Lizette Delgado-Polanco’s life story was about overcoming childhood adversity in Atlantic County and rising to lucrative positions of union and political power — until the current chapter.
Now she’s the symbol of Murphy administration patronage after an investigation by The Record newspaper in Bergen County found she had hired relatives and friends to high-paying positions. The state government part of her story has now ended, and so should her political career.
Delgado-Polanco, the daughter of Dominican Republic immigrants, starting working the blueberry fields in Hammonton at age 7. By 19, she was caring for two children of her own and one of her mother’s children, and had her own third child by age 25. She raised them in Pleasantville, she said, by working three jobs.
In 1992 and 2002, she filed for personal bankruptcy to reorganize her finances and shed debt. In between, she starting working as business agent for casino worker union Unite Here, launching a union and political career that would bring her great success. Locally, she served as chair of the Galloway Township Democratic Party and vice chair of the Atlantic County Democratic Party.
In 2001 she became special projects director for then-Sen. Jon Corzine. Six months later she joined the gubernatorial campaign of Jim McGreevey. The following year he named her assistant secretary of state.
In 2008, she returned to unions as executive director of the New Jersey division of Service Employees International Union, parent of Unite Here, coordinating its legislative and political agenda. Then in 2013 it was back to the political side as vice chair of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee, a position she still holds.
Delgado-Polanco was a top supporter of Phil Murphy’s successful run for governor, and appointments for her and her family followed. He appointed her chief executive of the state Schools Development Authority at a salary of $225,000, higher than his own — pretty good for someone without a college degree, although her biography for years claimed she had one from the now-defunct National Labor College. The Murphy administration then hired her husband for a Department of Education job paying $95,000. And her daughter has worked in Murphy’s office since he became governor at a salary of $110,000.
Appearances got worse after Delgado-Polanco fired 26 people at the SDA and hired 38 others, among them many with connections to her. Fourteen of her new hires received six-figure salaries, as high as $170,000. At least 10 of them either worked with Delgado-Polanco in the past or at companies represented by unions she worked for, or had other close ties to her.
One new hire is the mother of Delgado-Polanco’s grandson. Another, who resigned after a prior sexual harassment claim turned up, is her second cousin. She also tried to hire one of her nephews, but he had to leave after a day on the job when it was discovered that state nepotism rules bar hiring relatives that close.
Since that story broke, Murphy has tried to turn it into a look at patronage in other departments and Delgado-Polanco clammed up for weeks. She told an Assembly committee this month she couldn’t answer any questions about her hiring practices because the matter is “under review.” She agreed to an interview with journalists from Gannett, parent of The Record, but only to provide background on the firings and hirings and on condition they not report what she said, supposedly at Murphy’s insistence. Then on Tuesday she resigned.
A decade ago, what was then called the School Construction Corp. was abolished after it wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and didn’t deliver half the $6 billion in projects it planned for needy communities in New Jersey. Now the revived Schools Development Authority is seeking several billion more in the current state budget discussions.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who said he was disgusted by Delgado-Polanco’s actions, instead has proposed a bill to abolish the authority and place it again under the state Economic Development Authority.
That sounds like a good approach to cleaning up this patronage mess and reducing wasteful politically connected spending on school construction. Democratic leaders should see that it’s done soon, as part of the next budget due at the end of June.