The fresh paint in an office suite above the subdued Robert Treat Hotel offers the first whiff of Jon Corzine's reconstruction from corporate honcho to political candidate.
New desks are still in Staples boxes. A receptionist stuffs get-to-know-me notes in envelopes. A media adviser rushes by. And a stray pamphlet outlines questions that could confront a Wall Street magnate setting out for Washington.
"Q: If you're so smart, how come you got fired from Goldman Sachs?
"A: (Laugh). On Wall Street today, getting fired is like death and taxes. The only question is how long you'll last."
The hypothetical grilling is tailored for a man who lasted more than 25 years on Wall Street, climbing from star bond trader to chief executive of one of the world's most prestigious investment banks.
But that was then.
Six months ago, Corzine, 52, traded in his Lincoln Town Car for a Ford Expedition and took to New Jersey's hypnotic highways to forge a new identity.
"My name is Jon Corzine, and I am running for Senate," he exalted at a recent labor rally, sporting the gray pinstripes he used to wear to partners' meetings. His voice had been summer-schooled from near inaudibility to stentorian clarity, but the beard that political pros urged him to shave remained stubbornly intact.
Corzine's new adventure dramatizes the growing allure of Washington for celebrities and tycoons with the cash--or at least cachet--to compete in an era of MTV politics. Corzine does not have the marquee name of Warren Beatty or Donald Trump, but he shares their motivation and has the money to make his one of the most expensive Senate campaigns in history.
"Jon Corzine represents America's departure from its conventional template for candidates," said Barbara Kellerman, who explores the phenomenon in her new book "Reinventing Leadership." "Increasingly, you are seeing people in one line of work--whether it's wrestling or running a large corporation--running for government office."
Just a year ago, Corzine was hellbent on a completely different cause--to persuade 190 partners at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to take Wall Street's last major private partnership public. "In many ways, it was like a political campaign," he said. And in many ways he lost: Just after the partners finally voted yes in 1998, the stock market tanked in late summer. The plan was shelved. And on Jan. 11, Corzine abruptly resigned.
But he was not out the money. When Goldman Sachs went public in March, his 4.4 million shares were worth more than $200 million.
Those figures magnetized New Jersey Democrats, shaken by the retirement of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, who became a three-term Democrat after founding Automated Data Processing Inc. Republicans giddily nudged Gov. Christine Todd Whitman into the ring. Democrats ambivalently sized up Jim Florio, whose massive tax hike as governor cost him his seat to Whitman in 1993. "Some people thought he could lose to her again," said state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak.
In New Jersey politics, money is blood. In a state wedged between New York City and Philadelphia--a geographic phenomenon Benjamin Franklin likened to "a keg tapped on both ends"--campaign advertising dollars hemorrhage to three states.
So it's no surprise Corzine started getting calls. He ran the idea by some friends, including former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, a predecessor at Goldman Sachs. He consulted with Orin Kramer, an investment manager who had raised gobs for Vice President Gore--with the help of Corzine, a passionate Democratic contributor.
Soon he was meeting at diners with strangers who would decide where all the candidates' names will go on the primary ballots next May--county by sprawling county. Corzine wants to pair with Bill Bradley, so much so that he avoids beach and basketball photo ops that are the turf of the former New Jersey senator.
Rainmakers liked what they saw; 90 have endorsed Corzine so far. He is, by all accounts, self-effacing, even shy, a farmer's son unspoiled by rare indulgences such as his new house in the Hamptons. "There was not the self-aggrandizement a lot of us expected," Lesniak said.
Best of all, Corzine was willing to spill $10 million of his own money on the campaign. To lift his profile and credibility, he will attempt to raise an equal amount from a series of small fund-raisers and bigger hits from old Wall Street friends. "More than 2,700 Goldman employees alone live in New Jersey," he noted.
But Corzine needed a lot of work. On Wall Street, he is a legend. On Main Street, he is a mispronounced mystery. "Jon who?" asked 85 percent of respondents to a new survey by Quinnipiac College Polling Institute, the region's premier pulse taker.
"Mr. Corzeenee!" comes the earnest attempt from a street-fair patron rushing toward the candidate and his trail of signs. He delicately corrects her. "It's Corzine"--the second syllable rhymes with pine--"but you can call me Corzeenee if you like."
