The millionaire you might like

The pundits seem to have it in for New Jersey senatorial candidate Jon Corzine. Maybe it's because he doesn't need them.

By Jake Tapper

Published June 6, 2000 6:55PM (EDT)

Former Goldman, Sachs & Company CEO Jon Corzine, 53, is tired. Tired of the dismissive and arrogant print press, tired of the attacks from his ridiculously harsh opponent in his race for the New Jersey Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, and tired because -- well, tired because he needs some sleep.

Corzine's Sunday ended at 1 a.m. Monday, and his Monday started three hours after that. This campaigning thing is new to him, but he's as dedicated as when he was pulling similarly grueling hours as a trainee at Goldman Sachs back in the mid-1970s, grabbing coffees for his superiors, soaking it all up.

By 5:30 a.m., Corzine's at the Long Branch, N.J., train station, greeting commuters on their way into NYC; by 7:23 a.m., he's already commuted to the Red Bank and Matawan stations where he continues shaking hands and smiling affably; by 8:30 a.m. he's sipping coffee with Rep. Frank Pallone and a couple other local officials at the Manalapan Diner.

Which is where I finally met the big bad millionaire I've heard so many media-types tut-tutting about, the "oligarch" who's sunk an unprecedented $35 million of his own money into this race.

"Each time Mr. Corzine spits out cash, he reinforces the impression that votes are purchased, not earned; and that politics is beyond the reach of all but the best financed," wrote the Washington Post in its op-ed titled "ATM for Senate."

Corzine "has taken to hosting complimentary dinners with free wine and beer for people likely to vote in the Democratic primary," wrote the Bergen County Record in its endorsement of Corzine's opponent for Tuesday's primary, the stupendously unpopular, tax-raising former Gov. Jim Florio. "Thousands of invitations have been sent out for the affairs, which seem like a thinly veiled way to buy votes ... If this is the new direction in which politics is heading, we don't like it." TV talking heads, the editorial board of the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and most of the rest of the media have jumped on the tackle pile. They fault Corzine not only for the dough he's dropped, not only for paying for dinners and TV and radio ads, but for making generous contributions to local Democratic organizations -- thus securing their support.

Bearded and professorial, affable and earnest -- exactly as advertised -- the precursor of the coming apocalypse says hi, makes some small talk and offers to buy me a coffee. He seems more like some old college friend of my father's than the antichrist.

In fact, the most disturbing campaigniana I witness comes from Corzine's opponents. From inside his suit jacket pocket, Corzine pulls a flier put out by allies of Florio that accuses Corzine of supporting slavery in Sudan. Even Gov. George W. Bush's South Carolina primary buddies would have blushed. (Though it's unclear which way a pro-slavery stance would cut in a contested South Carolina Republican primary.)

As Corzine is called over to the kitchen to meet a diner VIP -- "Your name I hear all the time on the radio!" the Greek-born co-owner gushes -- I check out the evidence Florio's friends at the Camden County Democratic Committee have chosen to provide to who-knows-how-many African-American voters throughout the state.

"You can help stop slavery in Africa!" the front page of the color glossy promises underneath a disturbing color photograph of two emaciated Africans. Inside the leaflet, Florio's buddies have detailed the ways in which Corzine -- who was endorsed later Monday evening by the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- as the "boss" at Goldman Sachs, who led the firm to finance $375 million of an oil pipeline that "benefitted the government of the country of Sudan."

And of course the clincher -- making this an "issue ad" expenditure since it doesn't directly advocate for the defeat of Corzine -- is its instructions: "Call Jon Corzine ... and tell him no more funding slavery and famine ... ever!" Corzine's media maven, Bob Shrum, has provided local airwaves with loads of negative anti-Florio ads, and Florio has been doing everything he can to rail against Corzine's quite modest Social Security investment plan -- but Corzine as pro-slavery? This was quite beyond the pale.

Later that morning, Corzine welcomes me into the backyard of his lush -- though relatively modest -- Summit home. "Where are the slaves?" I ask. He grimaces.

The Sudan flier is just the latest in a series of attempts to connect Corzine with businesses Goldman had connections to, including guns and asbestos. The foundation of the charges: In 1987, Goldman Sachs underwrote a parent company of Smith & Wesson; in 1991, it provided capital to a wallboard corporation that had already gone through bankruptcy because of asbestos lawsuits, though it had stopped manufacturing it.

And the Sudan -- well, jeez, the Sudan. Corzine shakes his head. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., a Corzine supporter and one of the Congressional Black Caucus' Africa experts, is "furious" with this line of attack, Corzine says. "He calls it 'an act of desperation.'"

"Goldman Sachs did subsidize a joint venture with Malaysia and China Petroleum," Corzine explains. "And they later got together with the Sudanese to build a pipeline from the north to the south." But no one at Goldman Sachs had any idea, he says. "After I left Goldman Sachs, it underwrote [the company] China Petroleum, but I worked with the U.S. Treasury to put up a firewall to keep the money from the Sudanese government."

