Corzine still the best choice to lead New Jersey

091409_jgov_400
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine chats with Xavier Diaz, 9, at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden last week. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)

As Gov. Corzine nears the end of four tumultuous years in office, polls suggest a majority of New Jersey’s electorate will vote against him on Nov. 3. Such dissatisfaction can’t be dismissed lightly.

But the opposition is split between Republican Christopher J. Christie and independent Chris Daggett, and neither has made a convincing case that he would do a better job in Trenton.
 
As important, despite Corzine’s flaws, the Democrat’s record shows a capacity to go against the state’s traditional politics and improve its government. Given that record and the weak alternatives, The Inquirer endorses JON CORZINE.
 
Christie entered the race on the heels of seven years of successful corruption-busting as the state’s U.S. attorney. But over the better part of a year of campaigning, he gave the public astonishingly few reasons to vote for him, and not just against Corzine. By dodging fundamental policy questions, he asked to be exempted from the basic rules of seeking public office.
 
Much of Christie’s emphasis, which has become sharper in recent weeks, is correct. The state needs to do more to improve its cities and their schools, as well as to end state control of Camden. Trenton must be tougher on public-employee unions, and easier on taxpayers. Ethics laws must be strengthened.
 
But Christie still relies too heavily on Corzine’s unpopularity while spouting vague promises to cut taxes and spending. And the more Christie is forced to give specific answers to fiscal questions, the more he sounds like Corzine.
 
That may be part of why Daggett has made such a strong showing. His detailed plan to reduce property taxes — with numbers and everything — filled the vacuum created by Christie’s platitudes.
 
Daggett would expand the sales tax to more services and goods and use the revenue to reduce property and corporate taxes. Given New Jersey’s outlying position on the national property-tax map, his idea is much closer to what’s needed on the issue than the failed rebate program his opponents have embraced.
 
Beyond that, though, Daggett’s platform is sketchy. He relies heavily on his status as an independent who can “bring people together” — which sounds good, but could mean almost anything.
 
So how did “Not Corzine” come to be such a vast constituency? The former Goldman Sachs chief’s unusual background might have suggested he would bring real and needed upheaval to Trenton, but the past four years have not seen that. For a man who rose to the top of Wall Street from humble beginnings on an Illinois farm, Corzine has sometimes seemed timid about shaking up the statehouse. He has also been hindered by a recalcitrant Legislature, a once-in-a-generation economic crisis, and even a car wreck that nearly killed him.
 
As such, his administration’s victories have been qualified, its progress halting. On finances, the governor took a principled stand for funding pension obligations, only to have to retreat from it amid the downturn. He budgeted cautiously, but then made exceptions under political and economic pressure. He put forward but abandoned a controversial proposal to retire state debt. He won important concessions from state-employee unions, but often seemed too cozy with labor.
 
Corzine has taken some of the sternest steps in memory to push school and municipal consolidation, while capping property levies. But he has managed only to significantly slow the growth of property taxes, not reduce them.
 
The governor has also pushed for the nation’s strongest campaign-finance laws. But he has been stymied by an unrepentant Legislature and tarnished by his own generous underwriting of party bosses.
 
Some of Corzine’s imperfect victories are nevertheless remarkable for a New Jersey governor — and hard to imagine under the state’s usual government by insiders.
 
The dual-officeholding ban he championed, for instance, is often criticized for excepting current offenders, but it will put an end to a backward practice that was thoroughly entrenched. The governor hasn’t fully realized his school funding formula, but it replaces an unsustainable system of heavily subsidizing a few poor school districts — and undoes bad policies long protected by his fellow liberals.
 
These are the sort of once unlikely changes that New Jerseyans hoped for in electing Corzine four years ago. They should serve as his model in a second term, if he’s fortunate enough to get that chance.