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

Codey. (via njsendems.com)
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They won’t say it publicly, but there is fear, genuine fear, among New Jersey Democrats that this year’s gubernatorial election will produce a Republican landslide not seen since the Tom Kean era, threatening Democratic control of the legislature and key county offices.

With the election just over nine months away, Governor Chris Christie’s approval rating sits at 74 percent, his post-Sandy bounce so far impervious to political gravity. His willingness to break loudly and publicly with a national Republican Party that remains poisonously unpopular in blue-state Jersey helps explain this, and Christie’s reelection position has also been fortified by the decisions of the state’s two most popular Democrats to sit out the 2013 race.

Cory Booker, whose flirtation with the race represented a fairly transparent publicity grab in advance of a 2014 Senate campaign, backed out before Christmas. And Richard J. Codey, who served 14 months as acting governor from 2004-2006 (during which time he became the only other New Jersey governor to break the 70 percent approval mark in a Quinnipiac poll), stood down this past Friday.

There was little reason to believe Booker or Codey would defeat Christie, and polls showed each of them losing. But they each had the potential to keep the race competitive enough to prevent a full-scale slaughter and protect the rest of their party’s ticket. Now the most likely Democratic nominee is Barbara Buono, a state senator from Middlesex County who trails the governor by 41 points in Quinnipiac’s poll.

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Buono is a committed liberal who makes a good presentation, but she isn’t well known, and there are serious doubts about her ability to raise campaign cash. More than one New Jersey politics-watcher has invoked the example of Peter Shapiro, the talented and ambitious Essex County executive who ran against the mega-popular Kean in 1985 and was crushed by more than 40 points, losing all 21 of the state’s counties. New Jersey is more Democratic now than it was then, but Christie wouldn’t need to replicate the dimensions of Kean’s landslide to carry a lot of Republicans into office.

For Garden State Democrats, the reversal of fortune these past few years has been startling. For the decade and a half before Christie’s 2009 election, Democrats were practically unbeatable in the state. There were two main ingredients to this success: Demographic changes that made the state more diverse and Democrat-friendly, and the post-1994 redefinition of the national Republican Party as Southern-dominated, Christian-infused and ideologically far to the right; the culturally liberal suburbanites who’d happily voted for Kean, Clifford Case and even Ronald Reagan began fleeing the G.O.P. label in droves. Even when it seemed like they were doing everything they could to lose elections, Democrats would still come out on top.

But now they’re fighting for their lives, facing not only the prospect of four more years without the governorship, but also the potential unraveling of a down-ballot empire on which the jobs and contracts that give the party its organizational and financial muscle depend. It’s a turnaround that can be attributed to a host of culprits, but one towers over the others: The New Jersey Democratic Party itself.

The best place to pick up the story is in early 1999, when Frank Lautenberg decided to retire from the U.S. Senate. Elected in an upset 18 years earlier, Lautenberg had never been especially popular with the state’s voters, winning reelection with 54 percent in 1988 and 51 percent in 1994. With Christie Whitman, who’d won reelection as governor in a squeaker in 1997, making noise about challenging him, Lautenberg’s prospects for a fourth term in 2000 were iffy.

He also suspected that his fellow Democratic senator Robert Torricelli (who also happened to be chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) was quietly spurring the Whitman chatter. By then, the animosity between the two men was universally known on Capitol Hill and in New Jersey political circles; in front of their Democratic Senate colleagues, Torricelli had once threatened to castrate Lautenberg. A re-election campaign in 2000 would be winnable, Lautenberg knew, but it would also be expensive. He didn’t want to self-finance, nor did he want to spend months dialing for dollars, so he opted to call it quits. And with that, the race to replace him was on.

At first, it looked like a routine Democratic succession battle would unfold. Robert Menendez, then a fourth-term congressman from Hudson County, was interested. So was Frank Pallone, the congressman from the Shore, and Tom Byrne, the son of Brendan, the former governor. There was also Jim Florio, a fixture in state politics who triggered a tax revolt as governor in 1990, watched his popularity plummet to under 20 percent, then came within an inch of fending off Whitman in 1993. Florio, who’d served in the House for 14 years before his governorship, had always seemed better suited for a legislative role, and here was his chance to get back in.

What none of these men knew, though, was that there was someone else very interested in the race, someone who was as filthy rich as he was politically unknown.

Jon Corzine had grown up in Illinois and come east in the 1970s to make his name on Wall Street. A few decades later, he was the chairman and C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs, with an estimated net worth of $400 million. Robert Rubin, who’d left Goldman to serve as Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, had turned Corzine on to politics, but he’d never been much more than a dabbler. His official residence was in tony Summit, N.J., but he rarely voted in state primaries and focused his political giving more on national candidates and causes. He even cut a check for Al D’Amato at one point. But the timing was fortuitous when Corzine found himself on the losing end of a Goldman power struggle in early ’99. Lautenberg’s retirement announcement offered a golden opportunity for redemption.

It wasn’t obvious right away, but the fix was in. The new candidate made it clear to the people who mattered that he’d spend whatever it took—or, more accurately, whatever anyone looking for a check told him it would take—to secure the nomination. Not every Democratic leader in the state was convinced—South Jersey’s Democratic organization, which had nursed Florio’s career, stayed loyal to its man. But plenty were.

Torricelli, officially neutral as the DSCC chairman, quietly urged Corzine on, and the other candidates quickly realized they were playing a rigged game. Byrne took a pass. Menendez talked about all of the opportunities he had in the House, and how excited he’d be to go back there for a few more terms. Pallone figured out the score when the Middlesex County Democratic Organization—a powerful machine in the heart of his congressional district whose support he’d been relying on—reneged on its commitment to him.

“They want to go with Corzine,” a Pallone aide was quoted saying. “They are dazzled by the money.”

For rank-and-file Democrats, the advent of Candidate Corzine was never actually all that exciting. His positions were boilerplate liberal, no different from Florio’s—but at least Florio could articulate them with some punch. And at least Florio had a history of delivering results. A familiar storyline took hold: Corzine would cut a check and win a major Democratic group’s backing, but when he’d actually show up to visit with the group, the party regulars would be disappointed, even resentful.

“He is pulling up to towns with a dumpster filled with bags of money and leaving two bags here and five in Jersey City and Newark,” one Hudson County Democrat complained to a reporter.

Luckily for Corzine, personal contact can be an overrated ingredient in New Jersey elections, which are won with organizational muscle and over-the-air assaults. And on these fronts, he was light years ahead of Florio. The former governor put up a fight—everyone who watched agreed that he wiped the floor with Corzine in every debate they staged—but Corzine’s powerful endorsements and $40 million of cash translated into a 58 to 42 percent primary victory.

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.

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.

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