The Return of An Accidental Governor

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A few years ago, Alexander Payne’s insightful film Election introduced us to the character of Tracy Flick, a self-centered climber who regards a high-school election as the first rung on a ladder that will one day lead her to the White House.

She was pushy, calculating, friendless and phony, a symbol of the kind of unchecked ambition that conservative activist Grover Norquist probably had in mind when he stated that “anyone who’s ever been a Student Body President should be drowned.”

Of course, Tracy Flick won her race, and Election illustrated a truth about American politics: We roll our eyes at politicians who seem like they were rehearsing future inaugural addresses in the bathroom mirror when they were 9, yet they’re the ones who usually end up winning anyway.

The fact that many elected officials evoke that character explains why, as a class of people, politicians are held in such disfavor. But few voters seem to realize that the political world is also teeming with anti-Flicks—authentic, grounded, guileless people who’d rather go home and watch a baseball game at the end of the day than work the room at a fund-raising dinner.

Because they can’t—or won’t—do whatever it takes to succeed, they rarely make it to the top. But sometimes fate steps in and gives the public a look at what they’re missing.

That’s what happened in New Jersey back in 2004, when James E. McGreevey, a summa cum laude graduate of the Tracy Flick school of politics, dramatically resigned as governor, his personal and political life drenched in scandal.

Mr. McGreevey was replaced by his polar opposite: Richard J. Codey, a lifer in the New Jersey State Legislature, who immediately fell in love with the job (and wanted to keep it full-time), but who hadn’t signed over his life to chase it. He coached basketball on the side, collected bobblehead dolls and was memorably described in The New York Times as “a bona fide Jersey guy, complete with rumpled suits, a comb-over and a spaghetti-and-meatballs belly.”

The rest is history: Mr. Codey, essentially anonymous even in his years as the president of the State Senate, was a hit with Garden State voters, who had lost hope that a politician might actually be, well, normal.

Jon S. Corzine’s imposing wallet ultimately kept Mr. Codey from seeking a full term in 2005, but he still left office with one of the highest approval ratings in New Jersey’s history before returning full-time to the State Senate.

This past week, fate stepped in again, although the circumstances are vastly different. Mr. Corzine, elected to succeed Mr. Codey in 2005, very nearly lost his life in a horrific traffic accident on mile 43 of the Garden State Parkway. He faces a prolonged rehabilitation and may not leave the hospital for days, or even weeks. And so Mr. Codey is, again, the acting governor of New Jersey.

His role should be primarily ceremonial this time, with most of the administrative duties being handled by Mr. Corzine’s staff. (Although, should Mr. Corzine’s incapacitation linger deep into the budget season, Mr. Codey will once again find himself in the peculiar spot of leading both the executive and half of the legislative branch.) Nonetheless, his fleeting re-emergence should edge his already-muscular poll numbers even higher.

Maybe Mr. Codey is so well liked precisely because he came to occupy the state’s highest office by accident. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain the fact that he was right under the nose of Garden State voters for three decades without them ever noticing him.

For all those years, he demonstrated remarkable savvy in the State Senate, earning the trust and respect of his colleagues while pursuing a pragmatic, populist agenda. In a state notorious for its political machines—both Democratic and Republican—he went to war with his own party’s bosses, standing alone but beating them anyway.

But he had a life, too—a house in West Orange, two kids, a standing Saturday-night movie date with his wife, an addiction to basketball—and an admirable aversion to traditional grandstanding.

The irony is that someone like Mr. Codey can’t get elected. He doesn’t look or sound the part of a chief executive, and more importantly these days, he doesn’t have the sort of independent wealth that could allow him to buy support and affection.

Had he actually run for governor—something he briefly toyed with doing way back in 1989—his candidacy would have failed miserably. No one would have paid attention. But after Mr. McGreevey resigned—and the disgusted, dispirited voters of New Jersey were forced to pay attention to him—Mr. Codey shined.

There are, and always will be, plenty of Tracy Flicks and Jim McGreeveys in American politics.

But there are Dick Codeys, too. It’s just a shame that it takes a scandal or a tragedy before anyone notices.

The Return of An Accidental Governor