After Setbacks, Corzine Looks to Make Up for Lost Time

After Setbacks, Corzine Looks to Make Up for Lost Time

Publication: NYTimes
December 5, 2007

TRENTON — Battered by a year of personal and political hardships, Gov. Jon S. Corzine is struggling to catch a second wind.

“I think the next six months are extraordinarily important in being able to bring to fruition a lot of the things we’ve been working on,” Mr. Corzine said in a recent interview. “And on that score I’m optimistic.”

In April, just as Mr. Corzine began to embark on an ambitious agenda, he was severely injured in a traffic accident and then endured months of painful rehabilitation.

Through it all, he faced mounting criticism from Republicans and fellow Democrats and opposition from the public over his proposal to slash the state’s debt by refinancing its toll roads. He also fended off persistent questions about whether his dealings with a former companion, who is also an influential labor leader, had improperly intruded into the public’s business.

He seemed especially deflated last month, longtime friends and allies say, after voters rejected a ballot initiative to borrow $450 million to finance stem cell research, something on which he had invested his time, his influence and $150,000 of his own money.

“I believe that Jon probably is not as confident in his ability to get things done than when he first took office,” said State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, a Union County Democrat who is a close friend of Mr. Corzine’s. “I think he’s come to the realization that being governor of the state of New Jersey is not the same as being chairman of Goldman Sachs. But I want to add that doesn’t mean he’s any less determined.”

Now, as he approaches the midpoint of his first term and braces for a pivotal stretch, the political establishment here agrees that he has a only few months to fill in his record before re-election considerations are likely to intrude.

As Bill Lavin, a longtime ally who is president of the New Jersey Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association, put it, “There’s only one place to go, and that’s up.”

Otherwise, Mr. Corzine has acknowledged, the only other place to go may be out of office.

So the governor has begun to roll out his biggest initiatives. The outlines of a formula for financing public schools that will require $400 million to $500 million in additional state aid emerged last week. And his long-awaited plan to raise billions for debt reduction by squeezing more money from the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway through bonds backed by higher tolls is to be unveiled early next month.

Still, because these and other plans have taken a long time to formulate, he has opened the door to criticism from legislators, lobbyists and allies about what they call his administration’s lack of productivity, forcing him to court the public and the press more aggressively.

“I think he’s felt that he’s been playing catch-up all the time, and now it’s time to start pushing forward and make some headway,” Mr. Lavin said.

These days, Mr. Corzine seems focused, resolute and grim when discussing the state’s fiscal woes. At cabinet meetings and again at a dinner last week at the governor’s mansion with mayors from the state’s largest municipalities, he has been insistent about wanting to know “what’s the right thing to do,” according to half a dozen people in attendance.

At a lunch with reporters and editors of The New York Times two weeks ago, Mr. Corzine was at once blunt about his disappointment over the loss of the stem cell initiative yet determined to take up the difficult fiscal issues before him. With a zeal reminiscent of his successful effort last year to raise the sales tax by a penny to plug a $4.5 billion budget deficit, Mr. Corzine vowed to convene forums in all 21 counties next year to sell the public on his toll road plan.

“Without getting the finances of the state structured properly, I can’t do a lot of things that I want to do,” said Mr. Corzine, the only one in the room who did not eat.

With briefing papers and a legal pad full of handwritten notes arrayed before him, he conceded, “I just got a bucket of cold water poured on my head on stem cell research, because people want to see financial responsibility.”

Still, in a subsequent interview he dismissed the chatter that he was going through a bit of a blue period. “I’m anything but depressed,” he said. “This is one of the happiest periods of my life.”

Indeed, he continues to start every speech by saying that he is glad to be alive after the car crash on the Garden State Parkway, which left him with more than a dozen broken bones and a 10-day stay in the intensive care unit.

Yet whether upbeat or uptight these days, he has sought out longtime friends. On Election Day, for instance, he bucked tradition by eschewing a whirlwind tour of legislative districts with the closest races. Instead, he had a long dinner in Summit, his former hometown, with former Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, and did not leave the restaurant until close to midnight.

On Thanksgiving weekend, he surprised a longtime aide and former driver, Scott L. Kisch, now chief of staff of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, by asking whether he had any free time on Sunday. With Mr. Kisch’s companion, they attended services at All Saints Episcopal Church in Hoboken before going to the Meadowlands to watch the Minnesota Vikings steamroll the Giants.

While Mr. Corzine still enjoys solid approval ratings, recent polls have indicated that residents feel the state is going in the wrong direction. The message seems clear: Although the public still has faith in Mr. Corzine to use his Wall Street expertise to turn the state’s finances around, its patience is finite.

“The clock is ticking here, and his credibility as far as being able to lead on policy is at stake,” said Brigid C. Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University.

Mr. Corzine’s struggles have presumably not been lost on Christopher J. Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, known for his anticorruption work and his political ambition. Should Mr. Corzine fall short of expectations, many people in Trenton predict that Mr. Christie would be tempted to challenge him in 2009.

But first Mr. Corzine has to deal with the full plate before him. For instance, he is also awaiting a final report from a commission he appointed on how many and which financially ailing hospitals should be saved. And his administration is finishing a much-delayed energy master plan that could recommend building another nuclear plant and increasing investments in wind and solar power to cut costs to consumers.

To get all of the items on his agenda through the Legislature, Mr. Corzine will need the help of his fellow Democrats, who control both the Senate and the Assembly. But their cooperation is no sure bet, because Mr. Corzine, a private person who spends much of his free time across the Hudson River, has not cultivated the deeper bonds that most previous governors have established with legislators.

“These decisions are a litmus test for Governor Corzine,” said Assemblyman Michael J. Panter, a Democrat from Monmouth County who narrowly lost his re-election bid last month. “If they don’t really do a good job selling their ideas and selling the necessity of those ideas, then I think you’re going to see a lot of legislators in both parties being very obstinate with the governor, because they realize their next election begins in 18 months.”

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