Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Green Candidate

Wall Street wizard Jon Corzine spent 24 years helping to build Goldman Sachs into a banking powerhouse before being ousted as CEO last January. Can a very rich, very liberal Democrat connect with New Jersey's masses? He's ready to bet millions of his own money that he can.

ShareThis

Jon Corzine, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, nervously surveys the sea of white hair, white balloons, and red-and-white-checked tablecloths that is the annual Bergen County Senior Picnic. It is not yet 11 a.m. on a stifling hot August day, and already Corzine is soaked in sweat. As his aides wander from table to table passing out red-white-and-blue plastic COMPLIMENTS OF JON CORZINE pens, the tall, bearded, $350 million candidate in the Paul Stuart suit is patting shoulders, shaking hands, complimenting women on their hairdos, and trying to relate to the people. This is the same Corzine who helped engineer the $3.6 billion bailout of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund and orchestrated the initial public offering of his notoriously market-shy investment bank. But today, looking out on the crowd, he seems almost overwhelmed, as he confides, "This is the biggest thing I've ever done."One of the picnickers asks the candidate for his position on "notch babies," those born between 1917 and 1921 who have received reduced Social Security payments as a result of a legislative quirk. "My mother was a notch baby!" exclaims the Illinois-born Corzine. "If I get elected, I'm going to do something about it." A 3-year-old waiting with his grandmother in front of the Portosans asks Corzine to buy him an apartment. "You're a little guy to get an apartment!" says the flustered would-be senator.

"I don't want you to manage my money!" shouts a baseball-capped man as Corzine approaches his table. "I want the IRS to be out of business!" "I think you want a tax cut," says Corzine. "I'll work on it." Finally, an elderly woman who is counseling him to shave his beard accidentally spills a container of milk on the candidate, drenching his cuffed pants and Cole-Haan shoes. "Don't worry about that!" says Corzine, offering her a tissue. Running for Senate, it turns out, is a lot messier than running a major investment bank.

Not that things weren't messy at Goldman Sachs. The 52-year-old Corzine was ousted last winter following a rancorous battle with his board. Then, last spring, after almost teaming up with Long-Term founder John Meriwether to do a restructuring of the fund, Corzine, who has never held elective office, surprised nearly everyone by choosing to pursue a far riskier option: running in the Democratic primary against former New Jersey governor Jim Florio in the race to succeed retiring Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg.

Up until two weeks ago, Corzine was a virtual unknown among New Jersey's voters, and polls were predicting that neither he nor Florio, who is the clear Democratic front-runner, could beat their uncontested Republican rival, Governor Christine Todd Whitman. But her sudden withdrawal from the race -- specifically citing concerns about raising money -- has thrown the low-profile Goldman exile into the national spotlight. On the day of Whitman's announcement, Corzine appeared on CNN, NBC, and a host of other news outlets, a political windfall that guarantees extensive media coverage of this Thursday's official announcement of his candidacy. And while many analysts argue that Whitman's withdrawal is a bigger positive for Florio -- who lost his governorship to her in a nasty race in 1993 -- the fact that Republicans are now trying to recruit former Goldman Sachs partner Lew Eisenberg into the race tells a different story. Suddenly, Jon Corzine matters.

Lately, Corzine has had little time for his place in Telluride, Colorado; for his beach house in the Hamptons; or even for a round of golf at one of the two fabled courses where he is a member, the Atlantic in Bridgehampton and Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey. In fact, he's barely had much time for his yellow center-hall colonial in Summit, the suburban Union County town where he and his family have lived for the past 25 years. Corzine has been too busy crisscrossing the Garden State in his Ford Explorer campaign-mobile, marching with unions, praying in black churches, celebrating ethnic festivals, and breaking bread with as many of New Jersey's local pols as he can.

He has also been busy writing checks and making pledges: $546,000 to his campaign fund, just to get it going. A commitment to raise $100,000 for the fund that helps elect New Jersey Democrats to the State Assembly. And then there is that much bigger number, the one that has set politicos' jaws dropping all the way from Hackensack to Harvey Cedars: Corzine is committed to spending $10 million on the primary alone.

In politics, being a rich candidate is a double-edged sword, and the fact that people are harping on his money, even as he uses it to gain entrée into the world of elective politics, is driving Corzine nuts. "You know, if I read 'x-million-dollar guy from Wall Street' one more time . . . ," he says disdainfully. "Hopefully, my life has been an example of how you use the advantages of a democratic and open society to get ahead. I hate using the words American Dream, but, you know, that's what people should aspire to -- having good things happen from hard work. I think that's a story that sells."

Already, in just a few months, Corzine has become as controversial a figure in the rough-and-tumble world of New Jersey politics as he was in the rarefied milieu of the six-man executive committee at Goldman Sachs. His supporters cast him as a pauper turned people's prince, a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Democrat whose entry into the race is nothing short of a triumph for the party. "The better people do in life, the less egalitarian they become," observes State Senator Ray Lesniak, a powerful pol from New York-centric North Jersey, where Corzine is building his base. "Jon is a beacon that there is another way."

U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli, who is almost as well known for dominating the state's backroom politics as he is for dating high-profile women like Patricia Duff and Bianca Jagger (in short, he's the Al D'Amato of New Jersey), is both Corzine's unofficial sponsor and Lautenberg's nemesis. He likes to emphasize his would-be junior colleague's lack of enormous ego. "People's concept of a chairman of Goldman Sachs is that he'll enter the room full of himself with a degree of arrogance and an inability to empathize with others," he says. "Jon Corzine walks into a room dressed in a sweater vest with a genuine interest in other people and a tremendous calm about him."

Nonetheless, the unmistakable green tinge of Corzine's aura is sending fund-raisers into a tizzy. "I just came back from the Vineyard, and Frank Biondi says that he wants to do something at his house for Jon," reports an exuberant Orin Kramer, the hedge-fund manager who is Torricelli's top fund-raising lieutenant. "Harvey Weinstein says, 'Greatest guy in the world.' Tom Lee, the buyout guy, says, 'He's the most wonderful guy in the world. What can I do to help?' Steve Rattner's going to be helping. These are not people you have to push. They are enthusiastic."

To Florio and his supporters in southern New Jersey, who have labored six months to raise a little more than the amount of campaign cash that Corzine generated with a stroke of his pen, the former CEO has all the grace of a bull stampeding through the cranberry bogs. Florio has tried to even the score by lambasting his rival with Wall Street-speak, accusing him of trying to engineer a "hostile takeover" of the Democratic Party and trying to "buy an option on an election." One anonymous band of Florio supporters has even taken to blast-faxing extensive anti-Corzine tracts to politicians and political reporters all over the state. With headings like for sale and fight corporate greed! boycott corzine!, they depict their opponent as a draft-dodging, anti-labor overlord and highlight Goldman Sachs's role in a host of mergers that resulted in mass layoffs.

"If this is a spending contest, I'll lose," says the famously pugnacious Florio, a former Navy boxer. "But this is not a spending contest. We're planning on conducting a primary election and then a general election. These are not auctions."

Ed Koch, a Florio friend since their time together in Congress back in the seventies, thinks Corzine is setting his political aspirations just a little too high. "Let him run for some modest position so we can see him as he runs around the track," he says. "What does he know about the needs of ordinary guys and women?"


Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising