Jon Corzine, the given name of the great big pile of money running for Senate in New Jersey, is spending at least $35 million on the June 6 Democratic primary. How much is $35 million? Corzine could write $200 checks to each of the 150,000-odd Democrats who will vote for him on Tuesday, and still have $5 million left over for beer.
Corzine has already shattered the Senate campaign spending record set by Michael Huffington, who squandered $30 million in his 1994 California loss (Huffington only spent $10 million in his primary). If Corzine beats former Gov. Jim Florio Tuesday—and it would be incredibly embarrassing if he didn’t, given that Florio is the most loathed politician in New Jersey and that Corzine has outspent Florio 15-to-1—he will then fork over tens of millions more to win the general election. By the time November arrives, Corzine will likely have spent more of his own money than any candidate for any office in history, surpassing the $60 million Ross Perot burned in 1992.
Corzine’s candidacy is a shotgun wedding, the marriage of his doe-eyed idealism to the chilly opportunism of top New Jersey Democrats. Corzine is an unlikely CEO turned unlikely politician. A hard-working Illinois farm boy, he landed a job as a lowly bond trader with Goldman Sachs in the mid-’70s. He was an oddball among the fast-talking, egomaniacal Easterners who populated Goldman. But his calm, sweet style earned him a loyal following, and he became a company hero in 1986, when his cool saved Goldman hundreds of millions of dollars during a bond meltdown. (Corzine was a protégé of Robert Rubin, another Goldman CEO turned Democratic political figure.)
In 1994, Corzine was named CEO. He gave Goldman a human face, exhorting employees to volunteer and urging corporate philanthropy. Corzine staked his leadership on taking Goldman public and persuaded his partners to do so in 1998. But his triumph did not last. He insisted that Goldman be a good citizen and spend $300 million to spearhead the bailout of Long-Term Capital Management. He pushed Goldman to establish a much bigger charitable foundation than his partners wanted. The last quarter of 1998 was disastrous, and his colleagues and protégés ousted him just before the IPO. In early 1999 he found himself unemployed but roosting on $400 million in Goldman stock.
At the same moment, New Jersey Democrats found themselves short a Senate candidate. Frank Lautenberg had unexpectedly announced he wouldn’t seek a fourth term, and Democratic honchos faced the alarming prospect that Florio would win the party nomination. Florio had crippled the state Democratic Party in the early ‘90s by breaking a no-new-taxes pledge, a move that cost him the governorship, cost Democrats the legislative majority, and made Florio a pariah everywhere except his South Jersey base. Florio, smart and pugnacious, decided to use the 2000 Senate race for redemption. Party officials—notably Sens. Lautenberg and Robert Torricelli—recognized that Republicans would feast on Florio in a general election.
The Dems needed someone who could overcome Florio but also pay his own way. Jersey Democrats care less about holding their Senate seats than about winning the governor’s office and legislature. A self-financed candidate would save the party millions in 2000 campaign expenses, allowing it to husband resources for the 2001 governor’s race. Corzine came wrapped in a bow for them. In spring 1999, party leaders tapped him as their candidate.
They hitched themselves to a very peculiar candidate. Gilded Age giddiness has made politics an attractive field for the tycoon. The United States is crawling with plutopols, each one vowing to jolt Washington’s slacker complacency with New Economy efficiency and common sense. But Corzine has none of this techno-libertarian arrogance. He has a very old-fashioned notion of public service. He is a passionate lefty. He proudly places himself in the Midwestern progressive tradition of Hubert Humphrey.
Except for his plan to privatize part of the Social Security trust fund, Corzine could have snoozed through the last 20 years of politics. He opposes welfare reform and the death penalty. Forget the end of entitlements: He is running on a platform of universal everything—universal, employer-paid health insurance, universal preschool, universal college scholarships for B students, universal gun registration. And if he has a clue how he’s going to pay for any of his universals, he isn’t sharing it. Most businessmen in politics pride themselves on their sharp edges. Corzine is all fuzzy: He has a fuzzy beard. He wears fuzzy sweater-vests. He has fuzzy ideas.
