Today, Senator Corzine, respected in Washington and popular at home, is the automatic front-runner to become New Jersey's next elected governor in November, 2005. That race is already under way because of Governor James E. McGreevey's August announcement that he will resign in the wake of a scandal over allegations that he appointed an unqualified man with whom he was having an extramarital affair to a sensitive state job.
Corzine's money no longer counts against him: His whatever-it-takes campaign spending will discourage challengers, and independent wealth is viewed as a plus in his state's often-disreputable politics. "New Jersey voters swoon over old money because they figure that personal wealth puts politicians above corruption," says political scientist Ross K. Baker of Rutgers University. A couple of years in the governor's mansion could even position Corzine for a run at the White House in 2008.
It's a different career path than the bearded 57-year-old had in mind. Until McGreevy's announcement, Corzine was building his political credibility among fellow Democrats in Washington. As head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he has matched the GOP by raising nearly $60 million under stringent new fund-raising limits. He's also credited with recruiting strong candidates -- such as former Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar and former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles -- for Senate races in traditionally Republican states.
Even if the Democrats fall short in their quest to retake the Senate, Corzine will have won chits across the nation. "He took one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in congressional leadership and came from behind to make the Democrats competitive," says Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Luck and timing have also helped Corzine make his mark swiftly in a tradition-steeped forum where neophytes are expected to know their place. In the midst of the rogues' parade of corporate and accounting scandals of the past three years, Corzine -- though a junior member of the Senate Banking Committee -- has emerged as the Democrats' authority on financial regulation. As the only former Wall Street CEO in Congress, he also provides other Democratic members cover by backing stronger regulations on 401(k)s and hedge funds and advocating tough enforcement powers for the Securities & Exchange Commission.
But the topsy-turvy politics in Trenton have refocused Corzine's political ambitions in a hurry. Although top state Dems urged McGreevey to resign immediately so a successor could be picked in a special election this November, he declined to step down until after Sept. 3. Under state law, that ensured that the job would go to New Jersey Senate President Richard Codey until 2005.
So why would Corzine, who has served less than one full term, want to leave the august Senate? "I was an executive most of my life," Corzine tells BusinessWeek. "Having the ability to set the agenda and fight for that agenda" is more satisfying than the struggle to pass legislation. That's especially true when you are a member of the Senate's minority party.MAKE-OR-BREAK MOVE
Fixing what ails New Jersey would give Corzine a résumé tailor-made for the national stage. But talk of a run for the White House is premature, he insists. And if there is a downside to Corzine's chances nationally, it could lay with his left-of-center politics. He opposed the Bush tax cuts -- "they gave us deficits without economic stimulus" -- and voted against lucrative farm subsidies. Those stances might not play well in Iowa or New Hampshire. Another potential problem: the image of Corzine as a moneybags politician. With millionaires making up 40% of the Senate, "My problem with Corzine is that he is a symbol of a very disturbing trend," says Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group.
Corzine insists that voters don't care how he finances his races. And if Governor Corzine succeeded even marginally in eliminating the sleaze from Jersey politics, his reputation as a reformer would overshadow a liberal voting record in the Senate.
A few years spent cleaning up and running the nation's ninth-largest state could make Corzine a national star. Or a stint in a capital beset with corruption and grueling fights over school funding, auto insurance, and state pensions could do for Corzine what it has done for so many other aspiring Jersey pols -- dash any hopes of higher office. By Paul Magnusson in Washington