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Gold Man

Meet Jon Corzine, New Jersey's wealthiest liberal.

Newark, New Jersey

"Did i sound like I was a liberal and a progressive?" Jon Corzine asked me as we pulled out of the parking lot of a senior citizens' center in Monroe, New Jersey, where Corzine, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, had just addressed the local Democratic club. Corzine wasn't worried that he sounded too liberal and progressive. He was worried that he might not have sounded liberal and progressive enough. The former CEO of Goldman Sachs will be spending millions of dollars of his own fortune to run a campaign so left- leaning that it would make Minnesota's left-liberal Democratic senator, Paul Wellstone, blush.

Corzine's principal opponent for the Democratic nomination is former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio, who was defeated when he ran for reelection in 1993 because he had broken an earlier campaign promise not to raise taxes. Florio is a policy wonk who has taught courses in energy and environmental policy at Rutgers University. He still has a powerful base of supporters in southern New Jersey, where he served as a congressman, but he is hampered by continuing resentment among voters and Democratic politicians who blame him for making mistakes that led to Republican dominance of state politics in the '90s. No sooner had Florio signaled his intention to run for the seat being vacated by Senator Frank Lautenberg than Democratic officials, led by Senator Robert Torricelli, began casting about for an alternative. They found Corzine.

The 52-year-old Corzine, who resigned from Goldman Sachs almost a year ago, was a protege of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a former Goldman CEO. Corzine helped Rubin raise money for Democratic candidates, but he never participated in New Jersey politics. He is still very green as a politician and sometimes sounds as if he were in the boardroom rather than on the hustings. On the day I accompanied him, he told the senior citizens in Monroe that he was about to give them the "bullet points" of his program, and he used business-school jargon such as "cyclalicity" when talking to small businessmen in Trenton. But Corzine has a modest appearance and a natural friendliness that serve him well among voters and reporters.

A tall, bearded man who was once a reserve on the University of Illinois basketball team, he slouches with his hands in the pockets of his gray suit jacket. He worries--justifiably--that he looks "rumpled." He has little of the hauteur common among many Wall Street masters of the universe; he's surprisingly at home exchanging pleasantries with a retired Cuban-American couple at a senior citizens' home in Union City or talking politics with a black minister in Trenton.

Corzine was raised in a small town in central Illinois, where his father farmed and sold insurance. After receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois, he got a graduate degree in business from the University of Chicago and was off to Wall Street, where he rose quickly in Goldman Sachs's bond-trading department. When I asked him how he became such a flaming liberal, he said that he was touched by a "King and two Kennedys." At Goldman Sachs, he said, he was "always outside the general mold." But, while Corzine is unusual, he is part of a tradition of upper-class progressives that goes back nine decades to House of Morgan men such as George Perkins, who bankrolled Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party, and Willard Straight, the first funder of The New Republic.

The programs Corzine is championing would certainly place him at the far left of the ideological spectrum in the Senate. He would require all employers to provide health insurance and then would insure everyone else through a federal program. (He says the United States will eventually have a single-payer system.) He wants the government to pay for two years of college for every student who graduates high school with a B average. He wants to raise the minimum wage above the poverty line--which would mean increasing it from $5.15 an hour to about $8. He favors a "card-check" program that would force employers to recognize any union that got a majority of workers to sign membership cards. If the United States adopted this system, which is an important factor in the success of Canada's labor movement, it could raise the percentage of organized workers from 15 to 25 percent in one decade and completely change the dynamics of American politics and industry.

Corzine hasn't yet learned to construct his speeches around themes rather than programs, but, over a day's discussion, his underlying perspective clearly emerges: the democratic pluralism of the New Deal. He believes in a balanced society in which management and labor enjoy roughly equal power and public action compensates for the inequities created by the private market. He supports labor-law reform, he says, because "the ongoing balance between labor and management is out of whack." He says of government, "I am a capitalist who believes that the government has a role checking the excesses of the marketplace." But Corzine is not a populist or an economic nationalist. He is critical of the Clinton administration for bungling the deal worked out last spring to bring China into the World Trade Organization. And, like Rubin, he opposes programs designed to penalize companies that pay multimillion-dollar salaries to top executives.

In the Democratic primary, Corzine's principal strength is also his weakness: the $10 million of his own estimated $300 million fortune that he is threatening to spend. Corzine has tried to ingratiate himself with Democratic regulars by buying radio ads for local candidates in this November's elections, but he has offended some Democrats from old working- class strongholds. At a party celebration at the Polish National Home in Harrison, I heard rumbles of discontent. One man told me, "He is pulling up to towns with a dumpster filled with bags of money and leaving two bags here and five in Jersey City and Newark."

