Hold Me Accountable: Corzine v. Codey

It’s another day in Trenton, that substitute city for Sodom and Gomorrah in the storybooks Republicans read to their children.

There’s a kindly-looking, self-deprecating man presiding in the upper house. Senate President Richard Codey tells a boy entrusted as the day’s gavel pounder that they’ll get out of the Senate chamber earlier than the boy’s schoolmates, who are still stranded in a classroom somewhere. Later, he’s posing for pictures with what look to be the female, senior citizen contents of a bus that was bound for Atlantic City, since detoured to Trenton to see the former governor.

The apparent equivalent of ex-heavyweight champ Joe Louis greeting visitors in Vegas, "Legislators are mostly good people trying to do well for their districts," he tells a bystander.

Beyond Trenton, it’s the same Dick Codey up in the Oranges, embracing local district leaders who stagger away from him happily looking for the nearest human prop to steady them.

"He definitely has that effect on people," Jeanette Seabrooks, co-chair of Newark’s West Ward Democratic Party, says proudly.

One does not need to see him in person. The words "Codey," "affable" and "regular guy" are linked ad nauseum in newsprint like the dots and dashes in a Morse Code signal calling for others in public life to be real – like Codey.

All of which adds up to a question to be considered alongside sitting Gov. Jon Corzine: Do Democrats regret selecting the money bags candidate over the shrewd but likeable politco, whom many still see as the money candidate?

Everywhere, Republicans are all over Corzine.

Walking into disgraced former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s old backyard Sunday to address Republicans in Woodbridge, Assemblyman Sam Thompson used the linkages "McGreevey-Cipel," "Corzine-(former Corzine girlfriend Carla) Katz" in the same paragraph, as though they are all part of one sordid and seamless Democratic Party meltdown.

Following a story earlier this month about Corzine installing Katz’s brother-in-law in a public job, Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance asked the state Attorney General to investigate.

Then 11 public officials charged with bribery – 10 of the Democrats – took a nosedive onto the front pages of New Jersey’s newspapers and the governor stood still, according to his critics. "He should have answered our call for a special session to deal with ethics reform," Senator Thomas Kean, Jr., said this weekend at a fund-raiser in Clark.

The fact that one of those public personages, Mims Hackett, was part of the three-legged legislative stool holding up Codey’s 27th District was blurred into the particular responsibilities of the party leader, one of the strongest governors in the country by statute: Jon Corzine, himself already struggling to bat away repeated questions about his own ethics.

"Maybe Codey is less controversial from an ethics standpoint," says Seton Hall University Political Science Prof. Joseph Marbach. "He’s been in public life for so long, had there been an ethics issue, it would have surfaced at some point. As for Corzine, his transition to public life has been difficult."

Authenticity is Codey’s calling card in the public realm. If the Democrats strive to identify themselves with everyman, Codey the Irish funeral director’s offspring with his endless extolling of "street smarts" presents no suspension of disbelief, no obvious contradiction. As long as Wall Street-billionaire Corzine is identified with the party’s leadership, conversely, he gives the Christine Todd Whitman-beleaguered Republican Party a chance to gather the forces of blue collar disaffection. And it’s not just Sparta Republican strategist Rick Shaftan calling for more GOP populism.

"Our illustrious Governor," Sen. Anthony Bucco tells a snickering audience, before he lands another punch. "I have never worked with an administration so inept as what we have now."

"I’m just a regular guy concerned about the middle class getting priced out of New Jersey," Union County GOP Freeholder candidate Robert Reilly says to a crowd at the Hyatt Hills Golf Course, a message the Republicans tried to embody against Corzine in the last election when Morris County Freeholder John Murphy intoned before he lost in the GOP gubernatorial primary, "While Gov. Corzine was on Wall Street, I’ve been down on Main Street."

That’s morphed over the past two years into Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio’s warmed up one-liner in the face of Corzine’s private money for public highways study, "New Jersey is not for sale."

With a playful straight right to the shoulder of whomever he’s addressing, as he straddles a county that represents broad ethnic and socioeconomic lines, Codey the family man seems incapable of becoming morally indignant over what someone else is doing with his life. The sense is if someone else wants to be stupid, that’s too bad for him. Anyway, don’t criticize too harshly. The gods of fortune can change everything – though the twinkling eyes say less so, just maybe, if a guy has street smarts.

