responsible for others.”
Bruce Willis was one of the students who lived in his dorm and Genova remembers him as an independent spirit who, while other freshmen were delivered to campus by doting parents lugging trunks and suitcases, arrived alone with a small satchel “and playing a harmonica.”
Genova was elected student body president at Montclair State late in his sophomore year and at age 19 assumed responsibility for a $1 million student activities budget, and represented student interests with faculty, administrators, trustees and state and local government officials. He helped bring big-name acts such as James Taylor to campus. He was consulted on curriculum. He initiated student service innovations such as a van shuttle service for remote campus parking lots, a program that still exists today. He also helped develop a prepaid legal insurance plan for students with questions on landlord-tenant issues or family matters. He sat in on meetings with labor lawyers when the Montclair faculty chose to organize and pursued collective bargaining.
In his senior year he was the student representative to the Montclair State board of trustees. He served as president of a statewide association of college students, which went to Trenton to advocate for students on issues such as tuition increases and access to higher education. He even had a meeting with Gov. Brendan Byrne. “I realized I could hold my own in a room of accomplished individuals and interact on their level,” he recalls. “They didn’t care if my hair was long or my clothes were scruffy as long as I was polite and a good listener and could advance good ideas for solving problems.”
Gradually, Genova says, “I began to believe I had the capacity to be a lawyer. It was an intellectual leap.”
Having decided to embark on a law career, he chose Rutgers School of Law-Newark. “I became the student I never was,” he says. Still playing his guitar on weekends—he gave up a chance to make law review in order to play a gig in Wildwood—he worked as a faculty research assistant on discrimination and administrative law projects. His second year, he clerked for a firm headed by James Zazzali, who later became chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. His third year, Genova volunteered for the gubernatorial campaign of James Florio, a Democratic congressman from Camden. Florio lost his primary campaign against Byrne, but he and Genova became close. Genova decided to pursue a self-created joint degree to include his J.D. and a master’s in industrial and labor relations. He graduated with both in 1978.
After trimming his hair, he went to work for Jackson Lewis, a big Manhattan firm that specialized in national workplace issues. He soon realized, however, that he wanted a more hands-on experience than a large firm afforded and wanted to handle a wider range of cases. He left just short of two years, taking a 65 percent pay cut to go into private practice in East Orange with Elliot Baumgart, who was one of the two lawyers, along with David Ben-Asher, Genova had hired years earlier to deliver the prepaid legal services to Montclair State students. Both Baumgart and Ben-Asher have become prominent New Jersey employment and labor law lawyers in their own right. Private practice allowed Genova to maintain labor law as the core of his legal work, but he also broadened into a more general litigation practice.
Two big things happened in 1981. First, he made his only foray into running for office himself—he was one of seven candidates for three seats on the town council in Montclair—and lost. Second, Florio ran for governor again and asked Genova to serve as one of his campaign’s general counsel. Florio secured the nomination this time but narrowly lost the general election to Republican Tom Kean. In the aftermath of this loss, Genova was appointed general counsel to the New Jersey Democratic Committee, a position he held on and off, mostly on, for 25 years, until he stepped aside four years ago.
The 1981 campaign also marked Genova’s plunge, in a big way, into election law. The Florio campaign had complained that a Kean campaign and the Republican National Committee-sponsored “ballot security task force,” made up mostly of off-duty police officers, intimidated poor and minority voters, suppressing their vote. Genova’s work led to a long-standing federal consent order that courts have relied upon for about the last 30 years to curb intimidation of voters.
“That identified me as an election lawyer of repute,” Genova says. It also helped him develop a national reputation as a lawyer who champions voting rights. The right to vote is not about Republicans or Democrats, he insists. “Every time an eligible voter is precluded from registering, casting or is otherwise deprived of his or her right to vote, democracy suffers.”
