McGreevey's bid for a last hurrah

New Jersey governor plans to resign Nov. 15, but also hopes to push ahead on tax reform and stem-cell study.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New Jersey's roiling political waters have calmed, at least for now.

Embattled Gov. James McGreevey (D) has made it clear that he intends to wait until Nov. 15 to make his resignation effective - and barring some further damaging revelation, it appears he will get his way.

The open question is whether he can use that time, as he hopes, to pursue accomplishments, from shoring up property tax reform to cementing New Jersey's status as a leader in stem cell research.

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There's little historic precedent to use as a guide for such a situation. After President Richard Nixon announced he was resigning in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he did so immediately, so there was no question about his role in future policy decisions. A more apt analogy may be President Bill Clinton after the Lewinsky scandal. He didn't accomplish much on the legislative front after the impeachment. Instead, he put his energies into foreign policy, trying to negotiate a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which he could do independently of Congress. Governor McGreevey, too, may be able to use the powers of his office to try to leave a more positive legacy than simply resigning in disgrace.

"He is crippled, there's no question about that, but he's not crippled in the powers that he can exercise as governor," says Nancy Becker, a longtime Republican lobbyist in Trenton. "If he has to convince or persuade the legislature about an issue they don't care about, he won't be successful. But on issues he can handle himself through executive order, he still has power through November."

In a commentary in The New York Times Sunday, McGreevey contended it would be an abandonment of his responsibility to leave before several project his administration "holds dear" were completed. They include setting up a stem-cell research center, creating a mechanism to protect the drinking water of 5 million residents in the Highlands area, and putting into place a commission to study revising the state's property tax system. "Having accepted responsibility for my actions by proffering my resignation didn't necessarily mean that I was required to abandon midstream important initiatives that this administration holds dear," he wrote.

Some analysts remain skeptical about McGreevey's ability to achieve anything, contending that he will be hampered in anything he attempts by a lack of political legitimacy. Not so much because of his unprecedented announcement that he's gay and had an adulterous affair, but because of questions about whether he abused his power to help his former lover, or as the man claims, to harass him.

"McGreevey has no legitimacy for policy action, he disgraced himself, and I think if he tries to do something both Democrats and Republicans will be all over him," says Darrell West, a political analyst at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "The assumption in cases like this is that you pack your bags and leave quietly."

Others contend the once-stellar politician can achieve some substantive changes in his last few months. In part, that's because New Jersey's governor is one of the most powerful in the nation who can make major policy with the stroke of his pen. But it's also because McGreevey, who went from mayor to governor with the help of powerful political bosses, is now free of their shackles. "He can be who he is," says Ingrid Reed, an expert in New Jersey politics at Rutgers University.

And New Jersey has plenty that needs reforming by a politician independent of the state machine. Despite recent efforts to strengthen the state's campaign finance laws, they're still extremely lax.

Critics charge that this feeds a culture of corruption, with some of the biggest campaign donors winning key contracts.

And then there's the state's odd political structure. It has no lieutenant governor, and politicians are allowed to hold dual offices, so Senate President Richard Codey (D) will also be acting governor after McGreevey resigns. Critics say that system, too, opens the door to abuse by breeding too powerful politicians.

"The question is, does the governor want to do something to enhance his legacy in terms of going forward on ethics," says Ms. Becker. "He could by executive order strengthen [campaign finance] legislation that he's already signed."

Some critics are still saying McGreevey should leave by Sept. 3 so the state can have a special election to pick a successor. In his article Sunday, McGreevey argued that a hastily called gubernatorial election would not serve voters well. And some analysts do give him credit for ensuring there will be an orderly transition "He wants to ensure that a Democrat is in control, because after all the electorate chose a ... Democrat over a conservative Republican," says political consultant Joseph Mercurio. "There's an argument to be made that that's actually responsible."

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