"There’s no doubt Codey’s well liked," says Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "No doubt he’s one of the funniest politicians. Very few people have the ability that he does to say what he means in a sound bite and be funny. He has everyday appeal. He doesn’t have a $400 haircut, and people like that."

But there are people and then there are the politicians and dramatis personae that compose the stuff of parties: district captains and ward leaders, mid-level legislators and party hacks, envelope lickers and county chair people: all of the interlocking parts that make up the machine. Here the soft-spoken Corzine is solid because of one reason that remains central to political life in New Jersey as elsewhere: money.

"On the political side, the fact that Corzine was a candidate gave a tremendous boost to Democratic coffers around the state," says Marbach. "He maxed out on his contributions. (His popularity among county chair people) is a reflection of the money he has contributed around the state. He has been an equal opportunity contributor."

He gave heavily everywhere, including Essex County, where the governor maintains especially strong relationships with Codey’s intra-party rivals: Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and North Ward boss Steve Adubato; and with Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

"There are lot of relationships there with Dick in Essex County," says a Democratic Party insider. "It was kind of understood when the party went with Corzine and not him in 2005, and so there are no regrets now that he didn’t run. Essex County has done well with Corzine and Codey in their respective positions. There are plenty of centers of power there. A lot of people playing had no interest seeing Dick as governor, and they wouldn’t change their minds now."

In a state divided between north and south and the fiefdoms therein battling for party control, Corzine was supposed to be the Martian parachuting into Trenton to set straight the earthlings still stranded in Frank Hague’s New Jersey: the man big enough to be bigger than the bosses.

"Corzine comes to the table with a lot of money," says Woolley. "Now Codey could raise a lot of money, but when you need to raise money you’re in a different position. Without money you have to make alliances that Corzine didn’t have to make. He’s the opposite of McGreevey in this regard, in the sense that McGreevey hemmed himself in because of this complex web of county alliances."

The party chairs won’t knock Corzine, on or off the record.

"Let me tell you, everyone’s interested in everyone’s relationship," says Charlotte DeFilippo, chair of the Union County Democratic Organization, referring to payments Corzine says he made to girlfriend and union leader Carla Katz. "When politicians have private lives, everyone’s interested. The fact that he’s wealthy just adds spice.

"The bottom line with Corzine is people know he’s thoughtful and trying to do a good job" DeFilippo adds. "They think Codey is colorful and has good sound-bites But they see the governor as a man who’s made his own money. That’s my read from talking to people. Corzine represents a clarion call for people to understand the finances of government."

However ethically flummoxed Corzine may appear, however personally agonized, party rank and file say he’s introduced nothing into the culture of Trenton that wasn’t already there – and that the GOP don’t already oppose.

"I’m starting to absorb Trenton, which is not a good thing,” Assembly Minority Whip Jon Bramnick tells a gathering of Long Hill Republicans.

It’s a crowd of mostly senior citizens whose property taxes are too high.

"In most party organizations you have a party chair who is going to hand pick people to go to Trenton," Bramnick says. "What you have to ask those people is, ‘Are you answerable to the people who sent you there, or to the boss?’ The Democrats continue to control the environment. They have a tremendous amount of power and they think they’re untouchable."

Although he’s in a race in a district where Corzine with his asset monetization scheme presents an obstacle to his Democratic opponent, Sen. Nick Asselta refuses to dissect one Democrat from another.

"There’s three-headed leadership in Trenton called Corzine, Codey and (Assembly Speaker Joe) Roberts," says the District 1 Republican running for re-election against Democratic Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew. "I’m running against the entire Democrat Party apparatus."

Asselta’s been there long enough to know they’re all painfully mortal. Whoever chooses the highest reaches must withstand the hardest glare. Ultimately it was the governor working with the cagey old Irish sages – north and south – who last year succumbed to another bloated budget, in the opinion of the GOP – rife with so-called Christmas Tree items – 11th hour pet projects scattered to various legislative districts. If the governor who promised reform can’t budge, the argument is why not just go with the old steady hand?

"But the bloom comes off the rose at some point," says Woolley. " If Codey had been elected we’d be having the opposite conversation. We’d be looking at the budget deficit and wondering, ‘What if we had elected the Wall Street financial expert?’"

Somewhere in Trenton, there is always another room, where all of the deals go down.

Hold Me Accountable: Corzine v. Codey