Corzine and Christie: It’s All About Power

The New Jersey governorship is about absolute power—or close to it, according to the mandate given to our chief executive when the state’s constitution was adopted in 1947. But as Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The New Jersey governorship is about absolute power—or close to it, according to the mandate given to our chief executive when the state’s constitution was adopted in 1947. But as Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

What a perfect time to talk about the New Jersey governor’s race, which is coming up later in 2009. Incumbent Governor Jon Corzine apparently is staying here to finish what he started—and not going to Washington to serve in the Obama Administration. While most people say Corzine’s power has been diminished, it would be a mistake to underestimate him as a candidate. Sure, Corzine’s personal portfolio is down millions, but there are many more millions where that came from to finance his campaign. And those public opinion polls that say he may be in trouble? They will be ancient history in a few months.

Sometimes people mistake Corzine’s willingness to negotiate as a sign of weakness, and yes, there are times and circumstances I’ve felt he should have been tougher, but in the end, Jon Corzine is a born competitor. He wants to win a second term very badly and will spend and do whatever he needs to in order to make that happen.

But in 2009 it won’t be as easy as beating Doug Forrester—as Corzine did in 2005. Sure, the Republican Party looks pretty anemic these days, but there is an 800-pound political gorilla in the Garden State. His name is Chris Christie and he has just stepped down as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey to consider a gubernatorial run.

Named U.S. Attorney at the beginning of this decade—in what many thought was another bad decision by President George Bush—Christie  turned out to be the best U.S. Attorney this state has ever had. He prosecuted more than 130 cases of corruption—many in state and local government—and never lost one. He recently told the Star-Ledger that he “would not even know how to do an acquittal press conference.”
It’s no accident that, at least as a prosecutor, Chris Christie does not lose. He, too, is an intense competitor. Yes, he is an avid Mets fan (some things are hard to explain), but he is also a lifetime devotee of New Jersey’s musical boss, Bruce Springsteen.

I’m not sure Chris Christie was “born to run,” but he was born to fight. And I say a Corzine/Christie battle for the governorship in 2009 is just what this state needs. If they can only keep the battle out of the gutter and actually have a meaningful discussion about ethics (or a lack thereof) on State Street, our struggling New Jersey economy, pension costs that are skyrocketing, businesses that are leaving, and property taxes that are out of control, then we will be getting somewhere. But if this battle for political power disintegrates into a war of irrelevant words and a game of mutual destruction of personal and political reputation, then once again New Jersey will be the loser.

Corzine and Christie will have the best political and media operatives money can buy. Corzine will use his own money and Christie will attract whatever Republican money there is out there. For the state GOP, this will be a rare opportunity to win something of real value on the political landscape.

It’s always good to run as a crusading ex-prosecutor who put corrupt politicians in jail. That sold big in New York City for Rudy Giuliani and it might sell well on this side of the river. Christie is the goods. The problem is, if New Jersey businesses continue to shut their doors, citizens continue to lose their jobs, and health benefits and retirement savings continue to dwindle, I am not convinced that a crusading prosecutor is what people will be clamoring for.

Then again, while Corzine’s financial expertise comes from his experience on Wall Street, the folks on Wall Street have a worse reputation these days than used-car salesmen, or worse, those clueless auto industry CEO’s who flew into Washington on private jets to beg for a federal bailout.

Corzine and Christie each will face significant hurdles. But in the end, New Jersey could have two strong candidates with very different views of where the state should go. Both will be prepared to engage in an aggressive, candid, and hopefully meaningful clash of substantive issues. There is an awful lot of power riding on all this.

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