If 70 is the new 60, then get ready for what might be one of the best second acts in New Jersey politics: the reemergence of Dick Codey as one of the most powerful men in New Jersey politics. This morning in West Orange, the venerable 71-year-old state senator stepped out of his Cadillac with Senate vanity license plates that read “DC” and was greeted as the “regular guy former governor” by everyone at Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s a role he plays perfectly—either because he knows it resonates with people who gave him soaring favorable numbers when he served as our 53rd governor or because it just so happens to be who he is.
Now serving his 44th year in the Legislature (he was elected to the Assembly in 1973 and the Senate in 1981), Codey spent eight years as Senate President and became the state’s governor when Jim McGreevey sent shock waves through the political landscape with his sudden “my truth” resignation in 2004.
Affable and self-deprecating, Codey quickly became the most popular politician in New Jersey. A Quinnipiac University poll in November 2005 put his job approval at 68%; approval among independents was 66%, and in an anomaly that seems impossible in these partisan times, he even scored 62% among Republicans.
He would have likely won a full-term in 2005 – something he wanted to do – had then-Senator Jon Corzine not wanted the job. Corzine was willing to dig deeply into his then-substantial personal fortune, and with party bosses that were never part of Codey’s friendship circle, Codey got edged out of the statewide race and shuffled back to the Senate. (In an interesting twist, Phil Murphy, then a Democratic fundraiser and now the front runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, was part of Team Codey – and not with Corzine, his former Goldman Sachs colleague – Murphy and Corzine were never really friends.) Then Corzine, never all that skilled at reading polls, passed over Codey and appointed Bob Menendez to fill the Senate seat Corzine himself has just departed.
Codey’s principal antagonist was South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, who worked to engineer a statewide power play that replaced Codey as Senate President with Steve Sweeney during the fall of 2009. Some Senators stuck with Codey, and three of them lost their committee chairs after Sweeney won. With Chris Christie as Governor, Codey found himself as a back row Senator. Literally. Despite his seniority and the portrait of himself that hung in the Governor’s office, he was assigned a seat in the back row of the Senate chamber, and without real access to the front office. Christie disliked Codey so much that he pulled perks previously extended to other former governors, such as a security detail, and fired key Codey allies in state government likeLawrence DeMarzo, who was let go as deputy director of the Division of Consumer Affairs.
Such a political setback might have pushed most politicians to call it a career, but Codey never backed down. He became one of Christie’s most strident critics (before Loretta Weinberg had fully emerged) at a time when Sweeney was viewed as oddly accommodating to the Republican Governor. Codey continued to advocate for his issues (most specifically mental health issues), but he also waited patiently for his opportunity to regain some of his old power.
The Codey Comeback began in 2014 when he backed Ras Baraka for Mayor of Newark. His rivals, most prominently Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and North Ward political leader Stephen Adubato, Sr., supported Wall Street darling Shavar Jeffries. Codey was also one of Murphy’s earliest supporters, back when most of the New Jersey political establishment was learning toward either Steve Fulop or Sweeney. Now everyone is on the Murphy train, but Codey and his $679,000 warchest can look forward to the benefits of being their first.
As Codey dodges the snow, balancing his coffee on his way back to his Caddy, he gives a thumbs up to a couple young admirers. He’s got a spring in his step and wears the look of someone who knows that the most important trait in New Jersey politics is endurance.