The Star-Ledger | August 19, 2004
By DAVID KINNEY AND RON MARSICO
In a brief but dramatic phone conversation, Gov. James E. McGreevey told U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine yesterday he will not budge from office sooner than planned, and the senator responded by suspending his bid for the job.
During the 10- to 15-minute call, Corzine told McGreevey he was prepared to launch an immediate campaign, but only if that was what McGreevey wanted, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
McGreevey firmly told Corzine he’s not leaving. “The governor made it clear in our conversation his absolute intent to serve until November 15, 2004. I accept that decision as final,” Corzine said in a statement issued late yesterday afternoon. He said he would concentrate on his work in the Senate and the national election campaign.
Corzine’s statement dealt a blow to efforts by several Democratic Party bosses to pry McGreevey out by Sept. 3 so a special gubernatorial election could be placed on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Those party leaders see a Corzine candidacy as their best option following McGreevey’s announcement last Thursday that he would resign because of an affair with another man.
If he leaves in November, Mc- Greevey would turn the office over to Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex), who under the state constitution would serve as acting governor until January 2006. That plan has caused a rift among Democrats, with some joining Republicans in calling on McGreevey to resign quickly and let voters choose his replacement.
The senator still wants to be governor, his aides say, and he did not rule out a run this year if circumstances change and McGreevey departs early. Otherwise, the next gubernatorial election would be in November 2005. Corzine spokesman David Wald said the senator is still weighing a run then.
The end of this round of the political drama came when Corzine placed a call around 4 p.m. from his Washington office to the governor at the Statehouse.
Democrats advocating a special election had been pressing Corzine to ask McGreevey to go now, party leaders said. But the senator believes it is wrong to try to force the governor out and refused to demand McGreevey’s resignation, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
Instead, Corzine – after sharing his personal concerns for the governor and his family – simply told McGreevey he “was prepared to run in a special election if it serves you and your family,” according to the official.
McGreevey said he was not going anywhere, and Corzine did not press the issue. The senator put out his statement backing away from an immediate race shortly after 6 p.m. McGreevey issued a brief response, saying only: “I appreciate Senator Corzine’s decision and his consideration for my position and for the well-being of my family.”
While McGreevey’s defenders in his party say he needs time to finish projects and ensure a smooth transfer of power, other Democrats privately say more damaging disclosures about his administration could still force him out sooner rather than later.
One McGreevey ally said the governor has told him that his detractors “could cut my heart out and drag me down the streets of Trenton, and I’m still not leaving.”
The internal party battle began after McGreevey’s announcement Thursday that he is gay and would leave because of circumstances surrounding an extramarital affair with a man. Party officials said the man was Golan Cipel, a former gubernatorial aide, and accused Cipel of trying to extort millions of dollars with threats of a lawsuit against the governor.
Since then, Cipel has returned to Israel and denied he is gay. Through attorney Allen M. Lowy, Cipel has accused McGreevey of repeated, unwanted sexual advances and assaults, while denying that the two had sex.
Corzine (D-N.J.) was seen as the only candidate who could unite the Democratic Party in a special election this fall and, until yesterday, the only one for whom McGreevey might step aside. The multimillionaire former chief executive of Goldman, Sachs & Co. is a rising star in the party and could finance a run on his own.
Corzine’s decision is a victory for Codey and Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), a leading McGreevey defender during this week’s dispute.
“I think Jon wanted an end to the speculation,” Lesniak said. “He recognized it was just adding to the pain and suffering of the McGreevey family. Jon Corzine, being the decent man he is, realized he could help, and he did. God bless him.”
But a Democrat who privately hoped the senator would run had a different reaction about Corzine’s call: “He completely blinked.”
Corzine’s refusal to join the oust-McGreevey movement was a blow to three Democratic powers – former Sen. John Lynch in Middlesex County, banking executive George Norcross III in South Jersey and U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) – all of whom privately campaigned for the governor to get out now.
Lynch and Norcross have feuded with Codey. Menendez has designs on Corzine’s U.S. Senate seat. They and their allies have worked furiously since Friday to push McGreevey out, enlisting county leaders, labor unions and lawmakers to their cause, but the party splintered over the issue.
“I don’t think Jon is looking to divide the party,” former State Democratic Chairman Tom Giblin said at one point this week. “He wants to be viewed as the consensus candidate.”
The decision not to run in 2004 affords Corzine some advantages, some Democrats said. He avoids being seen as abandoning his colleagues in the Senate, where he has raised money for the party’s U.S. Senate hopefuls as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Now Corzine can cast himself as a loyal party soldier, as he did in yesterday’s statement.
“I will continue to work for the election of a Democratic majority in the Senate and for the election of John Kerry to the White House,” Corzine said.
He also now has the luxury of surveying his options and waiting until next year to decide what to do, Giblin said.
“Jon Corzine has more options than five men,” he said. “He can stay in the United States Senate. Democrats can win the majority and he can be elevated to the Senate Finance Committee. There is a real possibility he could be taken into the Kerry Cabinet. Or he could be governor next year.”
Lynch, Norcross and others pushing for a special election worry that McGreevey’s scandal could put New Jersey in play in the presidential election. But the Kerry campaign said yesterday it remains confident of carrying the state in November.
Some Democrats also warned that by not seizing the governor’s office now, Corzine risks facing a crowded primary field in 2005.
Republicans hoping to take on a Democratic Party hobbled by McGreevey’s scandal said they were disappointed by the news.
“The Republicans all think Governor McGreevey should step down,” Assemblyman Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) said last night. “But it’s a moot point. We’re not going to have a special election.”