Exit everyman: How the Jersey Democratic bosses destroyed Dick Codey and unleashed Chris Christie

The general election was supposed to be a roll. No Republican had won a Senate race since in New Jersey since Case in 1972, and the G.O.P.’s pick, a mild-mannered, underfunded congressman named Bob Franks, figured to be overwhelmed by the free-spending Corzine—especially in a presidential election year in which Al Gore was on his way to a crushing win over George W. Bush in New Jersey.

So the fact that Corzine nearly lost should have been a wake-up call to Democrats. He failed to make any personal connection with the electorate, and his dollar diplomacy became the campaign’s dominant issue, fomenting a backlash among the good-government suburbanites who’d been flocking to the Democrats since the Newt Gingrich Republican “revolution” of ’94.

Through the fall, the polls tightened, with Franks even taking the lead in the final weekend. The New York Times actually endorsed Franks, which remains the last time the paper has endorsed a Republican for statewide office in New Jersey. For every million that Corzine was throwing at television ads, the thinking went, he was dropping a point in the polls. Election night was tense, but Corzine did hang on, by three points. Gore carried the state by 16.

But the lesson Democrats took from this wasn’t I can't believe we got away with that this one time. It was more like:This Corzine cash is awesome! They'd see a lot more of it before things finally came crashing down.

Even by the standards of Jersey politics, some funny things happened in Jersey politics in the following years. Just as Corzine was fighting off Franks, for instance, Torricelli launched a surprise backroom attack on Jim McGreevey, who had lost by less than a point to Whitman in the ’97 governor’s race and seemed in line for the 2001 nomination. But for a last-minute change of heart by Newark’s Sharpe James, Torricelli would actually have pulled off his maneuver. Instead, the path was cleared for McGreevey to win the governorship in ’01, while Torricelli returned to the Senate, and promptly found himself engulfed in scandal.

At issue was Torricelli's relationship with a wealthy businessman and convicted felon, David Chang, who told federal prosecutors that he’d plied the senator with expensive suits, antiques, electronic equipment and cash in exchange for help retrieving funds from the North Korean government. The feds found his story credible, but feared his convicted felon status would expose him to a devastating cross-examination. In January 2002, the start of Torricelli’s reelection year, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White declined to prosecute him.

But she did refer the matter to the Senate ethics committee, which reviewed the evidence and “severely admonished” Torricelli for his conduct that August. That sent his poll numbers crashing, but he stayed in the race. Then, at the end of September, came the release of a sentencing memo prepared by the feds for the Chang case. The memo declared that he had provided “substantial corroborating evidence” for his claims against Torricelli and that “many vendors” had confirmed Chang’s gift-giving claims. Shortly thereafter, WNBC devoted its 11 p.m. newscast to an interview with Chang—“The Prisoner and the Politician”—a virtually unprecedented step for a local station. Democrats in Washington and Trenton panicked: Torricelli was on the verge of costing the party its tenuous Senate majority and taking down the rest of the Garden State Democratic slate with him. Within days, he was out of the race, replaced by, of all people, Lautenberg.

Torch’s implosion played directly to Corzine’s benefit. Suddenly, he was the Jersey power player in Washington, and his colleagues picked him to run the DSCC for the 2004 cycle. He also supplanted Torricelli as McGreevey’s chief intraparty threat. In the absence of deep pockets, McGreevey had fought off Torricelli’s backroom assault by promising party bosses anything they wanted if he became governor. By the time the ’01 campaign was over, the joke went, nine different Democrats had been promised the attorney general’s job. From the moment he was sworn in, McGreevey’s was a compromised governorship, with donors and party bosses demanding repayment for their loyalty and threatening to pull the rug out if they didn’t get it.

The result was predictable. McGreevey looked weak, the stench of dirty politics clung to him, and he struggled to implement a meaningful agenda. His poll numbers were terrible. At some point in 2003, Corzine began sending signals that he wouldn’t mind taking over the top job in Trenton. He didn’t want to fight McGreevey in a primary, but he figured he'd be able to convince the bosses to withdraw their support and leave McGreevey with no choice but to decline to run again, thereby clearing the way for Corzine to play the white knight role.

So desperate was McGreevey to fortify himself that he was caught in early 2004 on a federal wire uttering a code word—appropriately enough, it was “Machiavelli”—that signaled his involvement in a scheme to shake down a Middlesex County farmer in exchange for contributions to the McGreevey-controlled state Democratic Party. Other investigations were closing in on McGreevey’s inner circle, but we’ll never know if the governor himself would have been indicted. It all became moot with his “gay American” bombshell on Aug. 12, 2004.

What happened next would have been the best thing to happen to the New Jersey Democratic Party in decades, if only the party hadn’t been too greedy to realize it.

With McGreevey’s abrupt resignation, the governorship defaulted into the hands of Codey, the State Senate president. The story of Codey’s long climb to the top was a refreshing antidote to the money- and boss-enabled trajectories of Corzine and McGreevey.

The son of a mortician, Codey was a contentedly local, Jersey-accented practitioner of Hubert Humphrey's common humanity and Lyndon Johnson's legislative know-how. He came from a big Catholic family in gritty Orange, N.J., and he professed to be guided by Humphrey’s credo that “the moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

He had a special interest in the mentally ill. Nellie Bly-style, he’d once gone undercover at a state psychiatric facility to expose the cruel conditions under which residents were forced to live. Codey, while pragmatic, was also aggressively independent. He hailed from a county with a strong boss tradition, Essex, and worked with legislators who were often nothing more than messengers for bosses, but he’d managed to survive on his own—not with Corzine-ish money, not with McGreevey-ish supplication, but with his wits, and his willingness to take a punch.

In the wake of the McGreevey and Torricelli meltdowns, the party had accidentally ended up with a leader who was actually in a position to repudiate the corruption and bossism that had made New Jersey a national punchline, and whose story could remind Democrats why they’d ever believed in the party to begin with. He had a way with independents, and even Republicans too, exuding authenticity with his shambling gait and self-deprecation.

When the New Jersey tourism agency proposed a new slogan—“New Jersey: We’ll win you over”—Codey scoffed. “It makes me think of when I was young and single and asked a girl out,” he said. “She turned me down. I said, ‘Give me a chance, I’ll win you over.’” When a radio shock jock made crude joke about Codey’s wife, who had publicly described her battle with postpartum depression, he went to the studio and threatened to deck the guy.

Codey, the everyman, was a popular hit—his approval rating soared. But that doesn’t always count for much in New Jersey.

McGreevey’s resignation took effect in mid-November '04, and Codey was sworn in to replace him. The next election would be a year later, with the Democratic primary in June. Codey wanted to run. But so did Corzine. By this point, he’d set his sights on an even grander post-Goldman redemption: first the State House in Trenton, then, like Woodrow Wilson a century earlier, the White House. The battle was on.