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

It was never a fair fight. As Codey connected with The People, Corzine signed checks, to county Democatic parties, municipal organizations, individual politicians, civic groups. Anyone who might have some sway with some voters in the 2005 primary lined up for their cut of the pie, and Corzine was happy to serve it. As the Star-Ledger reported in early 2005:

During a 17-day stretch in mid-October, as he prepared to declare himself a candidate for governor, Sen. Jon Corzine gave $342,000 of his own money to 16 Democratic county organizations across New Jersey. Corzine wrote checks to five of the counties for $37,000, including Bergen County, where Chairman Joe Ferriero played a key role in Corzine's effort to clear a path to the Democratic nomination. He also gave $37,000, the most allowed by law, to Union, Middlesex, Burlington and Monmouth county chairs. All told, Corzine and his family have given $9 million to Democratic causes and candidates - $8 million of it since he left investment banking in 1999 for politics - according to a Star-Ledger analysis of state and federal campaign- finance reports, the most comprehensive examination of his political donations to date.

One detail in particular stood out: While $37,000 was the most Corzine himself could legally give to a county party, there was nothing to stop one of his family members from donating, too. And so it was that 89-year-old Nancy Corzine, a resident of Oak Park, Ill., somehow decided to cut a check to Joe Ferriero’s Bergen County Democratic Organization in early ’05. There was no limit to the money Corzine was willing to spend, and no limit to what Democrats were willing to accept. All that free cash, and all he wanted was the nomination for governor?

Codey’s popularity grew by the day. By the middle of the winter, a poll showed him pulling close to Corzine in a primary match-up. The race could be winnable, but he’d need at least some county parties to stand with him—to give him the preferential spot in their ballot columns, to mobilize their turnout armies on his behalf, to counter in a small but meaningful way the blitz Corzine was organizing. But none wanted anything to do with him.

In a two-week stretch of January ’05, the major counties fell like dominoes for Corzine. Then a third potential candidate, South Jersey congressman Rob Andrews, backed out and endorsed Corzine. (Andrews was probably hoping to do Corzine a favor that would be repaid with an appointment to the Senate when Corzine gave up his seat to become governor.)

On the last day of January, Codey announced he wouldn’t be a candidate. The nomination was Corzine’s.

It was the beginning of the end for the state Democratic Party. Corzine coasted through the fall; it was a hard race to screw up, with Katrina ruining George W. Bush’s approval rating and corruption scandals further eroding the G.O.P. Congress’ image. There was little affection for Corzine among New Jersey voters, but there was no appetite to vote for anyone associated with the Bush/DeLay Republican Party. So as Codey closed out his 14-month term with rock-star popularity, Corzine was elected governor over nondescript Republican businessman Doug Forrester, 53 to 43 percent.

Looking back, it’s not a surprise that Corzine never began to approach Codey’s popularity. He was unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the legislature and the legislators themselves, and had no knack for capturing the public’s imagination. His transactional instincts poisoned relations with stakeholders, who weren’t as interested in receiving a personal check from the governor as they were in securing his help for specific policy action. Corzine’s signature effort, an incomprehensible plan to impose radical toll hikes on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, was widely hated, and he took too long to abandon it. As he entered his re-election year of 2009, his approval rating was barely over 40 percent, and there was no personal good will for the governor to fall back on.

Again, it should have been clear to Democrats what was happening. The basic dynamic that had made them almost invincible since 1994—control of either Congress or the White House (or both) by southern, religious Republicans—had expired with the 2008 election. Now Democrats enjoyed a monopoly on government in Washington, and for all of the euphoria surrounding Barack Obama’s election, the economy had just collapsed. Rampant economic anxiety was driving the electorate, and with Democrats running the show, the G.O.P. was suddenly able to exist, beyond the constraints of its ideological and regional identity, as a protest vehicle. This meant it would be tough for any Democrat running in 2009 and 2010, even in a blue state like New Jersey, and especially for a candidate with Corzine’s low popularity.

Adding to Corzine’s woes was the crumbling of an alliance of convenience he’d struck with two Democratic powerbrokers back in 2005, when he’d been scrambling to beat back Codey. George Norcross, an unelected boss who calls the shots south of I-195, had a long and acrimonious relationship with Codey, which made him a natural Corzine ally in ’05. But Norcross isn’t a man of ideology; he’s a businessman who happens to make his money through politics. Frustrated during Corzine’s governorship, he very quietly cultivated a relationship with Christie. So did another Democratic titan, Steve Adubato Sr., a force in Newark and Essex County politics for generations. Adubato also had little use for Codey, and Norcross had sought out a partnership with him in 2002, sending big bucks north to help Adubato’s protégé win back the Essex County executive’s office. By 2009, each was sick of Corzine, sick of Codey, and ready to move against both.

So at the height of the gubernatorial campaign, with Corzine locked in a close race with Christie, the Norcross and Adubato forces staged a coup in the state legislature, deposing Codey as Senate president and installing a Norcross loyalist in his place. The top spot in the state Assembly, in turn, went to a player from Adubato’s machine. The insider maneuvering made headlines and reinforced the worst reputation of the state Democratic Party as a hive of machine politics and dirty dealing. The deal transformed Codey, the most powerful man in the state just a few years earlier and still a broadly popular figure, into a backbencher, and left Corzine looking like a man who’d lost control of his own party. (That was an unfair impression—Corzine had never had control of the party in the first place.)

For all of this, though, Democrats in the state and nationally continued to treat Corzine like a shoo-in, joking about the supposed political ineptness (and physical appearance) of his opponent, Christie, and assuring doubters that last-minute campaign swings by President Obama would lift the incumbent. There was, they said over and over, a demonstrated tendency of New Jersey voters to flirt with Republican candidates early only to return to the Democratic fold in the end.

They totally failed to realize how different 2009 was from the ’94-’08 era. They also failed to realize that the Norcross and Adubato machines were purposefully going to sleep on the governor. And so there was real shock on the left when Christie beat Corzine by 4.5 points.

From that point, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the country discovered what those who had been watching New Jersey closely for a decade had long known: that Christie was actually a massively talented communicator, charismatic, funny and capable of owning any room he walked into. What had been missing for his whole career was a platform where his performance skills would be noticed. With his ’09 win, he got one, and he took full advantage of it.

It didn’t have to end up this way for Democrats. There's no way of knowing how a Codey governorship would have turned out. But it’s hard to see it having gone any worse than Corzine’s, and easy to see how it could have been a lot more successful. At the very least, he knew how to talk to the public, and while 2009 would have been a tough year for a Democratic governor to win re-election, it's worth remembering that Corzine came within 4.5 points of pulling it off.

So while New Jersey Democrats scramble to avoid a top-to-bottom massacre this fall, maybe they’ll take a minute to pause, think back over the last decade or so, and commit to memory the following lesson: Money isn’t everything.