Politics: Corzine’s Crash

Like Barack Obama, Jon Corzine won an election by promising to bring change, courage and transparency to government. But three years into his rocky first term as New Jersey’s governor, he’s left to wonder if people really want politicians who tell the truth

ON A CLEAR but cold winter Monday, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine is once again on the Acela train, heading back to Metropark from Washington, D.C. Earlier today he spoke at both the National Press Club and the Center for American Progress about, naturally, the economy. The train ride home will prove, like the first three years of his gubernatorial term, rather bumpy. Removing his red necktie from his trademark sweater-vest-and-suit ensemble as he sits down, Corzine complains, only half-jokingly, that our interview will usurp his plans for a nap.

The governor has a tepid relationship with the Trenton press corps. His speeches are typically devoid of comedy, flourish or even applause lines, and face-to-face, unless the conversation involves economics, Corzine, 62, comes across as calm, plainspoken and circumspect. I press him on the challenges of his first term, whether he’s disappointed by how difficult it’s been to rally support for some of his grander plans. “I’m a pragmatist,” he says. “It will be what it is. We’re trying to do the things that we think will best protect the opportunity available to New Jerseyeans. As I said, being able to push back against the recession … ” Wonk, wonk, wonk.

Talk to both Democrats and Republicans about Jon Corzine and you get the same basic summary: smart, well-­intentioned, politically maladroit. “As a politician, he’s sort of tone-deaf,” says one of the state’s top Republicans, who nevertheless believes Corzine’s efforts are “totally sincere.” The man Corzine replaced, former acting governor and Democratic Senate President Dick Codey, says, “I think sometimes he lacks some political smartness,” adding that Corzine “knows how to run a business, but you don’t run government like a business.” Even former Democratic governor Jim Florio concedes that Corzine (who defeated him in a bitter U.S. Senate primary, but whom Florio now admires) “has probably needed a little more political savvy than he has.”

Corzine seems as if he couldn’t care less. He’s defensive about his accomplishments: He created an office to increase efficiency and transparency at all levels of New Jersey government. Legislation that made the state the first in a generation to abolish the death penalty. A plan to construct another tunnel under the Hudson River that will remove 22,000 cars from New Jersey roads and create thousands of jobs. Three responsible budgets. Even his critics have conceded the sheer ambitiousness of some of his proposals, including his most infamous: to pay down at least half of the state’s crushing debt by drastically raising road tolls, a plan that flamed out in spectacular fashion after an ill-fated cross-state sales pitch left Corzine looking as pitiable as Willy Loman.

In return for all of this — and the more than $100 million of his own money he’s spent achieving elected office since 2000 — Jon Corzine has enjoyed a self-imposed annual salary of $1 and an avalanche of dismal approval ratings throughout his first term. Late last year, just 10 percent of New Jerseyeans said in a poll that the state of the state had improved under Corzine. And yet, as he sits on the train, the waterways of Maryland blurring by, all of that is beginning to look like the least of Jon Corzine’s problems. The state now faces a yawning overall debt of $32 billion; unprecedented gaps this year and next for the annual budget; and a pension fund that lost $23 billion in 2008 alone. Corzine says he’s undeterred. “I didn’t think I was here to not address our fundamental core problems,” he says.

He faces a difficult reelection bid later this year. But the story of Jon Corzine is prophetic, with ramifications that stretch far beyond Trenton. America has just elected another eloquent, hyper-intellectual pragmatist who promised to speak directly and truthfully to the citizenry about the many painful sacrifices and concessions needed to right a floundering nation. If Jon Corzine is any guide, President Obama might soon find that while change is easy to believe in, it’s nearly impossible to pull off.