Tops in Tren­ton

For Richard Codey, Fill­ing In as N.J. Gov­er­nor Is Sec­ond (or Third) Na­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By David Se­gal

TREN­TON, N.J. — A prac­ti­cal ques­tion to ponder as you meet Richard Codey: What do you call the guy? His busi­ness card says “Se­nate Pres­i­dent,” and by dint of that ti­tle, he be­came act­ing gov­er­nor April 12 af­ter New Jer­sey’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Jon Corzine, was in­ca­pac­i­tated in a high­way ac­ci­dent.

So, what’s your plea­sure, sir? Mr. Pres­i­dent? Mr. Act­ing Gov­er­nor? Com­man­der Codey?

“If Ger­ald Ford were still alive and he walked through this door right now, what would you call him?” replies Codey, who is 60 years old and at the mo­ment sit­ting be­hind the mas­sive desk in his Se­nate of­fice on the sec­ond floor of the state capi­tol. “You’d call him Mr. Pres­i­dent, right? He served a short time, he wasn’t elected pres­i­dent. You get­ting my point? Call me gov­er­nor.”

Codey then beck­ons his as­sis­tant, who is sit­ting in an­other room. “Car­men!” he shouts. “Bob­ble!” Ex­actly what this in­struc­tion means isn’t clear right away, be­cause Car­men doesn’t show up for a good minute or two. Codey be­gins to talk about the fre­netic events of the pre­vi­ous few days, when he had to de­clare a state of emer­gency af­ter record-set­ting rains flooded New Jer­sey. For three days he was too busy to sleep.

“ Car­men!” Codey sud­denly yells again. This would sound stern, ex­cept that just about ev­ery­thing that Codey says has an en­dear­ing whiff of dead­pan hu­mor to it. When he was in­tro­duced to this re­porter, he glanced at his blue jeans and said, “Next time, don’t get dressed up.” “I’m com­ing!” Car­men yells back. “So is Me­mo­rial Day!” When Car­men ar­rives, she has a small card­board box in her hand. Inside is a bob­ble­head doll of Codey. It’s life­like, though

mi­nus his jowls and about 30 or 40 pounds.

On the base, in red let­ters, it says “Gov­er­nor.”

“This,” Codey says with a smile, not­ing the physique, “is the slimmed-down ver­sion.”

Lest any­one con­clude that the top ex­ec­u­tive of the Gar­den State took time from a whirl­wind of rain, chop­per tours and news con­fer­ences to or­der bob­ble­head dolls of him­self, know that this is Codey’s sec­ond stint as the un­elected gov­er­nor of New Jer­sey. Well, tech­ni­cally, it’s his third: For rea­sons too com­pli­cated to ex­plain, he served for 31⁄

2 days be­fore for­mer gov­er­nor Jim McGreevey took of­fice in 2002. Far bet­ter known is the 14 months he spent in the top job start­ing in 2004, when McGreevey re­signed af­ter an­nounc­ing that he’d had an af­fair with a male aide. (New Jer­sey has no lieu­tenant gov­er­nor post but vot­ers cre­ated one start­ing with the 2009 elec­tions.)

Now, Corzine’s nearly fa­tal de­ci­sion to forgo a seat­belt dur­ing a 91-mph dash up the Gar­den State Park­way has swept the ac­ci­den­tal gov­er­nor, as the lo­cal me­dia have dubbed him, back into power. This time he will stay as long as it takes Corzine to re­cover — which, given the gov­er­nor’s in­juries, could be quite a while.

You imag­ine that it would be like a sub­sti­tute teach­ing gig, ex­cept for an en­tire state in­stead of a class­room — an author­ity fig­ure with­out real author­ity. But Codey, who worked at his fa­ther’s funeral home be­fore he be­came a state assem­bly­man at the age of 26, isn’t plan­ning to idle for what­ever time he has in of­fice.

“I’m an un­der­taker,” he says dur­ing an in­ter­view, us­ing a line that sounds well prac­ticed, “not a care­taker.”

Un­til 2004, Codey had a sur­pris­ingly low profile for a man who’d been in lead­er­ship jobs in Demo­cratic state pol­i­tics since 1992. That changed dur­ing his 14month stay in of­fice, when the pub­lic was ea­ger for a politi­cian who wasn’t dis­graced, ei­ther through fi­nan­cial scan­dal or sex­ual mis­con­duct.

Codey is an un­abashed reg­u­lar guy who can’t stop talk­ing about his wife, Mary Jo (“Look at her,” he says, point­ing to a photo be­hind his desk and us­ing a tone of voice that says Isn’t she hot?) and his two sons, ages 17 and 21. He still coaches an eighth-grade bas­ket­ball team and says he gets a kick out of it that pol­i­tics can’t de­liver. He has enough am­bi­tion and Ir­ish charm to clam­ber to the top of the state’s leg­isla­tive branch, and be­cause the Se­nate job is part time — the salary is $65,000 — he is also a part­ner at an in­sur­ance agency. He’s hardly rich, but he’s com­fort­able. Any­time he’s been asked to make a run for an out-oftown job, like the U.S. Se­nate, he says it doesn’t suit his lifestyle.

