One difference between the previous Democratic administration and the new Republican one: only former governors get to sit up front. That could mean an end to the frequent triumphant returns of John Bennett, who has parlayed his 3 ½ days as Acting Governor into a seat with the other governors at State of the State and Budget addresses. At today’s inauguration, Bennett, the former Co-Senate President, sat in the general admission seats; former governors who were elected by the voters sat on stage, along with Donald DiFrancesco and Richard Codey, who are legally accorded former governor status because of the length of their service. It’s possible that Bennett has now spent more time sitting with the former governors than he did being governor.
Bennett spent 84 hours as Acting Governor between the end of DiFrancesco’s term and the inauguration of James E. McGreevey in January 2002. Democrats and Republicans each held twenty Senate seats, and as a result of the shared control, Bennett and Codey each shared the week. Bennett, who lost his State Senate seat amidst ethical allegations in 2003 (he later got one of those much-coveted clearance letters from U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie), made the most of his term: he moved into Drumthwacket, purchased ceremonial pens, and even pardoned a campaign contributor. A biography on his law firm website notes that he is a former Acting Governor of New Jersey.
The definitive historical analysis of Bennett’s administration was written by the New York Times’ David Kocieniewski a few days after his governorship ended and remains a must-read:
The Hours of Power Of an Acting Governor; Deconstructing Bennett’s 3-Day Legacy
By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI
It seems like only yesterday that John O. Bennett, New Jersey’s departing acting governor, placed one hand on a Bible, the other in the air, and was sworn in as the state’s chief executive.
Actually, it was three days ago — the blink of an eye in geological time, but an eternity to a leader like Mr. Bennett, determined to leave his stamp on an office that catapulted politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Christie Whitman to national prominence.
So as the Bennett era finally drew to a close today, after an 84-hour whirlwind of activity, historians and elected officials alike were scrambling to define his legacy.
Skeptics might be inclined to dismiss a three-day governorship — especially because Mr. Bennett was one of three men to serve as New Jersey’s acting governor during the eight-day period before James E. McGreevey begins his four-year term on Tuesday.
With the New Jersey Senate split 20-20, Mr. Bennett, a Republican, and Richard J. Codey, a Democrat, will split the time as acting governor in the period between last Tuesday, when Donald T. DiFrancsco stepped down as acting governor and Mr. McGreevey’s swearing-in.
Mr. Bennett, who carries himself with the measured exuberance of a high school yearbook adviser, might have been forgiven for taking a timid approach to a job whose rotating cast of characters led some pundits to compare New Jersey’s political stability unfavorably to Argentina’s. But if uncertain times call for self-assured leaders, Mr. Bennett excelled, veteran statehouse observers agree.
Indeed, experts say he governed as though he had won a mandate from the state’s nine million residents. He delivered the State of the State address that served as a victory lap for the Republicans’ 10 years in power in Trenton, started important-sounding programs like the Sustainable State Initiative, and with his wife, Acting First Lady Margaret Bennett, toured New Jersey like a conquering Caesar visiting the provinces.
In fact, some political analysts suspect that Mr. Bennett, who has served in the State Legislature since 1980, may be best remembered for his sheer energy. Rather than policies and appointments — since he had no time for either — Mr. Bennett’s era was characterized by enthusiastic barnstorming. Mr. Bennett’s public schedule — one was issued daily for himself and his wife — was packed with bill signings, school visits and ribbon-cuttings. He turned Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion, into a beehive of social frivolities. He even wore a hard hat, climbed aboard a back-loader and helped raze an abandoned building in a blighted section of Camden.
”From the moment he came until the moment he left, it was a blur,” said Cliff Zukin, a professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. ”He handled that job like there was no tomorrow.”
Mr. Bennett was so eager to begin his reign that he started two days early. Mr. DiFrancesco, a Republican who was acting governor from the day Mrs. Whitman left office last January until Tuesday, gave Mr. Bennett the keys to the governor’s mansion ahead of schedule, so he could hold a double engagement party for his two daughters Sunday. A product of the hard-knuckle politics and infighting that has rattled New Jersey Republicans since Mrs. Whitman’s departure, Mr. Bennett repaid that favor by refusing Mr. DiFrancesco’s request to deliver the State of the State Address.
But if the State of the State signaled the farewell for New Jersey’s Republicans, it was only a starting gun for Mr. Bennett’s administration. Highlights included visiting schools in Green Brook and Basking Ridge, a bill-signing near his home in Marlboro Township and taping the governor’s weekly radio address about an issue close to his heart, state services for the disabled.
As if that were not enough, Mrs. Bennett, a nurse, toured hospitals and nursing schools, and even made a ceremonial visit to their daughter Caitlin’s third-grade class in the Laura Donovan Elementary School in Freehold.
The crescendo came today, when Mr. Bennett took action on some of the most important issues facing New Jersey: allocating $9,200 to pay the legal bills of two state troopers who testified at the State Senate’s racial profiling hearings last year, and signing one bill that established a scholarship for survivors of World Trade Center victims. He also used the line-item veto to help ease the state’s deficit.
For all those accomplishments, however, some political observers suspect that Mr. Bennett is likely to be recalled most fondly for the things he did not do.
”How many governors can say they left office without ever vetoing a bill, or having a veto overridden,” said Tom Wilson, a spokesman for Mr. DiFrancesco. ”And how many governors can say they never raised a single tax?”
Mr. Bennett’s frenetic tenure expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, and his successor, Mr. Codey, promised to be a little more tongue-in-cheek during his three days as acting governor. He plans to have breakfast with patients at Graystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, coach a basketball game for his son’s junior high school team Saturday afternoon and to watch as his older son plays a high school game at night. Mr. Codey said he would also sign a few bills and ask the treasurer to certify the State of New Jersey’s finances.
When Mr. McGreevey is sworn in, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Codey will return to the Senate, where they will serve as co-presidents because of the split chamber.
It is too early to determine what verdict history will pass on the Bennett hours, according to Marc Mappen, executive director of the New Jersey Historical Commission.
While Mr. Bennett’s achievements might not match those of Woodrow Wilson or New Jersey’s other towering governors, he clearly avoided the indignities that befell Lord Edward Cornbury — appointed colonial governor by the British in 1703, and remembered for wearing women’s clothing and taking the first recorded bribe in New Jersey history.
Instead, when duty called and asked John O. Bennett to be the 50 1/2 governor, he did not fail to take his job seriously.
”I actually feel you can accomplish something by having a pulpit to be able to reach out and speak out,” he said.
New Jersey’s living elected former Governors are Brendan Byrne, Thomas Kean, James Florio, Christine Todd Whitman, James E. McGreevey, and Jon Corzine. In addition to DiFrancesco, Codey and Bennett, the state’s fourth living former Acting Governor is John Farmer, Jr., who served for one hour on January 8, 2002 — in between the expiration of DiFrancesco’s term in the State Senate and the election of Codey and Bennett as Co-Senate Presidents.