Page 2 of 2   <      

Corzine comes back, but far enough?

"So all things considered, being in a dead heat isn't that bad."

Corzine strikes a chastened note in his stump speech, which at points echoes the apologetic public service commercial he recorded after nearly dying in a 2007 traffic accident without a seat belt:

"I'm New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine," he says. "And I should be dead."

But the candidate is also betting heavily on his liberal passions, reasoning that increased spending on childhood health and especially on education will be rewarded in the Democratic strongholds that run up the state's urban spine. New Jersey's public schools rank among the best in the nation.

"You look out for somebody's kid, they look out for you," said Sam Brown, 46, a trucker from Irvington, near Newark, who predicted a strong turnout for the incumbent.

"Governor Corzine has made a lot of mistakes," said Brown's friend Robert Stephenson, Jr., also 46 and also African American. "He's not perfect. But the mistake he's made, he's apologized for."

In much of the state, however, Corzine remains associated with New Jersey's heavy tax burden, especially the onerous property levies that he promised to reduce when campaigning four years ago. Those plans were largely undone by the recession, which left the state with a $7 billion shortfall and the governor's approval ratings mired in the low 30s.

"He's a failure," said Bob Armstrong, 63, an engineer from Howell. "He made promises that he hasn't kept. The state has, if not the highest taxes in the country, we're right there. Property taxes are through the roof."

The revenue pinch also hurt Corzine with state employees, a usually reliable Democratic constituency that was angered when he reopened contracts to remove automatic raises.

"Where he is now has to do with retaliation a little bit," said Andrea Rouse-Baldwin, 35, who formerly worked at the state's welfare division.

The new labor tension overshadowed Corzine's widely publicized romance, while he was in the U.S. Senate, with Carla Katz, head of the local that represented nearly half of state workers. The relationship might have lent Corzine street cred in Jersey politics, but in the end it underscored his wealth: In parting, he forgave Katz a $470,000 mortgage on a condo.

"I think a lot of people felt that he used his money, his own personal money, in ways that are not appropriate," said Marlene Carlson, a retired teacher among several thousand Democrats at a rally last week headlined by President Obama, who urged voters not to blame the governor for the weak economy. The last Democratic governor to serve during a recession, James J. Florio, was swept out of office in 1993 on a wave of anger very much like the one facing Corzine.

"Virtually identical," Florio said in an interview. "But this recession is worse. The situation he's had in terms of deficits makes the problems I was dealing with look like pocket change."

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company