Lessons in what a 'lame duck' governor can achieve

With no campaign to run, Richard Codey tackles New Jersey's thorny issues

With the flourish of a pen, acting New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey signs an executive order designed to stamp out corruption in the Garden State.

This one requires every member of a state authority or board to take a primer in ethics and conflict of interest. It's something "your mother should have taught you," he agrees. "But sometimes people need a reminder." It's part of Mr. Codey's ethics-reform agenda, one that has rankled members of his own party.

Yet it is a reminder of what a politician can do when untethered from the worries of having to run for office. Halfway through his term as a caretaker governor - he got the job after James McGreevey resigned amid an ethics scandal - Codey is emerging as one of the nation's more reform-minded and popular chief executives.

He's tackling some of the state's most sensitive issues, including taxes and ethics, and endearing himself to the people with a jocular style. Many analysts say it is the "perfect job."

Some jokingly say that his success - his popularity ratings hover around 75 percent - is an argument in favor of benign dictatorship (or in New Jersey's case "benign bossism.") But it's also highlighted the increasingly evident clash between campaigning and governing, a tension of the nation's democratic system that has grown as campaign seasons have expanded.

"We are in an era of permanent campaigning, so there are very few times in the governing process that aren't affected by electioneering," says Darrell West, a political analyst at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Elections are designed to put public pressure on leaders, and unfortunately sometimes that leads to timidity and inaction. If you don't have to run for reelection, you can actually be a statesperson."

From Codey's perspective, the greatest advantage is that since he doesn't have to raise money or campaign, he feels free to work on challenges facing the state, from the budget to the mental-health system.

He can also say what he thinks, and he does. At a recent press conference, he was asked about whether he'd support a bear hunt this year, a controversial topic for both hunters and environmentalists. His response was sure to endear him to neither side: that he'll trust the judgment of his experts. "I didn't have to worry about the political ramifications, just what's right here," he says.

That freedom has given him the ability to frame the debate on the state budget. It's been structurally out of balance for years, in part because legislators have cut taxes to win political favor. As a result, local cities and towns have had to increase property taxes. That made many homeowners irate, so legislators then created a popular property-tax rebate program.

But when Codey proposed his budget earlier this year, he said the state didn't have the money to give a rebate to everyone, and he cut more than $1 billion from the program.

"He was able to say the emperor has no clothes: He could take a courageous stand, saying that there just wasn't enough money," says Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. "The [General] Assembly is going through contortions to try to figure out how to restore the rebate program."

On the ethics front, he's appointed New Jersey's first inspector general, and much to the Legislature's dismay, backs a citizens-only board to judge ethics violations in the future. Some critics say his ethics-reform proposals still have enough loopholes that lobbyists, business people, and advocacy organizations can continue filling legislators pockets. That way, they contend, Codey hasn't alienated his core political base in the state Senate. (Because New Jersey doesn't have a lieutenant governor, the president of the state Senate becomes acting governor after a resignation, even as he continues to serve as Senate president. So Codey is currently acting governor and state Senate president.)

For some issues that are close to his heart, but not necessarily popular, Codey has received legislative support. Throughout his career in the Senate, he's been a big advocate for the mentally ill. (His wife has battled depression.) At his request, the state Senate approved the establishment of a $200 million housing trust fund for the mentally ill and others with special needs.

Such championing of the little guy, his honesty, and his down-to-earth, self- effacing style made him a favorite with voters. Indeed, some say that he'd be doing just the same things if he were running for office.

"He's done things because of his integrity," says New Jersey businessman Gary Hill. "I don't think his not running had anything to do with a lot of things he's accomplished."

Others argue that his popularity is due in part because he's escaped real scrutiny from the press, precisely because he's not running for governor. There are also voters who are not enamored of Codey's style or his determination to put his short tenure to good use. "I don't think he should have the power to change anything. He's only acting governor," says Trenton resident and state employee Murray, who didn't want her last name used.

But the majority of residents, who were looking for stability after the scandals of the McGreevey era, overwhelmingly like their acting governor. And many wish he was running for office in the fall.

"When a politician's talking about the state's long-term needs, sacrifices, and priorities, people have a tendency to listen," says David Rebovich, a political analyst at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. "Dick Codey has become a senior statesmen with seven months left in office. Why? Because he's not on the ballot."

RICHARD CODEY

• Elected to the General Assembly in 1973 at age 26, which at the time made him the youngest lawmaker ever elected in the state.

• Elected to the state Senate in 1981. Selected as Senate president for the session that began January 2004.

• Became acting governor Nov. 16, 2004.

• Lives in West Orange with his wife, Mary Jo, and their sons Kevin and Christopher.

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