Exiting New Jersey Governor Riles Party Bosses

By: - November 9, 2004 12:00 am

Three months after he shocked the political world by announcing he was gay and would resign because of an affair with a man threatening to blackmail the state, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (D) is about to hand one of America’s most powerful governorships to a legislator barely known outside Trenton.

Describing himself as a dedicated and once-idealistic public servant “whose career in that service careened off the tracks,” McGreevey, 47, delivered a farewell address to several hundred guests at the New Jersey State Museum on Monday well in advance of his scheduled Nov. 15 resignation and handover to state Senate President Richard Codey.

He said he departed “as an American who just happens to be gay, and proud,” adding that he took his leave “without bitterness.” But he lamented “the great and bitter division that is taking place in our politics” and said this often reduced public service to “a blood sport.”

“I urge the people of this state to be in the forefront of those who would end this great division,” he said.

In spite of the call to reconciliation, however, McGreevey himself is not going quietly. His departure has been marked by several episodes that riled the party bosses he had worked to please so doggedly for most of his ambitious political career.

First, he rejected calls to quit before the end of August to allow for a special election this year. Then, to repair his own image, he issued several executive orders on government ethics and the environment that could hurt his party’s ability to raise money.

News of a Sept. 22 executive order prohibiting firms that make campaign contributions to state or county party committees from receiving contracts from the state – known in Trenton parlance as “banning pay-to-play” – made one county chairman so furious he threw a chair across the room.

New Jersey’s governor is one of the nation’s most powerful, with the sole authority to name judges, Cabinet officers and county prosecutors as well as to control state spending and revenue projections. Later this month, his successor will be able to nominate a judge, schedule the appointment for confirmation in the Senate, and vote for confirmation.

That successor – in a state that lacks a lieutenant governor position — is state Senate President Codey, a 57-year-old Democrat who represents the leafy suburbs west of Newark. He has indicated he would continue the effort to strengthen ethical standards in a state where investigations of public corruption are so commonplace they don’t always make the front page.

A licensed mortician and insurance broker known for his quick wit, fanatical love of basketball and maverick approach to issues, Codey once went undercover at a mental hospital using the name of a deceased criminal to expose lax security. More conventionally, his 31-year legislative career has been marked by an ongoing drive to ban handguns and improve mental health services.

Codey has been Senate president since 2002 and, because of a clause in the state Constitution demanded by senators who were delegates at a 1947 constititional convention, he will continue to control the Senate’s agenda and vote in the upper house while he serves as acting governor for the next 14 months.

This concentration of power across two branches of goverment has been criticized by good-government advocates since 2001, when then-Gov. Christine Whitman resigned to become administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and then-Senate President Donald DiFrancesco, Whitman’s fellow Republican, took over as acting governor for a year. There is a growing movement to create an elected lieutenant governor’s post or otherwise change the succession of power.

Codey has not ruled out running for governor in 2005, but he could face an uphill primary battle against U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, the multimillionaire Democrat who spent more than million of his own money winning a Senate seat in 2000. A half-dozen Republicans have indicated they are running, including the party’s unsuccessful nominees for governor in 2001 and U.S. Senate in 2002.

McGreevey’s future includes moving into a ,600-a-month apartment in a new luxury building in a transitional Rahway neighborhood near a 99-cent store and the train station. Dina Matos McGreevey, his wife of four years who stood at his side during his blockbuster “gay American” announcement on Aug. 12, will move with their toddler daughter to a suburban home 12 miles away that she bought last month.

While the McGreeveys are moving out of Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion, Codey will not move his family in because it’s just not what a guy from a low-income city neighboring Newark would do.

“We strove to get out of public housing, not into it,” he joked.

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