TOMS RIVER – What does the state’s chief law enforcement officer and chief legal officer have in common with Gen Z-ers (and, honestly, most people)? He sleeps near his smart phone.
And although Gurbir Grewal didn’t deny using his phone for more social reasons, his 24/7 job at New Jersey Attorney General demands he be available. Most recently, he shared with students at Toms River High School North that he was roused from sleep with the news of a drive-by shooting outside the Ramoneros Liquor and Bar on Brunswick Avenue in Trenton May 25, landing 10 people in the hospital.
It’s not often he gets to talk to a group of students, although Grewal said it’s something he enjoys. So when the school’s Political and Legal Education class invited him to visit, he didn’t want to refuse. This was his first of four stops June 5; the scheduled 10 a.m. arrival time turned into 10:45 a.m. It was a brief talk and Q&A about what the attorney general calls his improbable journey to becoming the state’s 61st attorney general, filled with “detours, mistakes, and chance happenings.”
“This is particularly special because you are so early on in your journeys to becoming whatever you’re going to become, whether its lawyers, whether its environmental activists, whether its politicians,” Grewal told the packed audience in the school’s media center. “It’s fun with you to share my own journey, because, in some ways, I hope it shows you that anything is possible for each of you.”
Grewal harbored hopes of becoming a novelist. Channeling his inner Thoreau, he attended a small liberal arts college in the middle of Maine – his Walden Pond – called Bates College. No, no one in the audience ever heard of it.
That first winter froze and killed Grewal’s writerly aspirations. He didn’t know what he wanted to do next, but flipping through his roommate’s pile of college brochures, decided he might like Georgetown University in the slightly less pine-tree-populated and warmer clime of Washington, D.C.
He got in and settled on international studies, readying himself to take the foreign service exam. Except upon graduation, the State Department cancelled the exam. They were FSO’d to the max.
So he took the LSAT and headed to William and Mary University in Williamsburg, Virginia. He traded Thoreau for Jack McCoy. He landed at a big law firm in the nation’s capital upon graduation, and was content, making more money than he knew what do with. The “public service bug” had not yet bitten.
But then September 11th happened.
“My life changed, as did the lives of so many in this country,” Grewal said. The towers fell, the Pentagon burned, and a plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. He grieved that morning, but by lunchtime, something shifted. He was the target of hostile muttering.
That night, Grewal’s mother called him. “Be careful,” she said. “There’s this backlash that’s starting, and we’re seeing it up here in New Jersey. People are targeting people who look like us, and associating us with this tragedy that happened, and you need to be a little bit careful right now.”
Grewal registered disbelief. He was born in New Jersey, raised in New Jersey. Played Little League. Was as American as any neighbor. He was never made to feel more un-American as he was Sept. 12, 2001 or the days that followed. He couldn’t grieve, or show patriotism, without fear.
“As the son of immigrants who came here for economic opportunity, for education opportunity, that my family and other immigrants like my family, had done a great job pushing us to be professionals, pushing us to be engineers and doctors and lawyers. But we were never pushed to give back, to go into public service, to do those types of jobs that are so intertwined with the fabric of what it means to be an American, to be the soldier, to be the police officer. In that moment, I thought, ‘What can I do?’”
Well, he liked to argue. Why not be a federal prosecutor?
“I want to get up in court each and every day, looking the way I do and believing the way I do and just saying, ‘Good morning Your Honor. I represent the United States in this matter,’ and maybe change the perception of 12 jurors at a time, or a grand jury at a time, or an FBI agent I’m working with on a case, to show that you don’t have to look a certain way to be American.”
Grewal is Sikh, a religion with 20 million adherents founded more than 500 years ago in India. The religion “preaches a message of devotion and remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality of mankind, social justice and denounces superstitions and blind rituals. Sikhism is open to all through the teachings of its 10 Gurus enshrined in the Sikh Holy Book and Living Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib,” according to sikhs.org.
Part of their religious observance is keeping their unshorn hair – kesh – wrapped in a dastaar, or turban.
“The turban, or dastaar, serves as a practicing Sikh’s primary identifying feature and is worn to cover the uncut hair. The founding Gurus of Sikhism adopted the turban as a way to assert the equality and sovereignty of all people, as turbans were traditionally worn by royalty in South Asia. Sikh turbans are not merely headwear and instead carry significant religious meaning. Not only is it an element of a Sikh’s religious uniform, but the turban also represents a commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of Sikhism, including equality, service, compassion, and honesty. For a Sikh, a turban is not just a piece of cloth, but this article of faith is an integral part of a Sikh’s identity and their expression of faith,” according to the Sikh Coalition.
So Grewal became the Assistant United States Attorney in Brooklyn for four years, a job he loved. He eventually landed a federal prosecutor job with the economic crimes unit in New Jersey.
His love for the job was well-known. He caught the attention of Governor Chris Christie, who asked him to interview for the Bergen County prosecutor position. Grewal shared three things to the Toms River students: he wasn’t looking for another job. He had to Google what the Bergen County Prosecutor did, as he had been entrenched in the federal system only.
And, he had to admit something to Christie before they even started the interview.
“‘Guv, I just want to make sure you know, I’m a Democrat, not a Republican,’” Grewal said. “And [Christie] said, ‘I don’t care. I want people with your background as federal prosecutors to come and do these jobs as county prosecutors.’”
A couple things – cough cough Bridgegate cough – derailed his nomination for a couple years. But he eventually served as Bergen County Prosecutor.
And while waiting on line on The Little Mermaid ride at Disney World with his youngest daughter in November 2017 (he’s the dad of three girls), he received a call from the governor-elect’s office – Phil Murphy – to see if he was interested in possibly becoming New Jersey Attorney General. He at first thought it was a friend pranking him.
It wasn’t. And after a rigorous interview process, he was confirmed as New Jersey Attorney General on Jan. 16, 2018.
“My purpose is to leave this state and to leave this position and leave the office I’ve inherited, and leave law enforcement and leave public safety better than I found it,” Grewal said.
Since he started, his office has been focused on four things: standing up for New Jersey residents in court; fighting the opioid crisis; reducing gun violence; and strengthening police-community relations.
The opioid epidemic in particular is something Ocean County has wrestled against.
High school senior Chiara Feimer, 18, wants to become an environmental attorney, but was interested in hearing what the attorney general had to say about the opioid epidemic in the state.
“We’re [fighting the opioid epidemic] in a different way. Prosecutor [Joseph] Coronato started some things and Prosecutor [Bradley] Billhimer is continuing them. We’re trying to divert people out of the criminal justice system into the treatment system,” Grewal said. In Bergen County, he had a program called Operation Helping Hand, where police did drug sweeps, but kept people’s names out of the newspapers to avoid the stigma attached to addiction, and instead got them into treatment. Ocean County has a similar program called the Blue HART – Heroin, Addiction, Response Team – program.
“These things are working,” Grewal said.
Students had time to ask several questions before the bell for the next period rang. Grewal was questioned on what the state is doing to combat hate crimes; what the state is doing about the opioid epidemic, including the availability of fentanyl; and if his career interferes with his family and marriage.
“If you ask Mrs. Grewal, yes.”