Corzine and Christie both have gaps in ethics platforms

New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate Christopher Christie speaks while running mate Kim Guadagno listens during a July 20 press conference. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Pest-control experts gathered for a recent conference at Rutgers and staged a race between two Madagascar hissing cockroaches representing Gov. Corzine and his Republican challenger, Christopher J. Christie.

It was an apt metaphor. Christie’s campaign is based on the notion that, given his prosecutorial background, he can rid Trenton of corruption. The Corzine team has responded by publicizing a catalog of Christie’s ethical miscues. There’s been enough mutual denigration to make it seem like a two-roach race.

But when it comes to actually dealing with that resilient species of vermin known as New Jersey corruption, the candidates’ approaches are strikingly similar or only incrementally different.

On key points, the ethics proposals of both Christie and independent candidate Chris Daggett are similar to Corzine’s positions over the past four years. And in many cases it’s the Legislature that will continue to define the limits of reform, regardless of who is governor.

One of the state’s long-standing ethics issues, for example, is the awarding of government contracts to campaign contributors, known as pay-to-play. Christie vows to expand restrictions on it to towns, counties, and unions.

But most of the pay-to-play loopholes that a governor could close unilaterally were taken care of by Corzine through executive orders last fall. The governor also proposed bills extending the law to the local level and restricting cash transfers among campaign funds, but they stalled in the Legislature.

Both Christie and Daggett also promise to outlaw the holding of more than one elective office, another issue that’s been on the ethics agenda for years. But Corzine took the same position, and helped bring about the state’s first law against the practice, two years ago.

An exception to the ban, for those already holding two offices as of February 2008, was imposed by the Legislature, which included close to a score of members also serving as local elected officials. The gubernatorial challengers promise to finish the job by doing away with the grandfather clause, but it’s not clear how that would get past lawmakers — or how much effort it would be worth, given that the practice is already headed toward extinction.

Christie promises to go further by barring elected officials from full-time appointed government jobs as well. It’s a worthwhile proposal to deal with a widespread problem.

However, many of the positions that should be addressed are part-time or contractual — legislators who work as town attorneys, for instance. Moreover, Corzine’s experience casts doubt on the legislative prospects of further limits on double-dipping.

The most encouraging aspect of the debate is that public pressure has made reform a largely uncontroversial matter in New Jersey, at least among high-profile, statewide candidates. But it will take even more of a groundswell — and more than a governor — to keep reform and the roaches moving.