Sitting Next to the Leader: Richard Constable ('97), Deputy Commissioner, Department of Labor, State of New Jersey

Wed, 2011-04-27 11:15

By Adam Robinson, MPA '12

When Richard Constable (MGA/JD ’97) thinks back to his time at Fels, it’s the small details of political leadership – many of which he learned from then-Fels director James Spady – that stick with him the most.

“He would say, ‘you sit as close to the leader in the meeting as possible,’” Constable recalled of Spady. “You make sure if you’re working with the principal, you distinguish yourself. That way, if there’s ever an opportunity for a promotion, ever a leadership opportunity, he’s going to remember you.”

Four years after graduating from Penn’s law and government programs, Constable found such a leader in then-United States Attorney Chris Christie. Christie hired Constable to serve as an assistant U.S. Attorney, where he successfully prosecuted dozens of accused terrorists, white collar criminals and corrupt government officials. Leaving a Wall Street law firm to work in the U.S. Attorney’s office meant a pay cut for Constable, but it freed him to pursue his passion for public service.

While establishing a solid record as a prosecutor, Constable also developed a strong professional and personal relationship with his boss. When Christie became governor of New Jersey in 2010, he tapped Constable to serve as deputy commissioner of the Department of Labor.

A lifelong Democrat, Constable wasn’t fazed by the idea of serving a Republican governor. “For me, it’s about relationships,” he explained. “I’m not working for a Republican governor, I’m working for Chris Christie, a man I’ve known for years, a friend. I don’t think he is an ideologue, so it makes it a lot easier.”

As he manages the day-to-day operations of the Department of Labor, Constable’s job requires him to wear several hats on any given day. A recent Thursday found Constable giving a speech to a major foundation, meeting with an assistant commissioner to discuss unemployment fraud, and meeting the commissioner to prepare him to testify to the assembly budget committee.

Constable said that his top priority as deputy commissioner is increasing accountability and eliminating fraud, particularly with non-profit organizations and private companies to which his department awards grants and contracts. Part of that means placing an emphasis on measuring program outcomes.

He gave the example of state grants for job-training programs: “There were organizations that had [job] placement rates after training that were under 30 percent – but others had 70 percent – so we want to reward those entities that were doing a good job. So for me it’s common sense performance metrics and measures, but they weren’t being employed before on a regular basis.”

This focus on accountability is part of the “U.S. attorney ethos” that, according to Constable, Christie has brought to state government. In fact, Constable was one of “three or four dozen” assistant U.S. attorneys Christie hired to work in his administration and “turn Trenton upside down.” But he stressed that in all the changes he is making in Trenton, Christie is focused on improving the quality of life of New Jersey residents.

“What you see on television—the bravado the directness—that’s him,” Constable explained. ”None of that stuff is poll-tested. What you see-that’s him. And I know it’s trite, but he really cares about people … he really wants to make people’s lives better.”

While Constable has made full use of both his Penn law and his government degrees, his best memories are of his time at Fels.

“We really got to bond. [The JD/MGA students] all speak more fondly of our Fels time than we do of our law school time. We learned more…things that are more practical, lifelong lessons at Fels than we did at law school. I feel like Fels prepares you to be a leader.”

Much like his former professor Spady, Constable advises current Fels students to distinguish themselves as they begin their careers – not just by sitting in the right seat, but by working hard.

“I don’t care how smart you are, where you went to school, what I like is people who work hard,” he said. “You can’t teach that work ethic. That will distinguish you. A lot of successes will flow."