The two-family home with a small backyard on West New York’s 59th Street was one of the last Irish households in the center of an urban revival propelled by Cuban immigration. While tens of thousands fled Castro’s revolution for Miami, the welcoming northern communities of Union City and West New York became “Havana on the Hudson.” To the original locals, mostly Irish and German, the new neighbors shared the same sturdy working-class tenacity that shaped their own identity. It was a good match.
For Patti McGuire, the community exhibited none of the sharp pains of present-day immigration wars. “I never remember a situation, or felt any anxiety between the Cuban community and the Americans who lived there first,” she recalls. “My parents never said a negative word about anybody because of their color or origin.” Whether you were Latino, African American, or Asian American – you were equals.”
Neighborhood play was an open, shared experience. “Our life was geared toward the front porch. We had a pool, not an in-ground one, but you’d hang out on the stoop, ride your bike with the dozen or so kids on our block.” The people in her newly diversified neighborhood of the early 60s, much like their modest homes, shared walls and values. When Patti’s elementary school gym was repurposed to serve newly arriving Cuban families, the concession of second grade PE and art classes seemed a small concession for the life and energy that accompanied them.
Before the abrupt interruption of World War Two, her father Frank (Mickey) had a promising career as a professional baseball player, having been drafted by the struggling precursor of today’s Washington Nationals franchise, The Senators. When life resumed after the war, he found work as a union carpenter, a profession and salary nearly as unreliable as baseball. “When there was no work, he didn’t work. Which meant there was no money.” The economic stability would come years later with a director-level assignment for the Public Parks and Property department.
Her mother Olwyn, the originator or many of Patti’s more traditional Irish traits, was a passionate, stubborn keeper of the family standards. A former women’s basketball player, she grounded the household with a sense of fairness and truth-telling that has been the anchor virtue of Patti McGuire’s life in politics. She would remain in her home until her death at age 91.
In 1971, one of Patti’s father’s former Babe Ruth League baseball players returned home with a law degree and an eye on reform. He sought to successfully enlist his former coach, and her parents joined the burgeoning grassroots reform movement targeting corruption in West New York and neighboring Jersey City and North Bergen. The result was a recall election sweeping out Mayor John Armellino, the decorated D-Day veteran whose rule had spanned some sixteen years. Armellino would later be convicted of connections to underworld gambling.
Patti was just thirteen, but she’d found her passion.
Nine years later, her adoration for the RFK wing of Democratic politics swept her into Ted Kennedy’s audacious challenge to a sitting president, Jimmy Carter. As a volunteer tasked with delegate selection, she’d meet the wealthy and well-heeled that buzzed the Kennedy campaign universe, but found a common mission erased differences. “These people had great wealth but never made you feel like you weren’t an equal partner in something great,” she remembered.
Her parents cheered the career move. “When you’re 21 years old working on campaigns, making no money, supportive parents matter. They backed me every step of the way,” said McGuire.
While Kennedy would trounce Carter in New Jersey by nearly 19% and take a block of northeastern states to the Convention in New York, the campaign would crumble in a memorable floor fight. While she was experiencing her first political defeat, her work ethic brought the first offer for paid political work as a field organizer for the Carter-Mondale ticket. It was the first of many.
For Patti, politics is clearly never about the money. For the next two decades, when campaign operatives scouted her for upcoming election cycles, she’d always choose the one that met her own smell test. “It’s always about the candidate. I’ve had a lot of losses and a lot of wins. I can’t work for someone I don’t believe in.”
“The biggest impact on my political life came in 1990 when I was hired by Mayor/Assemblyman Bob Menendez and late Commissioner Bruce Walter (who became my mentor.) I ran their municipal campaign, was a part of NJ History when Bob Menendez became the first Latino State Senator and then again when he became the first Latino Congressman from New Jersey. I ran each of these campaigns. They shaped my politics forever. My mentor Bruce Walter taught me how to survive and excel in Hudson County politics by empowering me.”
She’d go on to serve as a deputy chief of staff to Governor Jon Corzine, overseeing relationships with the legislature and commanding the governor’s schedule with legendary discipline. In 2008, her service with Corzine provided McGuire with one of her proudest achievements–the bi-partisan passing of a major change in New Jersey’s school funding formula. “It’s my biggest personal reward,” she recalled with satisfaction. “The law says that school funding will follow children at risk.” Upheld by the courts, Patti’s contribution aims resources at children with the most to lose or gain. Her lifelong campaign for fairness and equality scored a major win.
After years of successful campaign and policy work for heavyweight friends like Corzine, Senator Bob Menendez, and her mentor, the late Union City Mayor Bruce Walter, only one person remained her political counterweight–her mother. In the 2008 presidential primaries, Patti was supporting Hillary Clinton. Her mother, unimpressed by her daughter’s deep connections with the political powerbrokers, was firmly in the other camp. “I really don’t care what you and Jon Corzine say–I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton, I’m voting for Barack Obama.”
With her mother and father now gone, her passion for the game of politics has seemed to follow. Today, her work at Princeton Public Affairs Group (PPAG) keeps her in the center of her lifelong passion for justice. From minority and women’s rights to pioneering work for the LGBT community, she advises her clients with total commitment. PPAG’s Dale Florio comments, “Patti has a gift for providing clients with insightful strategic advice and for anticipating events before they happen. Her passion makes her a winner.”
“Look, on my clients, I’m as committed to their outcome as they are. I’m going to give my opinion, my best judgment– not just what they want to hear.”
When Patti McGuire believes, she’s fully vested.
Read Patti’s professional bio on the Princeton Public Affairs website here.