Bryant, Wayne R. 1947–
Wayne R. Bryant 1947–
New Jersey state assemblyman Wayne Bryant became a nationally known figure in 1991 when he set about the task of reforming his state’s welfare system. Bryant, the highest-ranking black member of the New Jersey legislature, was author and proponent of the New Jersey Family Development Act, a bill signed into law in 1992. The new law, which wreaks drastic changes on New Jersey’s public assistance system, has been attacked by the American Civil Liberties Union on one side and praised as a possible national model on the other. In defense of his controversial bill, Bryant told Emerge magazine: “My package calls for welfare as a stepping-stone to the economic independence of the chronically poor, eliminating lifelong welfare dependency.” Whether or not the legislation reaches these goals remains to be seen, but in the meantime, state governments all over America will be assessing the results of Bryant’s bill.
As an assemblyman, Bryant has refused to be pegged to one ideology or voting trend. He is a Democrat who represents Camden, New Jersey’s poorest urban area, but he does not consider himself a liberal. On the other hand, he told the New York Times that he feels conservatives “lack compassion” for the underprivileged. Pressed to state his position, he reluctantly uses the word “moderate,” stressing that his values are a direct result of his middle class background in a hard-working family. New York Times correspondent Wayne King noted that even though Bryant rejects labeling, the assemblyman “is regarded as one among an emerging coterie of black Democratic leaders who question the effectiveness of social programs championed by the party’s traditional leadership.”
In his job as New Jersey assemblyman, Bryant represents some of New Jersey’s poorest residents. He himself is a man who has never known poverty, having come from a family and a community that are distinctly middle class and upwardly mobile. King described Bryant in the New York Times as “wealthy, patrician and influential: Just the sort of man who would have no use for the welfare system.”
Born in 1948, Bryant was raised in the New Jersey borough of Lawnside, a suburb rich in history with a 99 percent black population. A community west of Camden, Lawnside was founded in the 1700s and served as a major stop on the Underground Railroad in the nineteenth century. Its graveyards feature monuments to black soldiers who fought in the Union Army during theCivil War. Most of
Born Wayne Richard Bryant, November 7, 1947, in Lawnside, NJ; son of Isaac R., Sr. and Anna Mae Bryant; married Jean Woods; children: Wayne Richard, Jr. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1969; Rutgers University School of Law, J.D., 1972. Politics: Democrat.
Freeman, Zeller and Bryant, Attorneys-at-Law, Camden, NJ, general partner, 1974—; Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders, member, 1980-82; New Jersey General Assembly, District 5, member, 1982—; deputy minority leader, 1989-90; majority leader, 1991—. Has also taught at Rutgers University and Glassboro State College.
Member: New Jersey Bar Association, American Bar Association, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
Selected awards: Citations for legislative achievement from National Business League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Atlantic County Minority Business Council; honorary degree from Howard University, 1991; Arthur Armitage Distinguished Alumni Award, Rutgers University School of Law, 1992; numerous civic awards.
Addresses: Office— 309 Market St, Camden, NJ 08102.
Lawnside’s 3,000 residents are small business owners, white collar entrepreneurs, or skilled workers, and most of Lawnside’s high school students attend college.
Bryant’s ancestors settled in Lawnside in the 1780s. By the modern era they were exceedingly prosperous. Bryant’s grandfather was the first black man to serve as clerk of the New Jersey State Assembly in the 1920s. An uncle was the first black state commissioner of insurance and banking. Bryant’s father was president of the borough’s school board, and Bryant’s brother was elected mayor of Lawnside in the late 1980s. The family owns a modern office building in the borough as well as property elsewhere in Camden County. This is not to say that the Bryants never struggled. Bryant told the Washington Post that while he was growing up his parents “sacrificed vacations, new dresses, new cars.…They always believed you should give something back.”
The background of law, education, and politics was a distinct influence on Bryant as a youngster. He was a diligent student who “could have attended college anywhere he liked,” according to King. Bryant chose to enter Howard University in Washington, D.C., earning a bachelor’s degree during the heady 1960s-era radicalism of activists H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. Even then Bryant was faced with philosophical questions about his own comfortable lifestyle—a product of his family’s hard work and values—as opposed to the hopelessness he saw among the poor of all races in the nation’s capital.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Bryant returned to New Jersey and obtained a juris doctor degree in law from Rutgers University in 1972. He earned two awards as a law school student from the American Jurisprudence Society—a citation for outstanding achievement in the “study of negotiable instruments” and a citation for outstanding achievement in the “study of bankruptcy and creditors’ rights.” Upon graduation he was admitted to the New Jersey Bar Association.
In 1974 Bryant became a partner in Freeman, Zeller and Bryant, an enterprise that King described as “a thriving law firm with a Fortune 500 client roster.” The firm maintains offices in Camden and in the outlying upper middle class suburb of Cherry Hill. In addition to his regular client load at the firm, Bryant has represented his hometown of Lawnside as a solicitor, as well as numerous other interests such as the Camden City Housing Authority, Grace Temple Baptist Church, Camden County Office of Economic Opportunity, and the Planning Board of neighboring Somerdale. He also taught at Rutgers University and Glassboro State College.
