Richard Codey on New Jersey Politics

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Richard Codey, former president of the New Jersey Senate and acting governor (following McGreevey's resignation), talks about his new memoir, Me, Governor?: My Life in the Rough-and-Tumble World of New Jersey Politics.

Following the 2004 scandal in which then-Governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevey announced his resignation and that he was having an affair with a male staff member, Richard Codey became the acting governor of New Jersey. While he only served just over a year, he said it was not a temporary position.

I wouldn’t call it temporary. I was permanent for fourteen months, eventually. That’s how I got to become governor. I didn’t have to campaign, I didn’t have to raise money, so it was easy to be able to become governor.

The Scandal Breaks

He said he first heard the announcement that Governor McGreevey was, in McGreevey’s words, “a gay American” the same day that the public did. He said he returned home late the night before the announcement to a message that Brian Thompson of NBC had called and urgently wanted Codey to call back. 

So I called him, I said, ‘what’s up Brian?’ and he said ‘Senator’, he said ‘We have a rumor that McGreevey is going to resign tomorrow and you’re going to become governor’ he says, ‘and I’ve got to go see my mother in Wisconsin, but if that’s true I got to stay here.’ I said ‘Brian, go see Mom, don’t worry about it, your source is smoking some bad marijuana.'"

The next day he accompanied his wife to the hospital for some minor surgery and then returned to his office to wait out the procedure. His staff there was anxious, having also heard the rumor, and soon he received a call from Governor McGreevey.

He calls, he said ‘Listen, Dick, I’m going to announce at four o’clock, I’m going to resign in September, you’ll become governor for at least fourteen months. I think you’ll do a good job, and this guy’s crazy.’ Hangs up. The doctor calls, ‘Your wife’s in recovery, she’s doing well.’ So I go up to see her, and I tell her what happened, and she says 'Listen, go get the anesthesiologist to put me back under.’ and I said to her, 'You went into surgery a mother, a wife, and a part-time teacher, and you came out the first lady — it was an extreme makeover!’

Codey believes the reason McGreevey felt obligated to resign had less to do with the ethics of his affair with a man while he was still married to his wife, than with the ethics of his appointment of that man, Golan Cipel, to a job for which he was unqualified.  Codey said McGreevey had feared a public arrest at the governor’s mansion, and had even considered paying a $2 million bribe to Cipel, who was claiming to have been coerced by McGreevey into the sexual affair and threatening to sue. 

Lessons of the Office

Codey was popular as governor, but did not run in 2005, feeling that he was no match against the personal fortune of Jon Corzine.

When [Corzine] first ran for United States Senate, he’d given all the political bosses of New Jersey tons and tons of money, so they looked at him as an ATM machine. So instead of saying to him, ‘Listen, this guy [Codey] seems to be catching on, this has been a bad scandal for the party, why don’t you stay in Washington’— no. They wanted him, and they wanted his money. So I blame the party and not just Jon Corzine.

One lesson he learned from the experience was the tremendous role of wealth in electoral politics, but also that to be successful in a high-profile position like governor, one must have a personality that people like and feel able to connect with. Codey said Corzine did not have that personality, and it led to his eventual defeat. Chris Christie, on the other hand, people do connect with, but Codey thinks a large number of them are alienated by what he called Christie’s “bully routine.”

My feeling is, if you’re the governor, you lead by example, and you can disagree with people, but be a gentleman. And his style is different, and that’s his right, no question about it.

On a policy level, Codey thinks Corzine was too indecisive and that led to an estrangement from the public that would have helped sell his ideas. He said Governor Christie has been effective with his dedication to the single topic of property taxes, though Christie’s approach may be workable. Codey also disagrees with Christie’s take on the millionaire’s tax. 

It’s only on your millions of dollars after your first million, so I mean, he’s for those people not helping us. I think that’s wrong. And as far as pension reform… [Christie] is the first governor in many years not to make a pension payment. He has yet to make one.

While Codey had a high approval rating, many governor's leave office with negative legacies. Asked if the disfavor so many governors have faced is reflective of the individuals or simply a sign of the times, Codey answered that it is both.

Some would say I got lucky — who knows? But I liked the job, and people liked me, and thank god it's a good legacy that I am extremely proud of.