Corzine comes back, but far enough?

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- A year into his first term, which he won touting the financial expertise that had made him a multimillionaire, Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) proposed selling New Jersey's famous toll roads to private companies. The idea was to lease them back at a profit to help retire a $30 billion debt that the governor recognized as a millstone on the state's financial health. But the plan carried substantial risk even before Corzine, who already suffered a reputation for lacking the common touch, insisted on the program's name:

"Asset Monetization."

"I mean, you should laugh," said Peter J. Woolley, who runs polling for New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University. " 'Let's go to the voters and talk about "asset monetization"!' "

That's precisely what Corzine did. He scheduled more than 21 "Financial Restructuring and Debt Reduction" town hall meetings across a state in which his approval rating plummeted long before the start of the recession.

"At one point I told him, 'Just stop it,' " said state Senate President Richard J. Codey, a Democrat who preceded Corzine as governor and remains popular. "I said to him, 'It's very hard to get up on a stage before 1,000 people, do a PowerPoint presentation on how their tolls should go up 800 percent, and be persuasive.' "

The toll-road debacle helps explain why Corzine is running barely even in his race for reelection, despite an extraordinary array of advantages: The Democrat entered the race with a vast personal fortune, a 4 to 3 advantage in voter registration and the powers of incumbency.

For observers of the race -- Corzine is the only governor up for reelection one year into the Great Recession -- the question is how much of his plight flows from himself, and how much from the revenue shortfalls devastating budgets in nearly every state.

"They want to blame somebody," said Kendra Gray, 37, taking a break from shopping in the vast and mostly empty Jersey Gardens outlet mall in Elizabeth.

In New Jersey, the question is complicated by Corzine's uneasy fit with the state's political culture, which is both grittier and more inclined to backslapping than is the professorial former head of investment giant Goldman Sachs.

"It's a Jersey thing," Cheryl Carual, 29, said when asked why the governor has spent most of the campaign trailing Republican Chris Christie. The GOP candidate, a former U.S. attorney born in Newark, reminds voters that his parents live within a 25-minute drive of all 12 of their grandchildren.

The third-party candidate, Chris Daggett, who draws as much as 17 percent in the polls, made news last week when a gun turned up under the seat of a campaign car he was using. The candidate said it was his driver's.

Corzine "would say himself, 'People look at me as a millionaire, that I paid for the elections,' " Codey said. "He understands the way to overcome that is to do a good job, and then he's saddled with this recession.

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