There is also a strong public perception that Corzine used his financial muscle to squash Acting Governor Richard Codey’s hopes of running for a full term. And it’s true that, faced with a primary opponent as rich as Corzine, who had been tactically spreading the wealth for years, one would have to have a political death wish to take him on. “I believe categorically that Dick never intended to run,” says one Democratic insider. “Whether because of his family or his personal life or whatever, he never really took any of the necessary steps. He never opened up his tax records, and he hadn’t done any of his homework to prepare for a candidacy. Jon and Dick don’t really like one another, going back to the Senate primary in 2000, but Jon didn’t force him out.”
Though Forrester is not thought to be a particularly formidable opponent, the Republican National Committee has the resources—and, many believe, the will—to make the race a difficult one for Corzine. “They haven’t done much at all yet,” says one Democratic Party leader. “The big question is what their strategy will be. Do they come here and go district by district registering voters and getting them out on Election Day like they did in Ohio? Do they pump money into the campaign through the 527s like they did with the Swift Boat stuff? In other words, do they really decide to play hardball? If they do, the election could end up too close to call. If they don’t, Corzine wins by five points.”
Corzine’s people argue that corruption and political funny business are not limited to the Democrats. No one in New Jersey, they say, is walking around pining for the good old days of high ethical standards when the Republicans ran things.
And furthermore, given his wealth, he’s clearly not a threat to engage in any kind of personal corruption, like so many others entangled in New Jersey’s pay-to-play web, in which local officials are paid off for jobs and contracts. Nor, since he has spread so much money around in the form of political contributions, will he be beholden to any of the warlords the way McGreevey was.
Rather, he has gotten himself in the thick of New Jersey politics by giving, not taking. As a self-funded politician, he hasn’t accumulated debts that must be repaid. He has, however, been tarnished by appearing to buy people’s loyalty.
“His biggest strength,” one of the warlords told me, “is also his biggest weakness. He wants to make everybody happy.”
For himself, Corzine has decided that four and a half years in the Senate are enough. After spending a record-breaking $62 million to win his Senate seat (the campaign was not only the most expensive in history at the time, but it doubled the previous record), Corzine is ready to move on. He has decided he can get more done in Trenton than he can in Washington.
It is the classic risk-reward calculation of a bond trader. He has assessed the situation and decided to cut his losses to take a potentially more attractive market position. “A good bond trader,” Corzine told me one morning in his Senate office in Washington, “is able to absorb lots of information and synthesize it down to what’s going to move markets.” In other words, determine what’s most important. “Then, he has to be willing to execute.”
Corzine is now executing. “Jon always had a surprisingly aggressive trading pattern,” says one of his former Goldman colleagues. Though he won’t come right out and say it, Corzine’s time in the Senate has been disappointing, hardly worth the price of admission. (If he becomes New Jersey’s governor and this is his fifth and final year in the Senate, he will have spent approximately $33,972 a day for the privilege of being a legislator.) As a member of the minority party, indeed as one of its most openly, proudly liberal members (which places him securely in the minority of the minority party), Corzine has had to scale back his expectations.
“I’m 58 now,” he says, “and I’m the last person on every committee I sit on. I’d have to stay in Washington until I’m 80 to be a committee chairman.”
To fight the corruption that plagues New Jersey politics, Corzine has said he will relinquish some of the governor’s power by appointing an independent state comptroller to scrutinize all state contracts. His overall plan on the policy front can be described in one broad stroke: Make New Jersey more affordable. Specifically, he talks about health insurance, education, and property taxes.
This plan is actually a reflection of his core belief, which drives his behavior in the Senate as well. As one of his aides put it to me, Corzine is committed to “universal access.” That is, universal access to the American Dream—meaning everyone is entitled to education, health care, housing, and a decent wage. It is a basic philosophy that has consistently ranked him as one of the Senate’s most liberal members.