Like an athlete who suddenly finds himself out of sports, Corzine needed to satisfy his continuing hunger to compete. Part of his passion for being a trader was the competition. He also needed a public way to save face, a way to regain power. And he needed to do it in a new arena, one in which he wouldn’t be regularly reminded of his failure.
“I like to compete, and I like to win,” he says. “And being in a campaign is the most competitive thing I’ve ever done.”
Politics can be an ugly business. There is little glamour and even less of the pampering most high-level executives are accustomed to. It is no accident that few CEOs ever run for political office.
“People who know me,” he says, “know that I’m not really much of a planner with respect to my ambitions. For me, it’s always been more about seizing opportunities when they present themselves. A lot of people had misgivings about my decision to go into politics, and it was never a sure thing. But I believed it was going to work.”
And Corzine didn’t look back. “The Goldman Sachs part of his history ended when he left,” says one former colleague, “and really hasn’t been revived much except for his continuing friendship with [former Treasury secretary] Bob Rubin.”
Colleagues were stunned by how completely he’d left his old life behind, down to his emerging liberal political beliefs. “Don’t forget,” says one Goldman partner, “this is a guy who was a free-market economist.”
Soon after Lautenberg’s announcement, an interesting friendship blossomed. Corzine reached out to the crafty, powerful then-Senator Robert Torricelli, the dark prince of New Jersey politics who was investigated for ethics violations and eventually forced out of public life. When the Senate ethics committee cited him for accepting pricey gifts (but not for more serious charges), he chose not to run for reelection.
The foundation for the friendship was laid when Corzine was still at Goldman and Torricelli was a rising New Jersey congressman in search of Wall Street campaign funds.
Contrary to the tale that has been told over and over about Torricelli and several others’ cooking up the idea of a Corzine candidacy and then pursuing him, it was Corzine who pursued them. “I actually got a call saying Jon Corzine was annoyed with me for not suggesting him,” says Torricelli, who was chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 2000. “And the truth is, until then, the thought never crossed my mind.”
But Torricelli quickly became Corzine’s Virgil, an indispensable guide to the world Corzine wanted to enter. He advised him on whom to hire, whom to meet with, and where to spend his money. Corzine threw himself into politics with the same indefatigable work ethic he’d had as a bond trader. “We told him he’d have to meet with 100 or 200 key people around the state,” says Torricelli. “County chairs, labor leaders, party activists. And he’d have to attend every major dinner in New Jersey. Well, he saw 500 people. He did it for weeks.”
Torricelli says he has, over the years, seen lots of businessmen who wanted to run for office. “But they almost never have the stomach for it,” he says. “They’re not prepared to invest the time and the effort. I was skeptical about Jon as well. He was a farm boy from Illinois who’d climbed to the top of Goldman Sachs. I did not imagine him going to the diners and beer halls and union headquarters and bonding with the folks who make up the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.”
To Torricelli’s surprise, Corzine took to these small interactions immediately. But his early public appearances before larger groups were so cringe-inducing that Democratic Party leaders were ready to pull the plug on his candidacy. “There were several meetings,” one insider says, “where everyone pretty much agreed it wasn’t going to work. He really didn’t have a clue.” Corzine was saved only by his money and his willingness to promiscuously spend it to get elected.
As awful as he was in front of groups, he was terrific at the more up-close-and-personal encounters. He was warm, friendly, and eager to listen. He is still at his best when he is able to make eye contact. Even his critics admit that Corzine is extremely likable.
“Jon really benefited from his professional pedigree,” Torricelli says. “The people expected a distant and arrogant figure. And the contrast between their expectations and the way Jon actually was really worked to his advantage.”
Corzine bristles at even the hint of a suggestion that there was anything untoward about his relationship with Torricelli. “I was a first-term freshman senator and he was the senior senator and he was very helpful in showing me how to get things done,” Corzine says, a touch of frustration coating his voice. “He really knew how to work the halls down here. Bob is enormously articulate about the issues he cares about, and he is a really smart guy,” Corzine says. “Was he maybe too clever sometimes? Perhaps. But it was a constructive relationship on how you become effective in the Senate.”