EDISON – Fighting upside-down poll numbers as usual and wading into an electionyear budget battle with Republicans who say he’s a remote and rudderless Wall Streeter intent on doling out further pain to the middle class, Gov. Jon Corzine on Wednesday nightgave an arms-flailing, podium-pounding address long on defiance, short on patience with the opposing party, and layered generously with narrative slices from his own life.
“I read the polls – I don’t like these things, well, it’s early – but I come from a 120-acre farm in the middle of nowhere,” cried Corzine, who told theMiddlesex CountyDemocratic Organization (MCDO) thathe fought Hank Paulson, former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, before Paulson ousted him from Goldman and became secretary of treasury under President George W. Bush.
In case anyone doubts his work ethic as governor, he added, “I got out of bed after a car crash, I don’t know if any of you saw me – and went back to work in three weeks time.”
Standing in the Pines Manor in this 25-town, Raritan River rust belt county where Democrats outnumber the GOP 3-1, the $61,000 median income hovers close to the statewide median and a sizable chuck of party committee members hold county government jobs, Corzine defended his controversial $29.8 billion budget proposal as a reflection of middle class priorities.
“We have to remember the people who fought for us. Our seniors! Are they middle class, or what? Damn right. We’re fighting for them.”
Suggestions by his Republican opponents, including gubernatorial frontrunner Chris Christie, to cut workers from the public payroll triggered an infuriated response from Corzine, who said from a base of roughly 100,000 state employees, his administration has excised 7,000 jobs over four years, mostly through attrition, and “gently and thoughtfully found more efficiency.”
Corzine said he would have to cut 10,000 state workers in this cycle to reach the figures he has attained through cuts in other areas to produce a budget $1 billion less than the first budget he submitted as governor in 2006.
“They obviously haven’trun a single number,” Corzine said of his opponents.
Sporting a lapel pin of back-to-back American and Irish flags, Corzine marched in several St. Patrick’s Day parades over the last few days – at least one of them in blue collar Middlesex – and on Wednesday night he praised his street-level colleagues, insisting he’s one of them.
“You win from the bottom up,” Corzine told the crowd. “You lead because people are close. (Mayors) have a sense and a feel for what the pulse is really about. That’s why I’m in politics. I do believe I’m doing the right thing because that’s what I was taught. That’s why we’re going to win in the fall, because we’re doing the right thing. We’re struggling for the right thing, and tough choices end up being right choices.”
A cross section fusion of Italian, Brit and Irish, Latino, Asian, Pole and Hungarian offspring from Woodbridge, Edison, New Brunswick, Perth Amboy and the smaller towns in between, this mostly old guard party committee that unanimously threw its support to Corzine didn’t appear to be at evenhalfstrength.
Those rank and file convention players among the empty seats in the room offeredhimat least two standing ovations.
“That guy’s damned cuddly, you know?” said the governor, after embracing MCDO Chair Joe Spicuzzo, the county sheriff.
Moments later, “We are so diverse,” Corzine cried. “We don’t always come from the same place, but our values are absolutely the same.”
During his time in office, violent crime has gone down 7-8% and for two to three years in a row, New Jersey has experienced the lowest level of life-ending traffic accidents since 1947, Corzine boasted.
He drew a national contrast too in an effort to affirm his case for the Democratic Party. During the Bill Clinton era, Corzine said, America created 23 million jobs, while “under George Bush there was an abrogation of responsibility as we spent ourselves into oblivion.
“Republicans ruin it and Democrats rescue it,” the governor said to applause.
In a nod to a tanking economy and nose-diving poll numbers for Corzine, “It’s easier to be president than Governor of New Jersey,” said state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Pscataway), who seconded Corzine’s nomination. “We have a fiscal basket case. At least at the federal level, you can borrow against the future. In New Jersey, you can’t do that. You can’t spend one more dollar than you take in. We touted him (Corzine) as a fiscal expert. …(Four years later) we’re still going to hell in a hand basket, but were going a lot slower than 49 other states.”
Assemblyman Pat Diegnan (D-South Plainfield) initially nominated the governor for reelection. In doing so, he praised Corzine’s opposition to the War in Iraq when he served as senator.
“Our governor voted ‘no,’” said Diegnan to mounting hand clapping. “If only this country had listened to Jon Corzine, today we would be much better off.”