Corzine is not comfortable with this issue. When I asked him whether he favored campaign finance reform, he said he wanted to go well beyond the McCain-Feingold initiative and embrace "comprehensive reform"; but, when I pressed him for details, he could only come up with "open access to the airwaves." He said he would oppose closing the loophole in campaign law created by the Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which allows individuals such as himself and Steve Forbes to spend unlimited amounts on their own campaigns. "It gets right at the First Amendment," he said. When I asked him whether it was fair that a college president who wanted to run for office would not enjoy the same advantages that he had, he replied, "I am not saying that all aspects of campaign structures are attractive." He rejected a mutual limit on spending, saying it would amount to "unilateral disarmament."

If corzine wins the nomination, he will probably also face questions from Republicans about the economic consequences of his proposals. Without tax increases, the costs of his education and health care plans would plunge the budget back into deficit. When I asked him about the cost of his health care plan, he said that he would figure out specifics later. His plans on the minimum wage and on union recognition, along with his employer-paid health care, would dramatically increase labor costs. It may be that rapid increases in productivity would make these programs viable without creating a fiscal crisis or spurring capital flight. But it is also possible that they could cause the United States to become more like Germany or France, which have relatively high wages and generous social programs--but also high unemployment.

Florio has already challenged Corzine's positions on campaign finance reform, but he is not likely to attack the fiscal soundness or political correctness of Corzine's proposals. The two men are both on the party's left, with very similar positions on health care, the environment, gun control, abortion, and labor law. Instead, Florio will raise doubts about Corzine's credentials as a real Democrat. "I've been there before. I have scars on my back from the NRA," he said at a meeting organized by students at Seton Hall Law School and the Democratic Roundtable, a group of young Democrats.

Florio is a far more polished politician than Corzine and a better public speaker. He can emphasize points and hold an audience's attention by the timbre of his voice alone, without gesturing with his hands. But he lacks Corzine's amiable personality. Like Governor Parris Glendening of Maryland and other men who have raised themselves from humble circumstances to high office, Florio, a former boxer and a son of a Brooklyn shipyard worker, has put considerable emotional distance between himself and his roots. He is distant and reserved in his manner and is sometimes abstract and professorial in his approach to politics. At Seton Hall, he lost the attention of law students when he began describing at length the "iceberg issue" of pension reform. The student sitting next to me stopped taking notes and didn't resume until Florio began responding to a question about campaign finance reform.

Florio would like voters to forget about his governorship, but it keeps coming up. At Seton Hall, the very first question he faced was whether he had any regrets about raising taxes. Florio deals with this question as ineffectively as Corzine answers questions about campaign finance: he defends what he actually did and faults himself merely for failing to convince voters that it was a good thing. "I probably could have done a much better job trying to explain," he told the students. When I asked him afterward what he had learned from the opposition he incurred as governor, he seemed to blame his problems on voters' lack of attention to politics. "I was disabused of the idea that everybody is out there listening to politicians," he said. "It is hard to pierce through the clutter of all the problems people have, so we all have to figure out better ways of communicating, better ways of making things real, so that the things people are doing in Washington or Trenton or wherever relate to people's lives."

Florio certainly should not shoulder all the blame for his first-term defeat. When he took office, he faced a large deficit created by his Republican predecessor, Thomas Kean, and a court decision mandating increased spending on public schools. But Florio had promised not only to oppose tax increases but also to conduct an immediate state audit in order to cut spending. He broke both promises. He also raised and redirected spending on education without establishing tough standards to assure voters that the money would not be squandered. He fit the stereotype of the tax-and-spend liberal that voters rejected and that the Democrats of the '90s tried to move beyond (see John B. Judis, "A Taxing Governor," tnr, October 15, 1990).

Florio campaign consultant David Eichenbaum claims that the former governor still has the support of "core Democratic voters"; in my own brief survey of Democratic activists and officials, however, I found considerable skepticism about Florio's candidacy. Several people remarked that Florio was "damaged goods" and would be likely to lose in the general election, if not in the primary. To date, the only significant interest group to endorse Florio is the Sierra Club--a fitting tribute to Florio's sterling environmental record as a congressman and a governor. Corzine, for his part, has already gained endorsements from many of the state's key politicians. Under New Jersey's old- style election laws, his name will be put at the top of county ballots as the party's preferred choice. Although Corzine is still unknown in the state and trails Florio in polls, the primary election appears to be his to lose.

New jersey's democratic primary could be an anomaly, or it could suggest that, after a decade of caution and retrenchment, the Democrats are once again embracing large-scale reform programs to alleviate social inequality. Although he prefers Vice President Al Gore for president, Corzine's campaign themes and programs clearly echo those of fellow New Jerseyan Bill Bradley.

The Democrats originally expected to face New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman in November's Senate race, but Whitman withdrew from the contest in September. She said she didn't want to raise money, but she might also have seen polls that showed that she was vulnerable to a well-financed challenge from a candidate other than Florio. Representative Bob Franks is the best known of the current Republican candidates, but some conservatives are urging magazine heir Steve Forbes to drop out of the presidential race and run for Senate. A Corzine-Forbes race would pit the very liberal investment banker against the magazine-heir-turned-tribune of the supply-side right. The voters would get a clear choice, and media outlets and political consultants would make a fortune off the millions of dollars the two candidates would spend.