The people around Corzine quickly learned to use his low-voltage, totally-lacking-in-charisma personality as a way to sell him to voters. This is a guy who’s a real person, with hopes and fears and concerns about the quality of life in New Jersey and the rest of the country just like you. He’s unpackaged, unbuffed by image makers.
“Jon is like your uncle,” says a former Goldman colleague. “Only he’s not. Unless your uncle happens to be brilliant, intensely ambitious, and very rich.”
“Jon has no idea what he’s heading for,” says a supporter, about the corruption in Trenton. “If he did, he wouldn’t be running.”
It’s not that Corzine’s not a nice guy. He is. But it’s become his official persona, his identifier, in the same way that John McCain has nurtured and sold his image as a rebel who says what he really thinks.
I must have been told the Corzine-beard story half-a-dozen times by people around him. It has become part of his anti-politician mythology, like his refusal to give sound bites. The story goes like this: Back in 1999, when he had just made his decision to run against former governor Jim Florio for the Democratic Senate nomination, all of the experts told him he had to shave his beard. He refused. He’d worn the beard for years. What will the voters think of me, he said to the political insiders, if I change who I am, if they see I’d do anything to get elected? Why would they trust me after that?
And there is, in fact, a genuineness about him. Kristen Breitweiser, one of the activist 9/11 widows who became known as the Jersey Girls, tells an anecdote about a photo op at one of the post-9/11 bill signings. “All of the politicians are schmoozing and trying to get into the photos to get credit. Corzine actually walked away from the cameras when he spotted the 12-year-old son of one of the widows,” she says, sounding moved even now. “He went over and just started talking to him. He asked him how he was doing. And he said he should be really proud of his mom and what she accomplished. He basically passed on the photo op just to say something nice to a kid.”
But there is this other side to Corzine as well. It’s not exactly a dark side, but there are plenty of shadows. He has an elusive, almost unknowable quality. Just when I start to think he is someone whose motives are pure (okay, not pure exactly, but at least emanating from the right place), the other side of Jon Corzine jumps out. This is the Corzine that Doug Forrester, his Republican opponent, will try to sell to the voters.
This is the Corzine who behaves, at times, as if the price of his second career were some sort of Faustian pact with the Devil. This is the Corzine who was schooled in politics by the unsavory Torricelli, and despite the uniformly cheerful denials—the Corzine camp is totally on-message about this—Corzine maintains a close relationship with him. This is the Corzine who was ready to go into business with soon-to-be-convicted felon Charles Kushner when they attempted to buy the Nets. (“I was simply trying to keep the team in New Jersey,” Corzine says, “and I won’t apologize for that.”)
And this is also the same Corzine who stood by quietly while people around then-Governor Jim McGreevey plundered the State of New Jersey—something Corzine admitted after the fact that he should have been more vocal about. This behavior alone would be enough for one to comfortably conclude that Corzine is immersed up to his folksy whiskers in the ugly swamp of New Jersey’s Sopranos-like political system. But there’s more.
New Jersey remains perhaps the country’s last medieval bastion of machine politics. There are, any of the experts will tell you, six local Democratic bosses, the warlords whose support is imperative for any successful political candidacy (the Republicans have their own group). Because of their extraordinary influence, money flows freely into their organizations. And no one has been a more fulsome contributor than Corzine. He has given nearly $1 million to a campaign committee run by George Norcross, the Democratic warlord in South Jersey. And, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Corzine has given approximately $10 million more to other party organizations around the state since 2000.
But perhaps the easiest way to appreciate just how much of a crafty politician Corzine, the anti-politician, has become is to look at the case involving his mother. In a story first reported by the Bergen Record, Corzine’s 89-year-old mother, a retired teacher who lives in Illinois, donated $37,000 to the Bergen County Democratic Organization, which is run by a warlord named Joseph Ferriero.
Corzine knows the attacks from the Republicans are coming; in fact, Forrester has already run ads tying Corzine to McGreevey and Kushner. But in reality, Corzine’s only crime where McGreevey is concerned was his silence—which seemed like some sort of tacit approval. “The truth is that McGreevey and Corzine had almost no relationship,” says one Democratic insider. “They were always two ships passing in the night. McGreevey never had any respect for Corzine because he didn’t fight his way up the ladder the hard way through local politics. And Corzine never had any respect for McGreevey because he felt he had no foundation, no core beliefs, and therefore no intellectual right to be governor.”