CODEY’S LEGACY: A WORK IN PROGRESS

by David P. Rebovich As his fourteen month stint as Acting Governor winds down, Richard Codey is being lionized by politicians, reporters, pundits and a large portion of the general public for the job he has done since succeeding the infamous Jim McGreevey. Codey certainly deserves praise. In the meantime, however, many of these same people are wondering what Codey’s successor, Jon Corzine, will do to address the multibillion dollar budget deficit and other huge policy and fiscal problems the McGreevey-era Democrats bequeathed to him. Yes, Codey bears some responsibility for this bequest, too. On these terms one would have to conclude that Codey’s legacy as Acting Governor is mixed. However, there is another way of looking at Codey’s performance and what his service as Acting Governor may mean for New Jersey politics in the future. This other perspective requires us to consider three things. One is the complicated political and public relations challenges that Codey had to face as McGreevey’s successor. Another is that when Codey decided not to seek a full term as governor, he became a lame duck, a status would limit what the legislature would let him to do to deal with the budget and other policy problems. Thirdly and most importantly, there is the possibility that as Senate President in the upcoming legislative session Codey will continue to draw on the state-wide, long term perspective that governors usually must have. A Senate President who brings such a perspective to his post can play a different and perhaps more meaningful role in state government than the typical legislative leader. And thus, have a chance of adding to his legacy even if he is no longer in the governor’s office. Like nearly every legislator, leader or not, Richard Codey was not well-known throughout New Jersey before the McGreevey scandal broke. And had citizens come to know Codey under normal circumstances, they may well have passed him off as simply a life-long, professional politician who was better at brokering backroom deals than convincing fellow lawmakers, much less the general public, to support bold policies. But after the relatively youthful, petulant McGreevey, the middle-aged Codey brought maturity and modesty maturity to the governor’s office. Rather than being a negative, his three decades of legislative experience gave him the steadiness and sense of realism that New Jerseyans wanted, a welcome relief from the excessive criticisms and extravagant promises made by his predecessor. The more that New Jerseyans learned about Codey’s private life, the more they saw him as a person of depth – a loyal spouse and devoted parent who put family ahead of politics and whose personal experiences and family problems infused his political views and policy priorities. Codey and his courageous wife used the governorship to draw attention to mental health, an issue that matters to them and should matter to more folks. The politics of this? None. But it’s hard not to think about how the Codeys let the public and the press peer into their private lives to make a point about the need for policy reform, while the McGreeveys hid their private lives to try to survive politically. This contrast undoubtedly elevated the relatively unknown Codey in the eyes of the public. His lack of pretense also helped. When the Acting Governor told New Jerseyans that the state had big problems and no easy solutions, citizens may not have been happy. But they believed him. When he admitted that, yes, ethics in state government had to be improved but insisted that the legislative process was still sound, most folks seemed to agree. With someone like Codey in charge, suddenly state government didn’t seem so bad. These sentiments were reflected in the polls last year. Soon after taking office, Codey’s approval ratings soared, and he gave serious thought to seeking his party’s nomination to run for a full-term. This despite Jon Corzine’s intention to run in a primary and his apparent willingness to spent whatever it would take to win. Most Democratic Party leaders, legislators and local officials lined up behind Corzine and did not want a competitive primary. Codey acquiesced, but Corzine lost some points. After all, Codey had seemed to earn the right to run for a full term, while Corzine looked like a bored Senator who was willing to use his fortune to buy another office. Even after they elected Corzine as their next Governor, New Jerseyans gave Codey the highest approval rating a chief executive has ever received here. However, that approval rating is somewhat inflated because Codey himself never had to endure the scrutiny from the press and the public that running in a statewide campaign would bring. Had he run in a primary against Corzine or in the general election against Doug Forrester, Codey would have no doubt been accused of ushering McGreevey’s fiscally irresponsible budgets through the legislature, voting for several tax hikes under the last five governors, and rubbing elbows with, or accepting political donations from, some unsavory types. In addition, it’s worth remembering that Codey’s numbers did take a hit last winter when he proposed that rebate checks be rescinded because of the state’s fiscal problems. His fellow Democrats in the legislature, as well as many Republicans, insisted that rebate checks be included in the budget, and they were. In the meantime many legislators and most New Jerseyans were calling for long-term property relief as well as comprehensive ethics reform. One of Codey’s real accomplishments as Acting Governor was to establish a set of ethics standards and a training program for all government employees. But despite public and editorial pressure, pay-to-play reform at all levels of government was not instituted. Governor-elect Corzine said during the campaign that such reform is a top priority of his. So is long term property tax reform. While Democrats in the Assembly passed a measure that would have enabled citizens to vote to have a constitutional convention on property tax reform, the Codey-led Senate and the Acting Governor himself did not support the bill. In a general election campaign, this would have been an unpopular position indeed and may well have cost Codey a full-term in office had he been his party’s nominee. But Corzine will have that full-term and plans to pursue property tax and ethics reform. Faced with a five billion dollar budget deficit and the added challenges of finding revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund, the School Construction Corporation, and the government workers’ pension fund, Corzine has to make some tough decisions that were not made by the McGreevey or Codey-era Democrats. He already has been telling New Jerseyans that “shared sacrifice” is the order of the day and that some of his campaign promises for new spending programs must be deferred until the state’s fiscal house is put in order. Now the question is, where will Codey, the former Acting Governor and still Senate President, going to be on these issues? For the state’s sake, as well as for his own legacy, let’s hope that Codey remembers what it is like to be governor and puts his own personal popularity and political support behind the new Governor’s plans to act on ethics reform and property tax reform. New Jerseyans may like Codey. But given a choice, they like property tax and ethics reform more. In addition, Codey can also help the state by helping his fellow Senators and members of the public understand that, yes, sacrifices are simply going to be necessary over the next few years to put New Jersey on sound fiscal footing and enable it to meet its spending responsibilities. As Acting Governor Codey has shown an ability to connect with average citizens and to make his case clearly, confidently and calmly. As Senate President, he can cap off a fine career in politics by helping Corzine make his case for reforms that the majority of New Jerseyans want and for sacrifices that may be not be popular but are necessary. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (http://www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

CODEY’S LEGACY: A WORK IN PROGRESS