A governor brings levity to a weighty job

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New Jersey's new governor, Richard Codey, delivers the bad news: All out-of-state travel is canceled, except for those going to Washington "to lobby for federal dollars." About that recent dinner with New York's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg: "Oh, I can assure you he paid." And once when Mr. Codey owned race horses, he named one after his son: "Stop Bugging Me."

Meet the Rodney Dangerfield of chief executives - perhaps the funniest man to be occupying a governor's chair at the moment.

Like Dangerfield, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Like the comedian, Codey, a Democrat, is unfazed by not getting any respect - almost everyone expects him to step down in 14 months after Sen. Jon Corzine (D) runs for the office.

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Yet Codey, who took over after Gov. James McGreevey resigned in the wake of his startling disclosure he had had a homosexual affair, is not treating his time in office - however brief - as if it were a vaudeville act. In fact, he's pushing ahead as if he intends to stay, even if it means continuing to coach his son's basketball team while shaping up the state.

He quickly established a special counsel for ethics reform and ordered up a mandatory professional conduct training program - essential in a state where corruption is so rife that the public often has a hard time keeping up with the latest skulduggery.

On Monday, he asked his homeland security department for a report on how it spent federal dollars and for ways to improve safety in public schools and screening at the state's important ports. On his first day on the job, he had French toast at a state psychiatric facility, where he announced a task force to examine the mental-health system and make recommendations to improve services to residents.

"I'm an undertaker, not a caretaker," he's quipped more than once, and not just because he's the son of a funeral home owner and a licensed undertaker himself.

Even some of his new cabinet seems to have this kind of down-to-earth sense of humor.

Take Thomas Carver, the acting labor and workforce development commissioner, who describes himself as "having been around the track a few times" as president of the Casino Association and as assistant general manager for Newark Airport.

"Maybe they wanted some people who have had some hard knocks - until you've been bloodied up a little bit you don't know what it's like. I can assure you 9-1/2 years of Donald Trump and Steve Wynn and Newark Airport will bloody someone up pretty well."

In fact, even though Mr. Carver had known Codey for decades, he was surprised to get the call to join the cabinet. The way he describes it, he had accidentally attended a meeting of lobbyists when he saw Codey. "I said, 'Hi, Coach how are you?' that was the extent of our conversation. He just saw me that day and it came to him that I would be good for the job."

Those new cabinet members and Codey will have their hands full, especially early next year, when they must present their plan for the 2006 budget. For the past three years, New Jersey has bridged short-term budget gaps by issuing long-term bonds, a technique referred to as "deficit financing."

Last year, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that this deficit financing is unconstitutional since the state was counting on borrowed funds in its operating budget. Early projections place the state's deficit at $4 billion.

"Drawing up a balanced budget will be difficult and painful," says Robert Kurtter, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service. "But, New Jersey is a wealthy state with the resources to deal with this, it's an issue of political willingness."

To raise new revenues, there have been rumors Codey might turn to video gaming - mostly electronic slot machines - at race tracks. The Atlantic City casinos, however, have opposed this in the past.

The state could also look at raising its gasoline tax, one of the lowest in the country.

"A lot of people travel through New Jersey and don't live there," says Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "McGreevey never considered raising any of the broad-based taxes."

That was probably because after former Democrat Gov. Jim Florio raised taxes in 1990, the Republicans ran against him - and defeated him - as one who would raise taxes. In fact, the biggest complaint of Garden State residents is property taxes, some say the highest in the nation.

Codey is no stranger to this debate. For 30 years he has served in the legislature negotiating controversial bills. "He's been through a lot of wars," says Cliff Zukin, a political scientist at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "He's a pragmatist and compromiser who brings a legislator's viewpoint, not a CEO's viewpoint."

He'll need to keep that sense of humor, because there are any number of people, ranging from the New Jersey comedian Joe Piscopo to US Sen. Jon Corzine, who are thinking of throwing their hat into the ring.

Senator Corzine has already indicated he's thinking about making the move from junior senator in the minority party to one of the most powerful governor's jobs in the nation. "Most observers think if Corzine runs, Codey won't," says Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank.

"Corzine could fund his own campaign and he would be tough to beat."

Indeed, last week, a Quinnipiac poll found Corzine would beat Republican challengers by 20 to 25 percentage points. "Corzine's popularity is at 58 percent, the highest it's ever been since he was elected," says Mr. Richards. "And he's viewed as the outsider above the mess in Trenton."

The same poll also showed Corzine beating Codey by 40 percentage points.

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