Governor's downfall could bring reform to New Jersey
James McGreevey's resignation comes against a backdrop of recurring state scandal.
MONTCLAIR, N.J. — The messy news of scandal in New Jersey could end up having an impact wider than the political downfall of a governor: It may also revive efforts to reform government in the Garden State.
At the very least, last week's resignation by Gov. James McGreevey is exposing the state's unusual line of succession - with the possibility that for 14 months one man will be both the acting governor and Senate president.
Moreover, New Jersey governors are the most powerful in the nation: They have vast appointment and budget powers. County bosses rake in millions under "pay to play" schemes in which contracts go to campaign donors. And some observers say that, despite reforms three decades ago, the state still has a culture of corruption.
All that is part of the backdrop for Mr. McGreevey's resignation, although it came ostensibly for other reasons: because he says he is gay, cheated on his wife, and is afraid this might leave him vulnerable to "rumors, false allegations and threats of disclosure."
"Our political system is broken," says Cliff Zukin, professor of public policy at Rutgers University. "We deserve better government than this."
Even many of the participants in the political process are crying foul. For example, the state tried to reform the practice of "pay to play," which saw lawyers, accountants, paving contractors, and others making political contributions and then receiving work. Now, however, instead of contributing directly to the candidates, the money goes to the county organizations. "It's a huge loophole," says Tim White, political director of the state Republican party.
Jon Shure, who was communications director for Gov. Jim Florio (D), says he used to defend the system, but that now "it's getting harder and harder." For example, he says, the only official who is elected statewide is the governor. There is no lieutenant governor. "We need some reforms to open up the process."
The state also has no laws requiring state officials to only hold one job. So, when McGreevey steps down Nov. 15, the acting governor will be Richard Codey, who is also the president of the state Senate. This is one reason Republicans are calling for McGreevey to step down immediately. "Fourteen months is far too long to have both jobs," says Mr. White.
A Marist poll conducted immediately after McGreevey's announcement split along party lines: Democrats don't feel he should resign immediately, while Republicans and Independents want him out. "There is a storm forming over the state, and it's called Hurricane McGreevey," predicts Lee Miringoff, the poll's director.
The latest scandal is not expected to make a difference this fall's presidential race. After McGreevey backed Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Democratic primary campaign, John Kerry called on Sen. Jon Corzine to run his Garden State campaign. During the Democratic National Convention, McGreevey was barely seen, possibly because the embattled governor's approval rating in the state was so low.
"The Kerry people kept him at arm's length and then some," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "He has had a disastrous term." In the latest Quinnipiac University poll, Kerry leads President Bush in New Jersey by 13 points, up from a neck-and-neck race in May. "The Democratic Convention was the icebreaker. Kerry did get a bounce [in New Jersey], unlike other places in the nation," says Clay Richards of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Ct.
Some of the most recent scandals have a made-for-the-tabloids feel. Last February, the US attorney began investigating Charles Kushner, a billionaire real estate tycoon and Garden State Democratic fundraiser. Then in July Mr. Kushner, a financial backer of McGreevey, was arrested and charged with allegedly hiring prostitutes to suborn a cooperating witness, his brother-in-law, in the investigation.
The governor was mentioned 83 times in the federal indictment of David D'Amiano, a trash hauler and major McGreevey fundraiser. The state commerce secretary, a minister from Newark, resigned after reports he gave contracts to the sister of his chief of staff.
And it's not just Democrats. Former Essex County executive James Treffinger, a Republican, went to jail last year after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.
McGreevey's downfall caught many by surprise. He had appointed an Israeli, Golan Cipel, to head homeland security in the state. Since Mr. Cipel was not a US citizen, he could not get a security clearance and his appointment was criticized.
McGreevey then gave him another state job, which he eventually left. On Friday, a lawyer for Cipel, read a statement accusing McGreevey of "repeated sexual advances." He claimed that the governor offered him money to go away after Cipel threatened a harassment lawsuit.
The atmosphere around the hills of Montclair, an upper-income enclave outside of New York, seems to be more of sympathy than disgust for the fallen governor. "He shouldn't resign and I am not the only one who feels this way," says Theresa Jaipul, owner of a downtown clothing boutique, Genesis Accessories. "It's not good that he lied to us or his wife, but he was still a very good governor, he really worked on the environment."
But many residents don't feel the issue was sexual choices. Karl Elder, a Verizon employee stepping into Pat's Barber Shop. "What happens behind closed doors is not my business," he says. "The major problem is that he gave a special favor to this man, his boyfriend or whatever he was."
In fact, some residents say the scandals show the need for reforms. "The real issue here is that this is just another example of corruption in New Jersey," says Ron Bannon, a college math professor.
It doesn't surprise Syd Brown, a psychologist. He asks, "Why do you think they put the Sopranos in New Jersey?"