One man refused to shake Corzine's hand. "You live in Summit," the stranger snapped. "That's the best school in the system. Why do you send your kid to private school?"
Corzine's sunburned face gets redder. "Only because he has a severe case of attention deficit disorder," he said, spilling a personal detail about his 17-year-old son. "The other two went through public schools."
Even Corzine's money bears a delicate duality. Last year, he earned $13 million--the salary of 100 senators. "It has bought him a ticket into the game," said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. But it also gives him the onus of the rich man's image--the platform on which Florio stands up to rail: "He is attempting a hostile takeover of the Senate."
Florio supporters carp that Corzine cost New Jersey thousands of jobs by arranging mergers that led to layoffs. (Corzine says the deals created 720,000 jobs.) Goldman also underwrote a controversial bond issue that helped Whitman bail out pension funds; Corzine says he was not personally involved.
Corzine does regret his resume's biggest blemish: He has not voted in a primary for 10 years. "It's not only a civic disgrace," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, "it's hypocritical."
Corzine never even did a television interview until a few weeks ago, when Whitman stunned the New Jersey political establishment by abruptly quitting the race, instantly elevating Corzine's image.
But what Corzine lacks in experience he has made up for with a staff of veterans. Steven Goldstein, a former "Oprah Winfrey Show" producer who also worked for Lautenberg and on the campaign of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), co-manages the campaign with fellow Lautenberg-for-Senate veteran Christy E. Davis. Goldstein calls their combination walking proof that Corzine embraces diversity. "I'm a gay Jewish guy," he chuckled. "She's black."
Media pro Robert Shrum, pollster Doug Schoen and Susan Estrich, who ran Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign in 1988, are among the advisers who have helped Corzine shape a progressive agenda. He wants universal health care, abortion rights and affirmative action. He would push for major federal spending in public schools and raises for teachers. He believes in the North American Free Trade Agreement, but also in raising the minimum wage. He would call for all guns to be registered and all gun owners to be licensed. "I think we could spark a national debate," he said.
With the political platform and crew intact, there was still the matter of the beard--the scruffy stuff that conventional political wisdom says will doom a candidate. The last bearded senator died in office in 1974. "It sort of makes him look like Bork," Baker said. "That's not a good thing."
Corzine's wife, Joanne, who owns a real estate development company, bristles at the political packaging, noting the advice she got at a summer fund-raiser from Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Don't let them change you and you'll be okay," the first lady admonished.
"Jon and I aren't used to this," Joanne Corzine said. "We came from nowhere. This is not how I envisioned spending my waning years."
The Corzines met in kindergarten, farmers' children in Willie's Station, a Southern Illinois town named for its only gas stop. Jon Corzine attended the University of Illinois, where he was a walk-on on the basketball team. And during the Vietnam War, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve, in a move Florio supporters like to call draft dodging.
After getting a business degree from the University of Chicago, Corzine in 1975 joined Goldman and moved to New Jersey. Still, as his wife jokes, "everybody thinks Jon lives on Wall Street."
Which is why when it came time to make the big announcement, Corzine's camp decided to wrap red, white and blue bunting around his unpretentious two-story Cape Cod in the affluent suburb of Summit. In mid-September, he officially threw open his doors to the world with a proclamation that could apply to any number of millennium-straddling campaigners. "I have not spent my life in politics," he declared.
Then, with the nescience of a rookie, he continued speaking over the applause.
Born: In Taylorville, Ill. His father was a farmer and an insurance salesman; his mother a public school teacher.
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Illinois, 1969 (Phi Beta Kappa); MBA, University of Chicago, 1973.
Career highlights: Got his first job at age 13 as a corn shucker. U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 1969-75. Assistant vice president, BancOhio, 1974-75. Began working for Goldman Sachs in 1975, including positions as vice president, partner and, from 1994 to early this year, chairman and chief executive. Now running for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey as a Democrat.
Other: Board of directors, New York Philharmonic, 1996-present. Board of directors, New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Famiy: Married to his wife, Joanne, for 30 years; has three children.
SOURCES: Who's Who in America, Jon Corzine campaign