TRENTON, N.J. – He cracked jokes, nearly punched an obnoxious shock jock, and broke the news that the state was teetering toward bankruptcy.
And New Jerseyans loved him for it.
Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, regular Jersey guy turned accidental governor, so charmed this state’s jaded residents that they did the unthinkable: They forgot about former Gov. Jim McGreevey.
In the nearly 14 months since McGreevey left office after disclosing that he’d had an affair with a man, Codey has plugged a $4 billion budget deficit, improved services for people with mental illness, instituted strict government ethics rules, and kept North Jersey’s professional football teams playing in the state.
But his greatest contribution, he acknowledges, may have been restoring credibility to a state government hobbled by the scandals that spurred McGreevey’s departure.
” ‘New Jersey: A whole year without taxes or scandals.’ Maybe that should be our new slogan,” he joked in a speech last month.
Speaking more seriously in a recent interview, he said his 30 years working in the Legislature – paired with an understanding of everyday New Jersey residents – had prepared him for the job.
“I think we restored a sense of stability to the office and created a sense of calm that someone was in charge, moving us out of a dark period in the state’s history,” said Codey, who will leave office Jan. 17, when Jon S. Corzine is sworn in.
Codey has been rewarded with rock-star levels of popularity – approval ratings of more than 70 percent.
New Jerseyans loved hearing about their folksy, rumpled acting governor who traded barbs with the press corps and kept coaching high school basketball while overseeing state departments. When he told a radio host he wanted to “take him outside” for insulting his wife, Mary Jo, and other women who have suffered from postpartum depression, his fame spread nationwide.
“Dick Codey comes off as real New Jersey, and you can’t create that,” said Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal Trenton think tank. “I can’t think of another governor who has reminded me of the guy who lives down the street.”
With Codey’s ability to temper the anger that voters felt toward Democrats after McGreevey’s resignation, Corzine and Democratic members of the state Assembly coasted to easy victories last month.
Corzine – who has had a rocky relationship with Codey ever since the acting governor flirted with running for the seat in his own right – nevertheless gave Codey full credit for his election in an interview last week.
“I appreciate the fact that I don’t think I could have been governor – or any Democrat could have, for that matter – if he had not done the things he has done,” Corzine said. “He has restored credibility to an office that was in turmoil.”
Although Codey considered running for governor or for Corzine’s U.S. Senate seat, he has decided against seeking higher office for now. He will return Jan. 17 to his job as state Senate president, where he must work with both Corzine and another sometime nemesis, soon-to-be Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts.
Many say that arrangement simply invites trouble.
“I think it would be fabulous if he gave a great farewell speech and moved on,” said former acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, who did exactly that after serving the remaining months of former Gov. Christie Whitman’s term in 2001.
Republican lobbyist Alan Marcus said that it was Corzine who should be worried about the two masterful politicians he’ll have to work with in the Legislature – especially Codey.
“If I were Corzine, I’d want him out of there, because who the hell wants a guy with a 70 percent approval rating down the hall who everyone calls ‘governor’?” he asked.
Codey, for his part, says he’s optimistic that they will all get along.
Corzine “will have to rely on me quite a bit, and at times I’ll have to rely on him,” Codey said. “The very nature of the two positions forces you to interact quite a bit and depend upon one another.”
He said he would have to rein in his trademark quips around the serious governor-elect.
“I like to kid more than Jon does, and he’s uncomfortable with that, so I’ll pick my spots, shall we say,” he added slyly.
Codey will miss some of the power of the governor’s chair, he acknowledged – notably, executive orders that can enact broad change with a mere signature. When the Legislature took a five-month campaign recess over the summer, Codey stayed relevant by signing orders instituting steroid testing for high school athletes and strict ethics guidelines for state authorities and universities.
He also used that power to appoint hundreds of associates to plum state jobs and boards. McGreevey did the same. Among a flurry of late-term appointments that have irritated the incoming Corzine administration, Codey named Chief of Staff Pete Cammarano to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a job that pays $18,000 a year, and Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Fiordaliso to the Board of Public Utilities, which pays $121,770.
But Codey often struggled to enact his priorities in the Legislature, where, due to a quirk in the state constitution, he has served as Senate president and acting governor at the same time. Although the Senate has approved legislation investing in stem-cell research and banning smoking in all indoor places except casino floors, Assembly leaders have thus far refused to post the two Codey initiatives for a vote.
Even with a budget that held the line on spending, Corzine will assume office facing a host of financial problems, including a deficit expected to reach $5 billion, a bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, and the nation’s highest property taxes per capita.
Codey disappointed some watchdogs who thought that these pressing problems were overlooked by his markedly personal gubernatorial agenda focusing on mental health, ethics and sports.
“Dick Codey had the opportunity and the political skills to deal with the property-tax issue once and for all, and he failed,” said Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. “To be fair, he didn’t create the problem; he inherited it. But I just don’t think he wanted to deal with the issue.”
Codey himself says his only regret is a lack of time – to do things such as tackle the transportation funding crisis and fundamentally change the way state government spends its money.
Then again, you never know. As Codey noted, “Politics is all about being the right person at the right time.”
That could mean he’d run for governor in 2013, said Assemblyman John McKeon, one of Codey’s closest friends.
“Don’t count him out,” McKeon said with a laugh. “At 59, he’s still a young man.”