Corzine’s Legacy in Defeat: Politics and Politicians Do Matter

I certainly did not want to see Jon Corzine re-elected, but I am not one of those pundits writing a political obituary claiming that he was one of the worst governors in the history of New Jersey.  The Corzine years were not without notable accomplishments.  Most significantly, the outgoing Governor can take credit for 1) revising the Abbott school funding formula so that state school aid follows the disadvantaged student; and 2) tightening the cap on school district spending.

On the most significant issue, however, namely the unaffordability of New Jersey for working and middle-class families, Jon Corzine failed to meet his objectives.  “Affordability” involves three components: state taxes, local property taxes, and energy costs, and Jon Corzine failed to make any discernable progress in these areas.

The reason is simple:  Only a two term Governor can really attain major objectives on the affordability issue.  In retrospect, Jon Corzine failed to win a second term because he had a disdain for politicians and discomfort with politics.

While he had highly competent outside campaign advisors in Steve DeMicco and Brad Lawrence, Corzine never had a real political nerve center in his Governor’s office, again due to his anti-politics and anti-politician inclinations.  Instead, he relied heavily on Goldman-Sachs veterans like Brad Abelow and Gary Rose, two highly intelligent individuals who did not have the slightest clue of the political ramifications of their policies.

The Corzine initiative which, in my view, most vividly exemplified his political tone deafness and ultimately doomed his reelection chances was the “asset monetization” proposal, which included huge hikes in the tolls on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike.  Monmouth and Ocean Counties provided Chris Christie with his victory margin, and the proposed toll hike was the key factor, together with high property taxes and the hostility of the Asbury Park Press and 101.5 FM.

The most important quality in a Governor’s Chief of Staff is political savvy.  A Chief of Staff like Harold Hodes (Byrne) or the late Greg Stevens (Kean) would have told Governor Corzine that his asset monetization proposal constituted political suicide.  Certainly, they would have advised him to defer making such a proposal until he was safely reelected to a second term.

As I watched Corzine give his final State-of-the-State address, I reflected on my own relationship with the outgoing Governor.  In my view, he is a profoundly decent, ethical, and good man.   As Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA in the Bush administration, in spite of policy and political differences, I maintained a good relationship with both Governor Corzine and Lisa Jackson, his Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection and now the Administrator of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.

Jon Corzine, to his credit, also has a thick skin.  In 2000, I wrote an Op-Ed column in the New Jersey Jewish News supporting Republican Bob Franks for U.S. Senate against Corzine, describing the Democrat candidate as “Hillary Clinton with a beard.”

Corzine never held that against me.  I saw him at an AIPAC function six months after the election, and he couldn’t have been friendlier.  When one of his supporters went over to him and asked “Why are you being friendly with Steinberg after what he wrote about you”, Corzine replied, “Oh, Alan is really a good guy.  That was all about the campaign.”

During his State-of-the-State speech, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Governor regretted ever leaving the United States Senate.   Once you are elected United States Senator as a Democrat in a “blue” state like New Jersey, you are virtually guaranteed reelection as long as you have good policy skills and listen to your campaign consultants when you are up for reelection.  I have little doubt that had Corzine remained in the Senate, he would have had a long run as a key player in the world’s most exclusive club.

I read in early 2009 a book about the history of Goldman-Sachs, The Partnership by Charles Ellis, which gave me a good clue as to how Corzine had the right skill set for the U.S. Senate but wrong for the governorship of New Jersey.  A large portion of the book involves Corzine’s rise as a bond trader to the position of Goldman-Sachs Chief Executive Officer and his ultimate ouster in a coup engineered by Hank Paulson, who later became President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary.

Corzine was a superb bond trader.  His incisive knowledge of the markets and his mastery of the art of the deal were skills that made him one of the greatest bond dealers in the history of the firm.  These are two skills that would have enabled him to rise to the top rung of leadership in the United States Senate.

He was sorely lacking, however, in corporate executive political skills as CEO of Goldman-Sachs, just as he was deficient in the political skills necessary for success as the chief executive of New Jersey.  During the famed Long Term Capital Management crisis in 1998, Corzine took actions on his own without consulting and gaining the support of his fellow members of the Goldman-Sachs executive committee.   He would display the same type of unilateral decision making later as Governor of New Jersey in terms of his relationship with the legislature.

When Corzine first learned of the Paulson-led effort to depose him as Goldman-Sachs CEO, he appeared befuddled as to how to react.  He often displayed the same bafflement during the 2009 gubernatorial campaign.

Karl Marx said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”  It would be unfair to classify Corzine’s tenure as Goldman-Sachs CEO or as Governor of New Jersey as either tragedy or farce; however, one thing is clear.  Corzine’s service as a corporate CEO and Governor of New Jersey both ended unsuccessfully, due to his lack of political skills.

Corzine is only 63, and I have to believe that there is an Act Three in his life.  Whatever it may be, he will be successful – as long as no political skills are necessary.

 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

Corzine’s Legacy in Defeat:  Politics and Politicians Do Matter