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