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

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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.