Profile: Is There a Secret to Surviving Two Decades in Public Service?

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | September 25, 2013 | Profiles
If there is, the Eagleton Institute's John Weingart probably knows it, and it may have something to do with good humor and bluegrass

John Weingart
Name: John Weingart

Title: Associate director, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.

Age: 64

Why he’s newsworthy: His 23-year career is enough to make Weingart stand out from your everyday public servant. (His well-known sense of humor might also help explain his longevity.) During his tenure, Weingart has held several high-profile positions, including head of the New Jersey Highlands Council, New Jersey Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility Siting Board, and assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. As associate director of the Eagleton Institute, he is one of a handful of pundits regularly quoted about politics and elections.

What he likes about his current job: Weingart teaches a course in politics to Rutgers seniors and is involved with two other programs. He oversees the Eagleton Fellowship Program, which brings together 27 students with various majors to get experience in politics and government. Eagleton is also building the Center on the American Governor. “We are building a body of data and encouraging researchers across the country to pay more attention to the office of governor,” he explains. The center will house extensive archives on New Jersey’s living governors, as well as governors of other states and office-holders who became president. The center recently issued a background paper on the state’s gubernatorial elections.

What he liked about his last job: During his five-year stint heading up the New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council, Weingart chaired 92 public meetings and about 25 public comment sessions and shepherded to adoption a thick master plan for the 860,000-acre region stretching from the New York state border with Bergen County to the Delaware River in Hunterdon. So why did he find this satisfying rather than simply exhausting? “It enabled me to put together whatever I had learned from my previous government experience in a conscious way that seemed very effective,” he said. The state law creating the region and the demanding master plan remain very unpopular among some landowners. Weingart realizes the document is not perfect, but noted “the day we adopted it was in some ways my favorite day in government.” That’s a telling description of the lengthy July 17, 2008 meeting at which the moderates on the council cast enough votes to pass the plan, 9-5. “One of the things that made it possible for us to adopt a plan was the temperament of the people appointed,” he said. He left the council when his term was up, saying his expertise is not in overseeing the municipal conformance to the plan that is the next part of the process. But despite having been criticized by at least one or two landowners at every meeting, Weingart does miss it. “There is some degree of theater in government that I enjoy.”

His favorite former job: Appointed executive director of the New Jersey Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility Siting Board in 1984, Weingart had the challenging and unpopular job of trying to find a community willing to host a landfill for mildly radioactive waste. “It was a terrific challenge,” Weingart said. That and the fact that it was “so strange” made the job enjoyable — but frustrating. “Nobody outside the process expected it to work and in the end it didn’t work, but we came a whole lot closer than anyone thought,” he said. Despite not finding a town willing to accept radioactive waste — New Jersey wound up choosing South Carolina, instead — Weingart said the exercise was useful in exploring how government deals with risk and in involving the public in decision-making “in meaningful ways.” He got a grant from the US Department of Energy to write a book about the process, “Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind: Risk, Radiation, and Distrust of Government.” He also convinced the state to kill the ineffective agency he headed up.

How he wound up in New Jersey: Weingart is originally from Queens and went to college at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He went to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton to get his master’s degree in public affairs but “thought I’d never stay in New Jersey.” Famous last words. Looking for a job in state government, he found one in New Jersey at the Department of Environmental Protection, where he helped implement a federal land-use law. Not hampered by his lack of a background in science — he was hired for his writing and scheduling abilities — Weingart advanced up the ranks, serving as a deputy director, then division director and finally assistant commissioner of the department. He spent 19 years there, spanning four administrations — two Democratic, two Republican.

How he lasted so long: “I was surprised myself,” Weingart said of his tenure. “I assumed that when the new governor comes in, he appoints a new commissioner who sweeps everyone out. While every new governor and new commissioner have some new people they want to bring in, they also depend on institutional knowledge — the smart ones depend on institutional knowledge. The major thing for me was that for most of the issues, at least on a state level, there aren’t particularly Democratic or Republican ways to do it.” Given the length of his service, Weingart added a surprising coda: “Never in my 19 years at DEP and four more at the siting commission, never was there a time I had to take a position I disagreed with.”

Why he’s still stuck at Princeton: Weingart is almost as well-known as a DJ as he is for his government service. For almost four decades, he has been hosting a radio show on WPRB-FM, a commercial nonprofit radio station run by Princeton students. “Music You Can’t Hear On The Radio, ” which airs every Sunday between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., is a mix of folk, string band, bluegrass, and other music. A lover of folk music, he started the show while in graduate school and never stopped. It was especially gratifying to have the show during his time in government because, as Weingart said, it was the one thing he had total control over. “It’s my creation,” he said. “Every week I put together a show I would like to listen to.” And he does: Weingart said he likes to hear from listeners but would rather get emails than calls during the show because he really does enjoy listening to his own show. New Jersey’s longest-running bluegrass show, it also gives Weingart something to talk about in social settings. And it brings him back to Princeton every Sunday: “It is a little strange to go to the basement of a college dormitory every weekend and lock myself in a room.”

Home: Delaware Township, where he lives with his wife Deborah Spitalnik

What you don’t know about him: Weingart is an avid player of both tennis and ping pong.