Off the Cuff: August 2006

I must admit, I was as stunned as everyone else that New Jersey finally has a governor fighting for principle. A governor who refused to let George Norcross, the South Jersey political thug who works for Commerce Bank, tell him what to do. (What does Norcross actually do for the bank, anyway?) Jon Corzine had a budget plan, and the guts to stick with it, even if it required shutting down the state for a week. The real surprise, though, wasn’t Corzine staring down the Norcross stooges in the New Jersey assembly last month, as dramatic as that was. It’s that somebody like Corzine would step away from Goldman Sachs and bother with politics at all, given the mess government has become.

Lately I’ve been sorely tested — like a lot of people, I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in our government on any level. It’s painful to watch our lame-duck president try to defend the indefensible. Closer to home, Philadelphia is … well, you know that story. Last month, I wrote about the mess in Atlantic City, at a time when Las Vegas East desperately needs honest leadership. What bothers me more than anything is the feeling that real leaders, forceful leaders, leaders with ideas that aren’t simply all about their own political future, may not even exist anymore. Maybe our system, the crazy game politics has become, has pushed the best people out, and we’re simply left with the self-serving dregs.

Still, I can’t help myself — I’m always hoping and looking, and suddenly, just maybe, I’ve found a guy who really does have a plan and the fortitude to see it through. So in the spirit of our Best of Philly issue — with apologies to Ed Rendell, who seems to be coming into his own as Pennsylvania’s ­governor — my hat is off to Jon Corzine for pressing ahead with a necessary tax increase and not blinking, as the nation watched his state’s services come to a grinding halt last month.

All of this comes with a big caveat, however. Before his confrontation with an assembly very nervous about raising taxes, Corzine had a mixed record. He has made appointments that seemed to pander to the Democratic establishment, but he’s also made some smart, independent choices — notably for chief counsel and state treasurer — that show he really does want to change the way the state is governed. He’s also faced with myriad challenges in a state that’s been financially mismanaged for a long, long time. This summer, the Governor is forcing the assembly to debate property taxes, which means that other long-standing problems — inequality in education, overlapping government services, and a pension system out of money — will come up as well.

But let’s enjoy the Governor having his moment. State Senator Bill Gormley, a Republican from Atlantic County who has long been an enemy of the Norcross machine, spent a great deal of time with the Governor during last month’s budget impasse. Gormley says that Corzine pointedly refused to call Norcross, because he wasn’t going to make deals with anybody who isn’t a public official, no matter how politically powerful they were. The Governor, Gormley says, “didn’t invest $100 million of his own into running to be anybody’s stooge.”

Jon Corzine has made that loud and clear. Gormley, in fact, thinks the Governor has lofty goals. As he puts it, Corzine “is determined to change the image of Jersey from that of a Sunday-night HBO show.”

A guy can hope, can’t he?