“Down in Wash­ing­ton half the time, then up here, do­ing three din­ners a night?” he says. “For­get it.”

This might come across as an ex­cuse for a pro who rec­og­nizes the lim­its of his ap­peal, but friends and for­mer col­leagues say he means it.

“I re­mem­ber the first lunch we had af­ter we found out that McGreevey was re­sign­ing,” says Peter Cam­marano, Codey’s chief of staff for 10 years and now a state lob­by­ist. “He said, ‘My life is over.’ He meant his daily sched­ule, com­ing and go­ing as he pleased, go­ing to bas­ket­ball games when he wanted. He was con­cerned all that would end. That’s him.”

He would have run for gov­er­nor af­ter McGreevey shuf­fled out of of­fice, but Corzine, who was then a U.S. sen­a­tor, had his eyes on that prize — and mil­lions of dol­lars, earned on Wall Street, to fund a cam­paign. Codey stepped qui­etly aside, de­spite ap­proval rat­ings that reached as high as 76 per­cent.

Repub­li­cans de­scribe him as free of a hid­den agenda and vot­ers find him hu­man in a way that politi­cians rarely seem. When a shock jock spoke dis­parag­ingly about Mary Jo Codey’s hor­rific strug­gle with post­par­tum de­pres­sion, then-Gov. Codey told him he would “kick your [be­hind]” dur­ing a face-to face run-in. (A state trooper in­ter­ceded be­fore it got ugly.) Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York was among those who called to say “bravo” af­ter the event be­came news.

Not as well known is the time a voter walked up to Codey and crit­i­cized an at­tempt to in­stall an ally as head of a lo­cal col­lege.

“The guy said, ‘Mr. Gov­er­nor, I didn’t like what you did at Ramapo Col­lege,’ ” Codey re­calls. “I ig­nored him. Then he came back 10 sec­onds later and said it again. So I pulled him close, whis­pered in his ear: ‘Go [have sex with] your­self.’ ”

Even among those who’ve been on the re­ceiv­ing end of this blunt­ness, it’s hard to find a true Codey en­emy. That in­cludes the shock jock whose back­side Codey of­fered to kick.

“He’s a reg­u­lar on our show now,” says Craig Car­ton, one of the so-called Jer­sey Guys on WKXW (101.5 FM). Car­ton won’t dis­cuss the con­fronta­tion, call­ing it “wa­ter un­der the bridge.”

Codey learned his po­lit­i­cal chops around dead bod­ies. He grew up in a pretty rough neigh­bor­hood in the city of Orange (where he still lives), about a 20minute drive from New York City, and his dad was a funeral di­rec­tor and county coro­ner. By the time Codey was 14 years old he’d seen a char­nel house worth of corpses in ev­ery imag­in­able state of de­com­po­si­tion. More im­por­tant, he’d also ab­sorbed a few lessons about how to treat peo­ple, all of whom could re­fer friends and po­ten­tial cus­tomers.

“At church my dad al­ways said, ‘Re­spect the jan­i­tor as much as the priest,’ ” he re­calls. You think Codey is about to say some­thing homiletic about the Golden Rule. He doesn’t. “The rea­son he said that is that both the priest and the jan- itor are spheres of in­flu­ence. Both can get you fu­ner­als.”

Ex­actly what Codey hopes to do while in of­fice isn’t some­thing he’ll dis­cuss, at least on the record. He knows it might ap­pear un­seemly to push his own ideas while the elected gov­er­nor is on a ven­ti­la­tor. And there are the feel­ings of Corzine’s staff to con­sider.

He’s even gin­gerly avoid­ing the ques­tion of his salary. The gov­er­nor’s job pays $175,000, nearly triple his cur­rent stub. He was paid the gov­er­nor’s rate when he took of­fice in 2004, but no­body has told him what the rules are in this sit­u­a­tion and he hasn’t asked.

“I brought up that is­sue to my wife the other day,” he shrugs, re­flect­ing on the gru­el­ing hours. “I said ‘Is this vol­un­teer work, too?’ ”


Fol­low­ing John Corzine’s car ac­ci­dent, New Jer­sey Se­nate Pres­i­dent Richard Codey is in his third stint as act­ing gov­er­nor of the Gar­den State.



Richard Codey took New Jer­sey’s top job af­ter Jon Corzine was in­jured in a car ac­ci­dent. “I’m an un­der­taker, not a care­taker,” he says, re­fer­ring to a for­mer job at a funeral home.


Tren­ton Mayor Douglas Palmer, left, and Codey check out flood dam­age in Palmer’s city two years ago dur­ing one of Codey’s ear­lier stints as act­ing gov­er­nor.


Codey har­bors no as­pi­ra­tions for higher po­lit­i­cal of­fice, such as the U.S. Se­nate: “Down in Wash­ing­ton half the time, then up here, do­ing three din­ners a night? For­get it.”

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