About 40 minutes into Chris Christie’s talk July 27 at the Bethel United Methodist Church in Pennsauken, N.J., he got the question. The Republican candidate for governor is a former U.S. Attorney who made his name prosecuting corrupt Garden State politicians 140 of them in seven years. So it’s not surprising that Christie can hardly go an hour these days without someone asking him about last week’s dramatic arrests of 44 people including three mayors, two state assemblymen, several city councilmen and five rabbis on charges ranging from money-laundering to corruption. “One of the things I’d like to find out about is how you’re going to hold the elected officials in the state of New Jersey accountable for their actions,” Kim Carnestahl, who teaches the church’s continuing-education program, shouted from the balcony. “These most recent indictments make New Jersey look like the worst state in the nation.”
“I’ve been working the last seven years on this and I’ve seen all the garbage that’s been going on in this state,” Christie responded, garnering the evening’s biggest round of applause from the mostly African-American and Hispanic audience. Squinting into the blinding, setting sun coming through the church’s plain-glass windows, Christie stepped down into the aisle. “How do you think those politicians are going to react if you send me to go and sit in the governor’s chair after we sent all of them to prison the last seven years There’s going to be a whole different atmosphere down there when there’s a new hall monitor in the halls of the State House.”
The corruption arrests are just the latest boon to Christie’s challenge of Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine, an off-year race that both parties are watching for its national implications. In the midst of a recession, Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, would seem to have a natural advantage over Christie, who boasts no policy experience and in fact seems to delight in telling crowds, “I will never be the smartest man in the room.” But with Wall Street being blamed for much of the financial crisis, Corzine’s professional background has turned into a major liability. His unpopular moves of late he’s raised taxes and cut services and New Jersey still faces massive budget deficits have only made things worse, and even before last week’s fireworks, Corzine was trailing Christie by double digits in some polls. “The economy is the determining factor in this race. Jon Corzine’s chances of re-election are inextricably linked with the state’s unemployment rate,” says Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political-science professor at Montclair State University. “Because of his background and experience, voters saw the economy as Corzine’s strong suit, and they hold failing economies against incumbents.”
In the aftermath of the corruption arrests, Corzine was forced to do some damage control. He quickly switched gears on his choice of lieutenant governor moving from an insider closely connected to one of the mayors who was arrested to a reformer, 74-year-old State Senator Loretta Weinberg, known for her attempts to bring transparency to New Jersey’s government. But corruption won’t likely decide the race, even though Corzine has tried to turn the tables by running attack ads that question whether Christie doled out jobs to friends during his tenure as U.S. Attorney. “We’ve been polling on important voter issues since January and corruption has never been named by more than 6%,” says Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. “Our last poll was prior to the recent arrests, but I don’t expect it to climb much higher … Property taxes are voters’ No. 1 concern in this race by a mile followed by, and coupled with, the economy and jobs.”
While it may seem counterintuitive, the governor is doing his best to keep voters’ focus on the economy; with New Jersey’s unemployment rate nearing 10% and more people unemployed at any time since the state started recording it in 1976, he is pegging his re-election bid to the success of stimulus programs passed by President Obama and by Corzine himself in New Jersey. On July 28, about seven miles west of Pennsauken in Philadelphia, Corzine stood with Vice President Joe Biden proudly announcing $1 billion in stimulus funds that was being allocated to state law-enforcement agencies. “I think that we are seeing real movement with regard to stabilizing and turning around our economy with regard to the President and Vice President for their efforts,” Corzine said at the event. “In fact, we feel very good about what’s going on here saving and creating jobs … We are well along our way of meeting the target of the 100,000 jobs created and saved in New Jersey.”
Christie may not have the economic experience of Corzine, but he has no fear of the bread-and-butter issues on voters’ minds. “Taxes and jobs are the issue of the campaign. We have the highest tax burden of any state in America and we have the highest unemployment in the region,” Christie told TIME in an interview. “If there’s some people who decide to pull my lever in the booth because they don’t like Jon Corzine, I’ll take their votes, too. I’m not particular in that regard.”
One advantage Corzine has is money. Estimated to be worth more than $400 million after leaving Goldman Sachs in January 1999, he spent more than $60 million of his own money in his successful race for the U.S. Senate and an estimated $38 million in his first gubernatorial election, and he is expected to do the same again now . Christie, by contrast, has elected to stay in the public-financing system, limiting the amount he can spend to $11 million, though the Republican National Committee and Republican Governor’s Association are already investing heavily in the race. New Jersey, usually a solidly Democratic state, has not elected a Republican statewide in 12 years, when Christine Todd Whitman won her second term. Obama took the state with 57% of the vote in 2008 and Corzine was elected governor with 54% of the vote in 2005.
Both parties watch New Jersey’s off-year gubernatorial elections closely for signs of national trends. In 1993, for example, Democrats lost both states and the next year Republicans took control of Congress. “Pundits outside the state will see this election as a referendum on the President regardless of what Garden State voters actually think,” says pollster Murray. “And perception is reality in this case. The President’s people understand that.” Which is why, despite the fact that Corzine was one of Hillary Clinton’s strongest supporters in the primaries, Obama last week went to Holmdel, N.J., for a Corzine fundraiser, helping the governor raise $1 million, and later that night campaigned with Corzine before a crowd of 17,000. Obama also has tapped the 165,000 New Jersey supporters that signed up for his presidential campaign to help Corzine.
But for all the national implications of the race, New Jersey is suffering from some uniquely local issues that have nothing to do with Obama like last week’s arrests that involved knock-off Gucci bags, selling human body parts and nearly $100,000 stuffed in an Apple Jack’s cereal box. While Corzine seems to be weathering this storm, he’s got a long, uphill battle left convincing former supporters like Carnestahl. “I voted for Corzine last time, much to my regret,” she said, smoking a cigarette outside the church. “This time around I’ve yet to decide. I still need more information.”
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