Last Sunday, Senator Jon S. Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs chairman and current Garden State gubernatorial hopeful, was waiting backstage at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center in West Orange, N.J. Sharply attired in charcoal banker’s pinstripes, he was battling a cold with lozenges and preparing to rally support from an audience of local Democrats.
Introducing him was the man he hopes to replace: Acting Governor Richard J. Codey, a 32-year veteran of the New Jersey legislature who found himself in the state’s top job last November, after a series of scandals forced Governor James E. McGreevey to relinquish his post in Trenton.
Amid screams of adoration from the hometown crowd—Mr. Codey lives in West Orange—the acting governor strolled out to the microphone. “I just came back from Rome,” he joked, playing off an earlier speaker who’d compared Mr. Codey to Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer turned statesman, who rose to lead an empire and then returned to his plough. “I was there for six days with my wife,” Mr. Codey continued. “And I’ll be paying it off for the next three years!”
The audience howled. But beneath the joke was a jab, a barbed reminder of what Mr. Corzine has and Mr. Codey does not: multiple millions of dollars.
“Well, I haven’t gone to Rome, so I don’t have to pay it back,” Mr. Corzine later retorted, during an interview with The Observer. He laughed, then added quietly: “I didn’t mean that in a bad way.”
Behind the repartee, however, lies a genuine tension. Were it not for the unlimited campaign coffers of Mr. Corzine, who spent a record-shattering $63 million to win his U.S. Senate seat in 2000, Mr. Codey would have had an excellent chance at winning his party’s gubernatorial nomination and, perhaps, the Nov. 8 general election as well. Instead, Mr. Codey is going back to the farm—actually, back to the State Senate, where he serves as that body’s president—and Mr. Corzine is running the best campaign that money can buy.
In New Jersey politics, the price of admission is staggering. Mr. Corzine’s current net worth has been estimated at about $260 million. His Republican opponent, Doug Forrester, while less wealthy by a decimal point or so, is also a multimillionaire businessman who spent an estimated $11 million of his fortune just to win the G.O.P. primary. When both candidates released their 2004 income-tax filings, New Jerseyans learned that they had declared $12 million apiece in annual income.
Asked about the influence of such enormous wealth on his candidacy, Mr. Corzine insists that money without merit is worthless.
“It’s not as if just being wealthy gets you through the door. Although some would like to claim that we’re turning into a plutocracy, I don’t see that as a reality,” he said. Mr. Corzine diverged for a moment and asserted his belief in the value of public campaign financing as a force to “level the playing field.”
It’s true that New Jersey has a strong history of supporting publicly financed campaigns; in 1974, New Jersey, Minnesota and Maryland became the first states to offer candidates the option of campaigning on public dollars. Currently, however, public funding for New Jersey gubernatorial candidates is capped at $2.7 million for the primary and $6.4 million for the general election. In comparison with the great sandbags of personal cash that the candidates have set aside to bolster their campaigns, the public sums seem to shrink. Mr. Forrester is reportedly prepared to spend up to $20 million in this election. And Mr. Corzine’s supporters have vowed that they’ll spend whatever it takes to win. In his case, Mr. Corzine said, the drive to win is a moral one, and not evidence of a creeping plutocracy.
“The answer is, I don’t think we’re shifting in that direction,” he reiterated. “It’s clear that people who have been successful in their private lives have a responsibility to give back and, if they’re imbued with those values, then you’re going to see these people more and more come into the political arena, I would suspect.
“Actually, sometimes I’m disappointed that we don’t see greater participation as opposed to lesser,” he added, “because I’m a believer in ‘To those whom much is given, much is expected.’”
By that logic, well-to-do candidates on either side of the Hudson River have certainly been, well, exceeding expectations lately. As Mr. Forrester and Mr. Corzine duke it out in New Jersey, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign is in full financial flower. The focus has also begun to turn towards the 2006 New York gubernatorial race, in which Elliott Spitzer, the son of a wealthy real-estate developer who ran for his current post on family cash in 1998, seems sure to win the Democratic nomination, and Tom Golisano, a billionaire businessman from Rochester, is jockeying for the G.O.P line.
