The next governor of New Jersey, however, may have only a slim chance for success no matter what he does. The problems in Trenton are worse, the experts say, than they have ever been. “You can’t choose your moment in history,” says Jon Shure, president of a think tank called New Jersey Policy Perspective. “And there’s no doubt the chickens are coming home to roost. The next governor is going to face some very serious problems.”
Structural budget gaps. Huge pension shortfalls. Soaring property taxes. A culture of corruption.
“Assuming he wins the election in November,” says a Corzine supporter, “he’s going to wake up one day next year and say, ‘What the fuck did I do?’ He simply has no idea about the kind of control the urban predators have in Trenton. And I can’t see him shooting anybody. It’s just not in his nature.”
Though the conventional wisdom says that Corzine, as a former CEO, is much better suited to be a governor than a senator, the opposite may be true. “It’s one thing to go from Wall Street and the rarefied air of Goldman Sachs to the rarefied air of the United States Senate,” says one of his closest longtime supporters. “It is quite another thing, however, to go from the rarefied air of the Senate to the muck of New Jersey politics. And frankly, it’s a real concern. Jon has no idea what he’s headed for. If he did, he wouldn’t be running. You’re talking about the kind of ethical climate where state senators represent companies appearing before state boards.”
Former governor Jim Florio, who knows firsthand how intractable New Jersey’s problems can be, nevertheless believes that if Corzine wins, he may have a shot at making some changes. “What’s different now,” Florio says, “is there’s a greater perception that failure to act will inflict more pain than acting. So while there won’t be any rose petals in the next governor’s path, this broad perception will make it easier for someone willing to take on the problems.”
Corzine insists he knows what he’ll be up against in terms of the state’s ethical and financial problems and that he is prepared to deal with them. “If you look at how my life has unfolded,” he says one sunny morning after leaving the Senate floor, “I’ve demonstrated, as a trader, as a CEO, and as a senator, that I can do a good job. But even more than that, I’ve demonstrated that I’m willing to take on the difficult battles. It would’ve been a lot easier at Goldman not to get into the fight about going public. I could’ve just stuck it out another fifteen years and accumulated a much bigger net worth.”
But there is another issue as well: Corzine’s ambition. Given the depth of the state’s difficulties, the winner in November could end up in a kind of Catch-22. If he is successful in making the kinds of structural changes necessary to fix some of the most serious problems, he may have to alienate so many people in the process that he ends up being an unpopular, albeit successful one-term governor.
That fact doesn’t mesh very well with where Corzine wants to go. The people closest to him say he has talked openly about wanting to run for the White House. He denies it. “I’m not trying to build toward something bigger, toward higher political office,” he says. He doesn’t, however, deny being ambitious.
“Of course I’ve demonstrated ambition,” he says, crossing Constitution Avenue. “But it’s never been blind. It’s always been about something other than just serving my own needs.”
Corzine says that one of his children still argues that, rather than spending $70 million on a campaign, he could just give that money to charity. But for that kind of investment, a trader like Corzine needs a bigger return.