If he were not a centimillionaire, in short, Corzine would be a laughable candidate. His politics are wildly out of whack with New Jersey’s Clinton centrism. He is a poor public speaker. He has made at least one terrible goof during the campaign, joking to an Italian businessman about whether he made “cement shoes.” He did not bother to vote in the last 10 years of primary elections.
So why is he a serious contender? Because Democratic leaders and consultants see him as a political version of the dot-com bubble company. The dot-com bubble swelled on the notion that no matter how bad the idea is, if you throw enough money at it, it can win. (And if it doesn’t, it’s not your money anyway.) Throwing money has been Corzine’s strategy. He cadillac-ed up with the finest political consultants: TV ad maestro Bob Shrum and pollster Doug Schoen, among others. He bought votes where he could: He greased the county Democratic organizations with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions, which won him the support of political machines and prime placement on ballots.
The consultants have designed the campaign to make Corzine palatable but protected. He has avoided televised debates and spontaneous press meetings. Meanwhile, the campaign saturated both New York and Philly markets with TV ads, shanghaied most of the Garden State’s radio spectrum, drowned voters in direct mail, and plastered Corzine’s name on every bus and billboard it could find. (“The only medium he hasn’t monopolized is stained glass,” jokes Rutgers University political analyst Ross Baker.) Corzine’s ads are as generic as can be: He is shown in golden soft focus. His campaign slogan—”Bold ideas. New answers”—must be F3 on the political consultant keyboard.
I t has worked. Corzine’s saturation bombing has driven out Florio, debates, issues, everything. Florio has tried to blast Corzine for buying the election, but it has not stuck. (Click for why.) Corzine, who trailed Florio by double digits when the campaign began, now leads by 26 points in the only public poll. (Internal polls peg his lead at 10 points.) Barring incredibly low turnout on primary day, Corzine should win. The general election looks promising, too. Despite Corzine’s lampoonable platform, the GOP has little hope of stealing the seat. Corzine’s money has already scared Republican Gov. Christie Whitman out of the race. If Corzine beats Florio, he will face a little-known Republican in the general, probably Rep. Bob Franks. Franks is capable and moderate but won’t have the resources to overcome the wall of money.
Even so, the Corzine campaign is demoralizing even those who admire him. It is hard to feel sorry for a cold fish like Forbes or a moron like Huffington when he gets fleeced. But the nice, accomplished Corzine is another story. His campaign was supposed to cost him $5 million, then $10 million, then $20 million, then $25 million. Now it’s $35 million, and the general election campaign hasn’t even started. Much of Corzine’s spending is necessary, because to run for office in New Jersey, you have to buy ads in New York and Philadelphia.
But those who have studied the campaign suspect the inexperienced Corzine is getting rolled. “The spending really makes you wonder if this is a candidate-run campaign or a consultant-run campaign,” says Jim McQueeny, a New Jersey political analyst. Corzine’s campaign is paying lavish salaries and has poured $1 million into newspaper advertising in the last six weeks, even though political experts say print ads are a waste in Jersey. He spent $600,000 on polling before he had even started tracking polls. He paid out thousands for flowers and limos.
The campaign is also tarnishing Corzine. He prospered for 25 years in a ferocious business without losing his reputation for decency. But three months of campaigning have left him slimy. In November, he promised he would not exploit Florio’s 1990 tax increase. But when some of his early positive TV ads proved ineffective, Corzine abandoned them and torched Florio. Corzine has refused to release his tax returns, opening him up to charges that he is hiding tax shelters. And according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Corzine gave $200,000 to his lawyer, who then hired private investigators to dig dirt on Florio and his staffers.
If Corzine loses, he will join California gubernatorial dud Al Checchi and Huffington in the sucker’s hall of fame. But victory has wonderful restorative powers. If Corzine wins, he’s no longer “that boob who dropped $35 million on a primary.” He’s Sen. Corzine.