“Maybe this is a new executive career ladder?” proposed Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “Some go to jail, some go to Albany, some go to Trenton.”
Their Own League
But locally, and even nationally, no other business leaders turned politicians can compare to the wealth and spending habits of Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Corzine.
“Bloomberg and Corzine are in a league of their own—a two-man league—because of their net worth. The amount that they were willing to commit to their elections really kicked it up a notch,” said Jennifer Steen, an assistant professor at Boston College. Ms. Steen, the author of the forthcoming book Self-Financed Candidates in Congressional Elections, has been studying self-financed politicians across the country for nearly a decade.
“Over the course of the 1990’s, each year you’d see more and more rich candidates running for office and spending a few million dollars. Those numbers were increasing, but in 2000 and 2001 you had Bloomberg and Corzine, and to say that they raised the bar wouldn’t even capture it,” she concluded, in tones of awe. “They were off the charts.”
So how did they get there? Apart from the most obvious advantages—television ad buys, contributions to local political warlords—wealthy, self-financed candidates can often sell the idea that they’re not beholden to special interests. Ms. Steen likes to recall a slogan coined by Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, of Kohl’s grocery and department-store fame, during his first run for office in 1988: “Nobody’s Senator but yours.”
But not everyone agrees that wealth is freedom. Wealthy politicians tend to have powerful friends; in some cases, those friends have powerful appetites. “George Bush is wealthy, but the oil industry is reaping tremendous profits,” said Professor Joseph Marbach, chair of the political-science department at Seton Hall University. For the oil barons, Mr. Marbach added, “It doesn’t hurt to have him and Dick Cheney in the White House.”
Another commonly held notion is that successful businessmen can translate their financial acumen into political prowess. While Mr. Corzine disagrees with this as a general principle, in his own case he heartily agrees.
“If you were investing in a new business at Goldman Sachs, you didn’t go from zero to a hundred miles an hour in that business instantly,” he told The Observer, drawing a parallel between his strategies as a former C.E.O. with those of a career politician. “You tried to develop a seed, see if you were off on the right track, see if you’re getting results, and then you add to that business over a period of time,” he explained.
Mr. Marbach argues that for Mr. Corzine and Mr. Forrester in particular, this isn’t necessarily the case. “Both these guys, and even Bloomberg, were essentially neophytes before they decided to run,” he said. “The problem with businessmen as public officials is that government doesn’t run like a business.” Measuring capital gains isn’t the same as metering the effectiveness of public policy, he explained, adding: “You can’t fire civil servants as easily as you can fire people in the private sector.”
Lately, Mr. Corzine has been attempting to dispel his image as a captain of capital to cultivate a more folksy, casual image that he hopes will resonate with the slate of social programs he has proposed to help New Jersey’s less fortunate. Recent television commercials emphasize his childhood in rural Illinois, where his father was a farmer and an insurance salesman and his mother taught at a local public school. And last Sunday, Mr. Codey, the son of a funeral director, finally joined the chorus. With as much enthusiasm as he could muster, he praised the Senator, saying, “He’s down-to-earth …. He’s not above us, he’s with us.”
As the election nears, Mr. Corzine seems closer to Trenton than ever. He holds a double-digit lead over Mr. Forrester in the polls and it’s widely assumed that, come Nov. 8, he’ll win a job invariably described as one of most powerful governor’s offices in the nation. This would be a far cry from his role in the Senate, where, as a member of the minority party, his power to enact policy was severely curtailed.
Still, some New Jerseyans look back on the days of Mr. Corzine’s $63 million Senate campaign and wonder whether wealthy business leaders, driven by a desire to do good, might be better off making their investments outside of politics.
David Rebovich, the managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, remembered teasing Mr. Corzine about just such a plan last year. The Senator had a speaking engagement at Rider and, together, they were preparing to take the stage. Mischievously, Mr. Rebovich recalled what he said to Mr. Corzine: “This could have been Corzine University, if you hadn’t run for the Senate and had given the money to us instead.”