The New York Times

Political Memo
Can Corzine Still Pass As A Liberal? He Thinks So

The New York Times — Monday, May 12, 2008


TRENTON — There is the pro-labor Mr. Corzine, who seemed genuinely moved as he signed legislation earlier this month, citing the "moral necessity" of giving workers throughout the state the right to take paid leave to care for a newborn or an elderly parent. Then there is the tough-on-labor Mr. Corzine, whose proposed budget would pare 3,000 state jobs and outsource the cleanup of hazardous sites to private contractors.

There is Mr. Corzine the environmentalist, traveling to Yale for a recent global warming conference to tout New Jersey as being at the cutting edge of greenhouse gas restrictions. But then there is Mr. Corzine the bane of environmentalists, who is toying with the idea of closing state parks, weakening housing and land-use rules and pondering the feasibility of a nuclear power plant.

During his five years in the United States Senate, Mr. Corzine – a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs – compiled one of the most liberal voting records of any Democrat. But now, during the current budget season, many in Trenton say that his bleeding heart has occasionally clashed with his corporate brain.

"At heart he's a liberal, but he's also a C.E.O.," said State Senator Barbara Buono, a Democrat from Middlesex County who is the chairwoman of the budget committee. "He certainly has a big heart, but it gets complicated when you add into that what some have described as political naivete and a streak of single-mindedness."

Ask any legislator, lobbyist or political veteran to describe Mr. Corzine's instincts and actions in recent months, and these words inevitably surface: Inconsistent. Enigmatic. Unpredictable.

To Mr. Corzine's staunchest allies, the apparent contradictions in positions reflect a genuine attempt to advance liberal policies by a governor holding a horrible economic hand. This is not necessarily Mr. Corzine's ideal approach to governing, but it may be the most pragmatic way to fix an inherited fiscal mess.

"He's struggling with what he wants and what his head tells him," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, which supported Mr. Corzine on the paid-leave initiative but is now fighting many of his proposed budget cuts. "But do I believe him to be a true progressive? Absolutely."

Critics say that Mr. Corzine struggles so much that many in Trenton no longer know what to expect from him.

"He's a little bit more hypocritical than a limousine liberal," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter. "I think he's an S.U.V. liberal. And I think there's a frustration, even anger, among my members, because we expected a lot of positive changes. If he doesn't change his ways, he may go down in history as one of New Jersey's worst governors, environmentally."

In a telephone interview on Friday, Mr. Corzine dismissed the notion that his heart and his head were in conflict, or that his actions were enigmatic. Instead, he recited a list of left-leaning initiatives on everything from permitting needle-exchange programs aimed at helping prevent the spread of AIDS to repealing the death penalty. But "we have to pay for what we are doing," he said, more than once.

"I'm clearly a progressive at heart, but we have to do that in an environment that doesn't allow us to undermine economic strength," he said. "It's a trade-off between progressive attitude about how we ought to approach almost every issue and the reality of the financial implications."

In public, Mr. Corzine seems most passionate when detailing or defending his toll-road plan, or talking about anything related to Wall Street or finances. And certainly there are plenty of examples of Mr. Corzine pining for more private sector involvement in New Jersey government.

The biggest one, of course, is his controversial – and, by all appearances, doomed – financial restructuring plan involving the toll roads. While much of the initial discussion focused on the possibility of leasing the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, Mr. Corzine ultimately opted for a plan that would keep the toll roads in public hands, but would also encourage the private sector to buy billions of dollars worth of bonds.

He has also endorsed the idea of privatizing the New Jersey Network, the public television and radio network -- something that pro-union legislators, like State Senator Shirley K. Turner, a Democrat from Mercer County, strongly oppose.

"I'm supportive of the concept that's on the table," Mr. Corzine said, before an event in Princeton on Wednesday night. "In general, I think it's the right direction."

The state's vocal environmental lobby has been among Mr. Corzine's most ardent critics. After being given an 88 percent rating by the League of Conservation Voters as a senator, he has been criticized for watering down rules on greenhouse gas emissions and those related to low-income housing and a long-term energy plan.

But he has been most vilified for proposed budget cuts to environmental programs that could jeopardize several state parks, a plan that prompted protests up and down the state.

Mr. Corzine has since suggested that a compromise is likely, as long as other cuts are found in the budget. But he has expressed enthusiasm for generating more money inside the parks by using the private sector.

"Certainly we're not going to lease out parks or privatize parks, which I heard some critics propose," he said on Wednesday night. "There may be ways to generate revenues around the concept of concessions of certain elements in parks."

Mr. Corzine has also endured an up-and-down relationship with organized labor, which had been among his strongest supporters. This spring, union leaders praised him for capping a 12-year struggle for paid leave, but they also lambasted him for an early-retirement program proposal that they say will only add to future pension liabilities, and also for the outsourcing of environmental projects to clean up contaminated areas.

Some have even compared him to former Gov. Christie Whitman, the Republican who warred constantly with labor and environmentalists. One such critic is Carla Katz, the president of Communications Workers of America Local 1034, one of the state's largest public-employee unions, who has had her own personal ups and downs with Mr. Corzine. They had a romantic relationship, and gifts he gave her upon their breakup became a side issue last year in union negotiations.

"The bottom line is that giving contractors, focused on their own bottom line, the authority to sample toxic sites, determine a cleanup method, and then certify to D.E.P. that the site is clean, guts the whole meaning of government oversight and real environmental protection," said Ms. Katz. "It's Whitmanesque."

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