Now comes the explanation of what exactly Goldman Sachs & Company is and does -- a subject that I never will truly understand. "Goldman Sachs is, at the end of the day, an advisor," he says, "it facilitates transactions. [Florio has] tried to use that to define me as something, first of all something that Goldman Sachs is not with regard to slavery and starvation issues. And also, to hold Goldman Sachs' responsible for all secondary and tertiary accomplishments. I mean, Goldman Sachs is one of the foremost intermediaries in the world! It stretches beyond belief for anyone fair-minded."

It's all pretty confusing, I say. "That's the whole point of this," he argues, calmly. "He's used his ability to use the free press to keep [the public] confused."

But Florio's not the only one trying to hang Corzine with his money, he says. Corzine thinks that he's gotten a bum deal from the print media because of the vast money he's spent. Media reports of his candidacy, he says, were "fine until the May FEC reports," which is when it became clear that Corzine had spent more than $20 million, or 5 percent of his personal fortune. A month ago he was more than well on his way toward breaking the previous record of a millionaire's personal expenditures for a Senate campaign, the $30 million Michael Huffington spent in California for his primary and general election campaign in his 1994 loss to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Then the press started getting really nasty, Corzine says. They didn't get that he was an unknown running against "an entrenched, 30-year politician whose spent more than $30 million" if you added up all his past campaign expenditures.

Corzine has a theory why this is. "They resent that I'm going around them," he says. But for him it was a simple matter of necessity. The slash-and-burn Florio  or at least his surrogates -- was putting out garbage like the Sudan slavery nonsense, the media was eating it up and reporting on it uncritically, and Corzine wants to win.

"We haven't felt that we've always been able to get our story out," Corzine says later, as we walk through the town of Freehold and he polishes off a Diet Pepsi and a slice. "We haven't been able to get our message out. And we don't think that that was good or healthy -- if you have the ability to correct it."

Corzine, like many in the other major party, sees the "focus on campaign finance reform that is embedded in the print media as respectful of their own ability to try to have an influence in the process."

Says a less politic campaign source close to Corzine, "This has just been the revolt of the print media. They resent being cut out of the process as Jon communicates directly with the voters."

What does he communicate? A message of unabashed liberalism -- anti-death penalty, pro-affirmative action, pro-domestic partnership rights -- combined with fiscal prudence and a Social Security investment plan that Florio is likening to that of the GOP's secret plans to privatize it all. Corzine's is an unabashed old-school message: universal health care, universal long-term care, universal quality education.

Shouldn't the so-called left-wing establishment media be eating it all up?

Conservative columnist George F. Will, in fact, recently called Corzine "the next Hubert Humphrey," and Corzine took it as a compliment. Humphrey, he says, was not only creative and an effective fighter for civil rights and Medicare, but "he believed in the capitalist system."

Known on Wall Street as being a bleeding-heart schmoozer -- and an eager, somewhat quiet philanthropist, belying his roots as the son of an Illinois farmer -- Corzine was active in a number of charities, including that of a rather dismal-performing Democratic Party. He was one of the nation's biggest givers to the Democratic National Committee, and even threw a check Florio's way once. A serene presence needed after some tumult in 1994, he led Goldman Sachs throughout its controversial decision to go public. After being essentially forced out of Goldman Sachs in January 1999, politics seemed a natural direction for him, he says.

Back then, "in the heat of my career at Goldman Sachs, I hadn't really thought about it because I had a great career track." But after it became clear that "I wasn't going to be happy" in the co-chairman role he could have assumed after the IPO, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., announced his retirement, Corzine felt the call to politics.

"I'm not doing this for any other reason than I care," he says, his delivery effortlessly genuine.

Florio, however, referred to his choice to run for the seat as the result of "a midlife crisis."

The House and Senate are awash with millionaires -- almost 100 among the 535, according to Roll Call's annual list of the richest.

Some married their wealth -- like the richest senator, John Kerry, D-Mass., worth $620 million from his 1995 marriage to ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz.

Some inherited it -- like richest House member Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., worth $350 million because his great-grandfather founded Corning Glass Works in 1851.

Then there are the ones who earned it -- like retiring Lautenberg, worth $40 million because he founded Automatic Data Processing Inc., a company that employs around 16,000 people.

Corzine, too, would fit into this category.

Corzine allies argue that Florio is just a less successful version of the same creature. Florio, after all, whose adjusted gross income from 1999 was $528,599, lent his own campaign $1.23 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Still, Corzine's wealth has no doubt greased some wheels in the party machines. Corzine has cut checks to the Bergen County Democrats for almost $30,000; to the Union County Dems for $25,000; $25,000 to Ocean County Dems; $9,000 to Monmouth County Dems, and on and on.

