by David P. Rebovich
The overriding mood at Friday afternoon's State House press conference was appropriately somber. But this didn't stop side conversations among Trenton insiders about irony and some fanciful theories of political intrigue by less informed. Within a few minutes, however, several things became clear. Despite Governor Jon Corzine's very serious injuries and likely long rehabilitation, New Jersey state government will function smoothly. Corzine's agenda will continue to move forward or at least won't be changed! And, once again Richard Codey will provide stability and calm, competent leadership during another difficult period in the Garden State's political history.
By all accounts Governor Corzine will fully recover from the extensive injuries he received Thursday evening in a automobile accident on the Parkway. Those injuries would have been less serious had the Governor used his seat belt. As such, expect their to be there to be a mea culpa and some public service announcements about seat beat use in Corzine's future. But that's not the story here. The Governor, his driver, and aide were all victims of reckless driver.
Nonetheless, there is some sad irony in this incident. Corzine was traveling from Atlantic City to Drumthwacket – the Governor's mansion in Princeton – to mediate a discussion between discredited and now dismissed radio show host Don Imus and the championship Rutgers University women's basketball team. Imus's disgusting comments about the team received national attention, dominated the news for a week, and ultimately got him fired.
But not before several wonderful young women, and for that matter New Jersey, were dragged into a controversy that neither the team nor the state deserved. And alas, residents here will be deprived of the services of their duly elected Governor because he was hurt trying to get to a meeting which would not have been necessary except for the Imus's idiocy.
While Corzine is recuperating, his replacement will be Codey, a one-time rival. The Senate President served as Acting Governor for fourteen months when fellow Democrat Jim McGreevey resigned in disgrace. Codey's demeanor, candor about policy issues and challenges, and compelling family story immediately endeared him to New Jerseyans. His approval ratings reached a record-setting 80 percent, and the Acting Governor started thinking about running for a full term as chief executive. However, then U.S. Senator Corzine decided that he wanted to be Governor and persuaded enough Democratic Party county chairs, legislators, well-heeled donors, and local leaders to side with him.
Codey dropped out of consideration, Corzine got the Democratic Party's nomination for governor, and of course won the general election in November 2005. Then during an exceedingly difficult budget season in 2006, which saw state government shut down for eight days, the Governor and his predecessor worked well together. Now just fifteen months into Corzine's term – only slightly longer than Codey served as Acting Governor -, the Senate President finds himself as Acting Governor. What will Codey do the second time around?
Well, at Friday's press conference Codey made it clear that "business will continue as usual." After appealing to the people of New Jersey to ask every house of worship to offer prayers for Governor Corzine, Codey shifted gears and announced that officials were bracing for an impending nor'easter and that the state police and emergency personnel are "fully prepared."
Codey also said that he will work closely with Corzine's senior staff and cabinet. In fact he already does in his capacity as Senate President. However, he made it a point to add that, "It's their Administration, not mine." Actually, it's Jon Corzine's Administration, and he's not available. Tom Shea, the Governor's very able Chief of Staff, suggested that his boss may be able to perform his duties within seven days or so. Still, the Governor is likely to have a long rehabilitation and may not be back at the State House for quite a while. Codey seemed reconciled to this possibility but said that if necessary he and other legislators would travel to Drumthwacket or to Corzine's residence in Hoboken to conduct government business.
That's not an ideal situation, but it would mean that New Jerseyans would be governed by their elected Governor! However, the question remains, will Corzine's medical leave and his extended rehabilitation interfere with budget deliberations and negotiations and the ability of the Governor to advance his agenda. I posed this question to both Acting Governor Codey and Treasurer Bradley Abelow.
Codey said that Corzine's recuperation will not impact on the budget process. Legislative committees will continue to hold hearings. Discussions about "big ticket" items in the budget typically do not begin until mid-May, in plenty of time for the Governor to participate. In addition, Corzine had not planned to engage the public or lawmakers in detailed discussions about asset monetization, one way of dealing with the state's long-term financial needs, until after the new budget is approved at the end of June.
Treasurer Abelow said that his office wouldn't be at a critical juncture until another month or so when new revenue estimates come in. At that time some decisions may have to be made about the Governor's budget proposal for next year, but Corzine will be available to make those decisions. Here's hoping that the Governor will be on duty in short order, a sentiment that is shared by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the State House press corps, and New Jerseyans of every stripe.
David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (ww.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.