The Vultures Circle McGreevey

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, August 16, 2004)


When New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey announced his resignation Thursday, explaining that the circumstances surrounding his affair with another man could hamper his long-term ability to govern, the immediate controversy surrounded the affair and whether he was right to resign. Now, the controversy surrounds the timing of McGreevey’s resignation, with politicians in both parties calling for him to speed up his exit.

Near the end of his resignation speech, McGreevey announced that he would step down Nov. 15, saying he wanted to “facilitate a responsible transition.” Waiting until that date would also prevent a special election for McGreevey’s replacement, handing the remainder of McGreevey’s term — until 2006 — to state Senate President Richard Codey, a Democrat who has served in the state legislature since 1973. Because New Jersey never elects a lieutenant governor, Codey is first in the line of succession, and he previously filled out the term of Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman when she left to become head of the EPA. Codey said he is more than willing to reprise that role, considering the circumstances:

“I am honored to take on this responsibility, and I will put my complete effort to the task ahead.”

However, efforts by Republicans and a number of Democrats could deny Codey that chance if they are successful in getting McGreevey to resign earlier. Republican opposition is hardly surprising, as a special election gives the GOP a chance at the governor’s mansion now instead of waiting for 2006. But, as the New York Times reports, they aren’t alone:

“Worried that the taint of the scandal, which comes after a succession of ethical questions surrounding the administration and the governor’s fund-raisers, may damage the entire party, some senior Democratic leaders spent the weekend searching for ways to ease Mr. McGreevey off the stage.”

If McGreevey does decide to step down before Sept. 3 – the deadline for a special election to take place – a number of Democrats want Sen. Jon Corzine to step in and run for the job in November. The Newark Star-Ledger reports Corzine is open to the idea and that U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez – who wants to run for Corzine’s Senate seat if it becomes vacant – is preparing a news conference calling for McGreevey’s immediate resignation.

For all the furor over McGreevey’s announcement, polls show little change – actually, a very slight improvement – in his approval rating since his announcement. Also, McGreevey has already outlined his goals for his planned final months in office, including construction plans for a stem-cell research institute he established and helping with security for the Republican National Convention in nearby New York City. As pollster Patrick Murphy told the Associated Press, the impact of the affair hasn’t yet hurt McGreevey:

“Garden State residents tend to be tolerant of alternate lifestyles and most do not want to kick McGreevey when he is down. However, there is a suspicion that this is not the full story and that there may be other skeletons in the closet.”

A special election opens lots of questions for Democrats, as less than three weeks remain before McGreevey would have to resign and the party would need a replacement lined up. Corzine, who the New York Times describes as New Jersey’s most popular politician, would seem a sure winner. But he’s probably more valuable to the Democratic Party in his current role. As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Corzine is a key figure in coordinating the party’s quest to recapture the Senate, with a number of seats up for grabs. Not only would it be difficult to continue that role while campaigning for a job himself, but it would be equally difficult for the party to replace Corzine with such little time left before Election Day – and it undermines the message of the Senate’s importance to have a prominent senator leave the body for another race.

So far, McGreevey has refused to step down early, planning to return to work Friday after some understandable family time. To his Democratic supporters, including Codey and state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, any other choice would just be playing to the political ambitions of others:

“This guy has made a gracious exit and now you have people hovering around his political carcass for their own personal benefit,” Lesniak said. “Why should McGreevey care about what any of these people think?”

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