Bryant began his political career in 1980, when he was elected to the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders. At the end of his first two-year term there, he moved on to the New Jersey State Assembly as representative for Camden and several smaller peripheral communities. Bryant may have been “wealthy and patrician” in the eyes of New York Times reporter King, but he established a good rapport and popularity with his constituents in Camden, where the government estimates as many as 70 percent of the residents receive some kind of public financial assistance.
Bryant’s projects for beleaguered Camden included securing state and local support for the construction of a world-class aquarium on the city’s Delaware River waterfront directly opposite Philadelphia. The New Jersey State Aquarium, which opened in 1991, is seen as the first step in a revitalization of the Camden waterfront. Bryant was also instrumental in securing re-investment of some casino profits in Atlantic City into regional housing and enterprise funds for small urban businesses. He worked to establish urban enterprise zones in low-income districts and helped to create the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing, a committee charged with ensuring that all New Jersey communities include a certain percentage of low- and moderate-income housing within their borders.
Bryant’s power in the legislature grew as the 1980s progressed. While the Republicans controlled the assembly in the late 1980s, he held the important position of deputy minority leader. In 1991, when the Democrats achieved majority status, he was promoted to assembly majority leader—the second most powerful position in the General Assembly behind that of assembly speaker. By that time Bryant had been elected to five terms in the assembly. He therefore became not only the first African American elected to the General Assembly from South Jersey, but also the first person of color ever named majority leader in the state. He is one of only two black American majority leaders in the nation.
As a legislator representing a number of extremely poverty-stricken people, Bryant had ample reason to think long and hard about the existing welfare system in his state. He concluded that the system was in dire need of repair. Bryant began a crusade against what he saw as a form of bondage no less destructive to personal and family values than the dehumanizing practice of slavery that flourished in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the New York Times, he decried welfare as “cradle-to-grave protection from responsibility,” adding: “You can’t provide guidance and responsibility when you just hand people a check [at] the beginning of the month. It is nothing more than a modern form of slavery.”
Bryant introduced his Family Development Act in the spring of 1991. The proposal called for significant welfare reform in New Jersey. Most of the components of the package were not controversial—it called for increases in education and job skill training, tied directly to the receipt of benefits; a cessation of the reduction of benefits in certain cases should a woman with children marry; and a provision to allow women to earn as much as 25 percent more than their benefits without losing any coverage. The controversial element of the bill—and the clause that made Bryant a “lightning rod in a national storm,” to quote Alan Sipress in the Philadelphia Inquirer —was a provision to eliminate increases in public assistance as women had more children. At the time that Bryant drafted the legislation, women on welfare automatically received $64 more each month every time they had another child.
Both support and criticism for Bryant’s legislation flowed in from all across America. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the right-to-life movement claimed that the bill would restrict civil rights and would force poor women to have abortions. Supporters praised Bryant for his attention on keeping the family unit—mother, father, and children—together and for encouraging welfare recipients to view the payments as temporary benefits while they improved their job skills. Observers such as a Los Angeles Times editorialist have noted that no one leveled the charge of racism against the legislation since it was proposed and championed by an African American. According to the Los Angeles Times editorial, Bryant’s “political affiliation, his race and geographical base give him great credibility on what has become a touchy subject.”
The Family Development Act was signed into law early in January of 1992 by New Jersey governor Jim Florio. Florio told the Los Angeles Times: “This legislation is guided by compassion and crafted in common sense. We want to rebuild New Jersey’s families and replace the hopelessness of welfare dependency with the hope of self-reliance.” The American Civil Liberties Union plans to contest the legislation in court, but in the meantime state governments and the federal government are watching New Jersey’s new law to see if it does indeed reduce welfare dependency and increase personal empowerment.
Throughout the process of securing the bill’s passage, Bryant staunchly defended the statute that would eliminate the increased payments for women who have more children. He told Emerge: “What [the law] does is make recipients of welfare, like working people, aware that they have to work if they want additional children. An extra child requires the parents to work a minimum of 15 hours a month to defray the costs.” He elaborated in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We want people to assimilate into a middle class environment that has a certain set of rules, values and mores. But we’ve created an underclass with a value system completely extraneous to what we do. We’ve never given them a chance to assimilate where we are.” Bryant feels that, with the incentives to keep the two-parent family structure intact, his bill will ultimately create “people [who] will be coming off the welfare rolls with intact families, educated, and with jobs.” An entire nation waits to see if he is right.
In the spring of 1993, Bryant garnered considerable attention for another family-centered reformist measure: he introduced to the assembly an eight-bill proposal that would allow the state of New Jersey greater power in prosecuting parents who fail to pay court-ordered child support. If passed, the legislative package would provide the state with the toughest law in the United States against so-called “deadbeat” parents.
Atlanta Journal, January 24, 1992, p. A-8.
Emerge, April 1991, p. 11-13.
Los Angeles Times, January 20, 1992, p. B-4; January 22, 1992, p. A-1.
New Republic, March 30, 1992, p. 16. New York Times, April 9, 1991, p. B-4; September 4, 1991, p. B-1, B-6; January 30, 1992, p. B-5; April 29, 1993, p. B-6.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 23, 1992, p. B-1; August 4, 1992, p. B-4; August 5, 1992, p. B-1.
USA Today, December 19, 1991, p. A-9.
Washington Post, March 27, 1992, p. B-18.
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