FARBER WEARS OUT WELCOME

by David P. Rebovich Ask just about anyone on both sides of the aisle about what they thought when Jon Corzine announced that he wanted Zulima Farber to be his Attorney General, and you are likely to get the same response. He could have done much better! But the new governor apparently believed that Farber, likes scores of other government officials, would grow into this demanding position. And, he was committed to having a diverse cabinet and was excited about making history by nominating a Latina-American to be New Jersey’s top law enforcement officer. History was made last week when Farber announced that she was resigning after just seven months in office. Ironically for Corzine and for Farber’s supporters, she made history because she simply wasn’t diverse enough. Oh, in terms of demography she is. But Ms. Farber is an established public figure who served as Public Advocate under Governor Jim Florio and as an assistant counsel under Governor Brendan Byrne. For years she has also been a member of the state’s political establishment who has a history of acting accordingly. During the McGreevey Administration, Farber and her allies actively campaigned to try to get her a nomination to the state Supreme Court, arguing that Latino-Americans, a growing minority group in the state and a major part of the state Democratic Party’s coalition, deserve reputation on this body. According to McGreevey’s staff, Farber may have had a successful career as a private attorney, done of good job as Public Advocate, and worked hard for the Democratic Party. But, there were some problems in her background that would compromise her candidacy for a seat on the state’s highest court. These problems, of course, had to do with her atrocious driving record. Her license was suspended three times, and a bench warrant was issued when she failed to pay a fine. McGreveey’s staff released this information when Farber’s allies threatened to withhold Latino-American support for the Governor during his anticipated reelection bid in 2005. But McGreevey didn’t budge, in part because African-Americans insisted that retiring Justice James Coleman be replaced by another African-American. The other reason was that the Governor calculated that if he did nominate Farber to replace Justice Coleman, her hearing would likely become a political circus courtesy of his own many critics. After all, how could McGreevey justify to the public naming someone to the Supreme Court who not only had no judicial experience but seemed to disrespect basic laws and expected to be rewarded because that’s the way interest and ethnic group politics are played? Average citizens don’t take traffic tickets lightly. Nor do they make threats to try to get their way with government leaders. That’s what self-possessed politicians who are disconnected from average citizens do. Facing low ratings in the polls and rumblings that he should be replaced on the ticket in 2005 because he was controlled by political bosses and guided by political considerations, McGreevey made what was one of the most popular decisions of his brief tenure in office by saying “no” to Farber. But Corzine said “yes” to appointing Farber to another high profile position and no doubt regrets that he did. True, as a candidate he actively courted the Latino-American vote and promised access to and representation in his administration to this important group of citizens who have often been overlooked by politicians in Trenton. However, he also promised to restore ethical integrity to all levels of government in the Garden State. Corzine certainly recognized that citizens were angry about corruption, influence peddling, and patronage and the recalcitrance of then-Attorney General Peter Harvey to aggressively investigate politicians. In the meantime. the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christopher Christie, was successfully prosecuting scores of corrupt public officials. New Jerseyans wanted someone like Christie in the Attorney General’s Office, and Corzine the candidate for Governor certainly knew that. Nonetheless, Corzine asked Christie’s right hand man, Stuart Rabner, to be his chief counsel, claiming that Rabner’s strong professional and personal ethics were exactly what the Office of Governor needed. But the chief counsel’s job also requires political skill in dealing with a very demanding legislature known to want to amend a Governor’s policy proposals to suit the purposes of its members. Experience in political negotiation is not something Rabner brought to the job. For her part, Farber brought to the Attorney General’s post three years of experience as a Bergen County assistant prosecutor three decades ago when she was fresh out of law school. As mentioned, countless public officials have demonstrated an ability to grow into a position and be effective. Chris Christie himself is a good example of this. Maybe Corzine was thinking that Farber possessed the same potential. Perhaps he was also hoping that Farber, well-known in party circles and by legislators, could help him sell his ambitious ethics reform agenda as not just “legally good” for the state by “politically good” for fellow Democrats. However, after calling for restoring ethical integrity at all levels of government in his Inaugural Address – a call that was not greeted enthusiastically by fellow Democrats -, Corzine concentrated on the state’s enormous budget problems. What did Farber do in the meantime? Well, her supporters cite the state’s anti-gang initiative, breaking up a high profile betting rink among hockey players, and indicting several Treasury Department officials for accepting gifts from government contractors. However, other folks note that former Attorney General Peter Harvey began the anti-gang program, the State Police nabbed the gamblers, and the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation oversaw the investigation last year of the Treasury Department officials. Whatever the case, Farber will not have the chance to prove herself to the Governor and New Jerseyans. Did she need to resign? Farber herself admitted that in this political environment, the standard of conduct for public officials is very high. Does this mean, one wonders, that in the old environment that this veteran political operative is accustomed to, the help she gave her friend with his own driving-related legal problems would not have raised any eyebrows? Farber may be right but complaining that things are different now seemed like an admission that she did not understand what she was getting herself into when she became Attorney General. But the political environment has changed in another important way that makes a change in the Attorney General’s Office beneficial, even necessary, for Corzine and the Democrats in the legislature. The recent budget fiasco, which ended in tax hikes, program cuts, and less property tax relief than residents expected, has put the party in power on notice. If members of the general public have to sacrifice, then pubic officials had better demonstrate that they are cleaning up their own acts. It’s unfortunate that the very person Corzine brought in to help him clean up the political establishment had to be the first to leave his cabinet. But now he can make his cabinet even more diverse by bringing in someone with a reform mind-set and who doesn’t need much on-the-job training. David P. Rebovich. Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He writes a regular column, “On Politics” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine. He also is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that provides weekly commentary on national political developments.

FARBER WEARS OUT WELCOME