Genova has represented many politicians and political campaigns and been involved in a number of headline-grabbing cases. Perhaps the biggest occurred in 2002, when incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli withdrew from his re-election race, having been accused of ethics violations. The withdrawal was too late, by state law, for the Democrats to put a new candidate on the ballot. And that, observers believed, made it a certainty that the Republicans would take over the seat. However, Genova challenged the law, won the case unanimously before the New Jersey Supreme Court, and the Democrats were permitted to replace Torricelli on the ballot with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who easily won the election and kept the seat blue. Genova is also credited—or blamed, depending on how you view New Jersey politics—for helping McGreevey draft the state’s first “pay to play” rules restricting political contributions by people who do business with government.
Not that Genova is all about politics. “Here’s the thing to know about Angelo Genova,” says Joseph Hayden, the Roseland attorney who is one of the state’s most prominent white-collar defense lawyers. “He’s a very good lawyer. At his core, a very ethical and terrific lawyer. A lawyer’s lawyer who just happens to represent a lot of political clients.”
Genova spends a lot of time representing employers in labor and employment cases, which, he concedes, may be considered “incongruous but not inconsistent” with his Democratic background and political background of sticking up for the working man. “Yeah,” he muses. “How do I reconcile that?”
He’s thought about it a lot, but says this is the first time anyone has directly asked him about it. The mistake people make, he says, is to assume that because he represents employers he is undercutting their workers. Not true. By working with employers, he helps them see the advantages of being fair to their workers.
“Sometimes you can be more effective in helping people focus on fairness and what’s the right thing when you represent them, as opposed to fighting them.” He’s particularly proud that he has negotiated more than 100 labor contracts, and not one of them has led to a strike.
He likes it when lawyers are considered counselors. “I take my role as a counselor seriously,” he says. “I think one reason my employer clients are attracted to me is that I am a problem-solver. The enlightened employer understands that a lawyer who can guide them in reaching practical solutions without acrimony is a value. Not every solution resides in the law, and not every solution resides in a courtroom.”
Beyond voting rights, election law, politics, employment and labor relations, his practice has continued to expand into other areas, especially trial and appellate work. One of his highest-profile appeals was a successful 2007 appeal of a divorce court’s decision ordering former New York Giants player Michael Strahan to pay an additional $200,000 per year in child support.
Genova started his current firm in 1989 with three other lawyers, and the growth has been steady over the years. Genova sees the firm as a place where everybody works hard, but the atmosphere is relaxed and collegial. As he is posing in his office for photographs, his partner Frank Vernoia bursts in. “Hey, why are you in here modeling instead of working on your cases?” he demands. Vernoia then suggests that the photographer is taking so many shots because it is so difficult to get a good picture of Genova, who by then is laughing too hard to pose.
The firm’s headquarters, recently moved from Livingston, is a building in downtown Newark. Genova’s office offers a view that says a lot about New Jersey: the cars and trucks on Interstate 280, the Newark light rail and New Jersey Transit trains, the greensward of the Newark Eagles/Bears baseball stadium, the boats on the Passaic River, the planes flying in and out of Liberty International and, off in the distance, the Manhattan skyline.
Genova sees the firm’s part ownership of the building as an investment in Newark, and a reflection of his personal commitment to the city. He has been involved in many local and state philanthropic activities as well as in public service: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, the Center for Italian and Italian American Culture, The Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark, the American Conference on Diversity, and the Montclair State University Foundation and the Felican College Capital Campaign. On his own, he mentors young people—lawyers, aspiring lawyers and, sometimes, kids like him who simply don’t recognize their own potential.
At home, he starts the day on the treadmill, watching Morning Joe, and on weekends he and his wife, Donna, whom he met when she was a legal secretary and paralegal, work on restoring an old schoolhouse and farm in Bucks County, Pa., as their weekend retreat. He still plays his guitar but rarely sings in public anymore, except for the occasional karaoke excursion, and his tastes now run more to Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.
Looking back, he has only one regret. “I never really gave music a shot,” he says. “I should have given it my full attention for at least one year after college.”
Timothy Harper, a journalist and lawyer based at www.timharper.com, is the writing coach at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The author of 12 books, he serves as an editorial/publishing consultant helping individuals and institutions write and publish their own books.
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