"That's what everyone else does," says Victor Scudiery, Democratic chairman for Monmouth County. "He might have given a little more. So? He did what he had to do to increase his name recognition." Scudiery, a Corzine supporter, notes that other county Democratic organizations got more than his paltry $9,000. A note of regret hangs in the back of his throat.

But when I bring up Florio, what comes from Scudiery is pure bile. "He destroyed the state Democratic Party," he says.

The story is well-known -- and, at least in New Jersey, it still lives.

Campaigning for governor in 1989, then-Rep. Florio promised that he could balance the budget without raising taxes. Within his first few months as governor, however -- as Florio recounted for Salon in September -- the state Supreme Court "ordered us to bring the school funding of the lowest performing school districts to that of the highest performing school districts ... My value system is such that I believe you have to pay your bills. And I did pay the bills."

Soon he announced a $2.8 billion tax increase. The state revolted. "I did not do an adequate job in explaining why it was that we had to go and take the actions that we took," Florio told Salon. But even then his apology sounded a bit arrogant. "I've learned you just can't assume that everybody out there is paying attention to every policy pronouncement," he said, adding, "maybe I was naive."

By the time a relative unknown named Christie Todd Whitman unseated Florio in 1993, an estimated 600 Democrats had been defeated at the state and local level. Even mighty then-Sen. Bill Bradley came close to losing it all during the Florio years.

"No, no, no," says Alex Gregorio, a 63-year-old short order cook at the Freehold Grill when I ask him about Florio. "This guy, he destroyed my business!" Gregorio once owned a local deli, but during the Florio years, he says, "nobody buys. People protect their money."

"We love him!" he says of Corzine, though he might not vote on Tuesday. "His beard is much bigger on TV!"

Corzine laughs. His beard has been the subject of countless snipes and "constructive" suggestions. "I guess it's an old wives' tale that bearded politicians don't win elections," he says; people have suggested that "I'd be well served to face the voters clean shaven." But he's had the beard for 21 years, and it ain't coming off. "That would have been a real indication of me doing what was politic instead of conveying who I really was."

Indeed, Corzine's reluctance to play the game according to the rules has made him an easy target for all sorts of arrows. Though he's clearly quite sharp, his less-than-stellar forensic skills have left him open to charges that his participation in "only" four debates with Florio is because he's scared -- though Florio himself only participated in two primary debates in his 1989 gubernatorial run, and only three with Whitman for the 1993 general election. There was a stink about Corzine hiring private investigators, though some allied with the multimillionaire hint about much worse dirty tricks from Florio's seedier buddies.

TV cameramen complain that he doesn't want to fake hand-shakes for the sake of B-roll; a bad joke he made about an Italian-American and "cement shoes" was held for six months by the Florio campaign and then unleashed on the media, who lapped it up. Corzine apologized immediately; Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., the power-mad starlet-dating chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, immediately stood up for his buddy, the non-bigoted multimillionaire whose campaign the DSCC won't have to help fund. Not to mention one without Florio's tax baggage.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, one of the few Jersey Democrats in Washington endorsing Florio, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the rush to endorse Corzine was "an embarrassment to our party. When the only reason you're at the point you are is because you have swelled the coffers of some Democratic leaders, that's wrong. If Jon Corzine had one-twentieth of the resources he has, we wouldn't even be talking about him right now."

Corzine doesn't entirely dispute the importance of his wallet, but he shrugs off the larger point. "I can't say that they don't consider" his wealth, he says. "But, on the other hand, if they thought I was a bum candidate, they wouldn't support me. They're not looking to lose the seat; we're within striking distance of winning back the Senate."

Corzine occasionally mentions Lautenberg and Bradley -- also political newcomers with successful careers elsewhere before they became Garden State icons. And he does share with them, particularly with Bradley, a real anti-politics kind of appeal. Combined with the fact that none of his agenda would benefit him -- as opposed to Bush or flat-tax-addict Steve Forbes -- as well as all of the many contradictions inherent in campaign finance reform goals, it seems pretty clear that for Democrats, Jon Corzine should be an immensely attractive candidate. That is, once they stop hating him for being financially beautiful.

Tracking polls have the two neck-and-neck right now; Corzine maybe has a single-point edge. No one is sure what voter turnout will mean -- if it rains, will "bought-off" Democrats not bother? Will Dems who still hold a grudge against Florio come out and pull the lever with their middle fingers?

And what if after all that -- and $35 million -- Corzine loses?

"I'll be very frustrated," he says. "The only reason I'm doing this is to get things done. I would rather have given that [money] to someone else. I'll be very frustrated with my execution ... And I'll sulk for a day or two. Or maybe a week or two." But it won't last, he says. After all, "Life has been very good to me."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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