By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009
NEW YORK, July 25 -- The most wide-ranging corruption investigation in New Jersey's history has upended the state's political landscape, prompting incumbent Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) on Saturday to name a reformist state senator as his running mate and handing a timely new sticking point to his Republican challenger, Christopher J. Christie.
Christie, who has been leading by double digits for weeks in the polls, began airing a new television ad Saturday -- called "Fiercely Independent" -- that makes oblique reference to the federal sweep that netted three mayors and a raft of public officials among a total of 44 people arrested on Thursday. In the ad, Christie speaks directly to the camera, saying, "As U.S. attorney, I put corrupt public officials in jail -- Republicans and Democrats."
"If you want partisan politics as usual, well, I'm not your guy," Christie says. "If you really want to change Trenton, let's start by changing governors."
Corzine has not been implicated in the investigation, but the scandal did reach his Cabinet; Joseph Doria, commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, resigned after FBI agents raided his home and office Thursday. Doria has not been charged.
Corzine was close to Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, 32, one of the three mayors arrested. The governor lives in Hoboken and attended Cammarano's inauguration ceremony on July 1. Cammarano, a former Hoboken council member, is accused of taking $25,000 in bribes from an FBI informant posing as a building developer who needed expedited zoning approvals and permits.
The arrests could not have come at a worse time for Corzine, who has trailed Christie in recent polls by 12 to 15 percentage points. President Obama visited the state last week in a bid to rally enthusiasm among Democratic voters.
"Clearly, this is negative for Corzine," said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. "Because so many of the elected officials are Democrats, this gives the Republican opposition cannon fodder to paint Corzine with the brush of Democratic Party corruption."
Corzine said he was "sickened" by the arrests and called on all those public officials to follow Doria's lead and resign, even though none has been convicted. "I will not tolerate even the hint of corruption," Corzine said.
The probe seemed to overshadow what was supposed to be Corzine's news of the week -- the announcement of his running mate for lieutenant governor. In what appeared to be a direct reaction to the developments, Corzine on Saturday tapped Loretta Weinberg, 74, a veteran liberal legislator with a reputation as a government reformer. Weinberg, a widow, notably lost about $1.3 million in life savings to the Ponzi scheme of convicted swindler Bernard L. Madoff.
Analysts said Corzine settled on Weinberg over other candidates on Friday because of her reform credentials and because she had already been vetted during her long public life.
Christie chose as his running mate a well-regarded county sheriff, Kimberly M. Guadagno, 50, who worked in the 1990s at the corruption unit in the U.S. attorney's office. Christie made his choice on Monday, before the arrests, and his selection now looks prophetic, reinforcing his credentials as a corruption-buster.
Another impact on the race could come from the get-out-the-vote effort in November. Democrats running statewide typically rely on a strong turnout from Hudson County, across from Manhattan on the Hudson River. But Hudson was the epicenter of the corruption sweep, and the arrests decimated the top Democratic Party ranks. Besides Cammarano in Hoboken, others arrested were Dennis Elwell, the mayor of Secaucus, as well as the deputy mayor and the council president of Jersey City, the Hudson County seat.
Also charged were various officials from the Jersey City health and housing agencies, from the city's parking authority and utilities authority and from the Hudson County elections board and the planning agency. Several defeated candidates for Jersey City mayor and council seats, among others, were also charged.