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:
"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.
"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."