In his 1974 inaugural speech, Brendan T. Byrne borrowed a line from New Jersey’s most famous former governor: Woodrow Wilson. “If you think too much about being reelected, it is very difficult to be worth reelecting,” it read.
The next year, Byrne took that wisdom to heart, pushing through a wildly unpopular new state income tax. So unpopular, in fact, that it cost Democrats seventeen Assembly seats in the mid-term elections, made Byrne consider not running for reelection, and led to eight other Democrats challenging him in the gubernatorial primary in 1977.
Thirty-two years later, Gov. Jon S. Corzine used that same Woodrow Wilson line in his inaugural address. But for all the criticism Corzine has faced lately, it’s nothing compared to the backlash Byrne saw in the 70’s, said the former Governor.
"Quarky things,” said Byrne of the Governor’s recent Carla Katz troubles that some Republicans hope will serve as his Achilles heal. “Like what should he disclose, and what shouldn’t he disclose. I don’t think he’s in any real trouble with that. They’re just pesky things."
With all the hits that Corzine has taken lately – on Carla Katz, asset monetization and ethics — one might expect his approval rating to dip. But he’s stayed right side-up throughout his two years as governor, even after 10 members of the party he leads were arrested on charges of soliciting bribes. In two recent polls, his approval rating has ranged from 49 percent to 54 percent – not stellar, but overall positive.
It’s tempting to say that he’s a Teflon governor. But Byrne doesn’t see it that way.
"He should have positive approval ratings because he’s a decent guy, he’s doing good things like stem cell research,” said Byrne. “People like what he’s doing. They might not like some of the nuances, but basically they think he’s a good governor."
Corzine, however, has not been subject to the same kind of test that Byrne was in 1975. Or, for that matter, the tax revolt that helped oust Gov. Jim Florio in the1993 gubernatorial election. Although he has taken some steps to address the government’s structural deficit, like raising the sales tax by one cent to help with tax relief, he has not yet been forced to make a move as unpopular as instituting a new income tax.
While Corzine has faced criticism from Republicans for not living up to the promises he laid out in his inaugural address, the fact that he has not yet made any dramatic and painful changes may be one reason why he remains in relatively good stead with the public.
But that day may come. Corzine has recognized the need to make up for the budget deficit, and it looks like asset monetization will be his method. It is possible, according to observers, that implementing any program that would involve selling, leasing or even bonding public highways to private entities could be the real test Corzine’s popularity.
"Corzine has not done anything to draw the voters’ ire, especially in the way of raising taxes,” said Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards. “He talks about some things but he hasn’t really pushed the kind of tax increases that provoke a voter rebellion. Taxes have gone up, but mostly in an atmosphere that the public thought it was necessary."
While Trenton insiders have kept a close eye on the Carla Katz saga, 61% of respondents to yesterday’s Fairleigh Dickinson poll couldn’t identify her. Nor has Corzine served as a rallying point for Republican anger the same way President Bush has for Democrats. According to the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, 31% of Republicans approve of the way he’s handling his job (similarly, 23% of Republicans surveyed gave Corzine excellent or good marks, while 44% said he was doing a fair job).
"That’s really pretty good, considering this is a state where really there is only one statewide elected official who is a lightning rod,” said Fairleigh Dickinson pollster Peter Woolley.
And although Corzine is the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, he’s managed to avoid being considered corrupt, even after revelations surfaced about Corzine giving a $15,000 gift to Katz’s brother-in-law.
So far, Republican attacks that Corzine has not been tough enough on ethics reform have failed to resonate with the public, according to Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project.
"Corzine has gotten very good press on his commitment to better ethics for New Jersey. You’ve heard him a lot on television saying he wants to clean up corruption and signing the dual office-holding bill and so on, so if you’re not paying too much attention, you’ve at least seen him dealing with that issue,” said Reed.
But Corzine critics say that anti-Corzine sentiment has been slow to manifest partly because his April accident generated sympathy. According to state Senator Gerald Cardinale, voters have not yet focused their personal frustrations on Corzine – like the lack of progress on a new school funding formula. While frustration with the governor was just starting to build with his constituents, Cardinale said, an event transpired that muted debate: Corzine’s car accident.
Part of the reason why Corzine has escaped blame, Cardinale said, is because of his April car accident.
"It was beginning, but what happened? He got in the accident,” said Cardinale. “He got a lot of sympathy. There are stories and stories being written about the doctors talking about how he’s recovering.”
Cardinale has played his own part in criticizing Corzine, pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold up the nomination of Matthew Boxer for comptroller in an effort to get Corzine to clarify his entanglements with Riccio. That, he said, could become a serious liability on Corzine if new allegations continue to emerge.
But according to Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton, the news that consumes Trenton insiders has barely any impact on non-political junkies.
"The Governor has said over and over he didn’t promise miracles, he promised progress. I think that’s what we’re delivering,” said Stainton. “The news that’s generated from Trenton has little impact on the daily lives of most working people.”