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Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 1999 /4 Teves, 5760

George Will

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Hubert Humphrey Wannabe -- NEWARK, N.J. –– Jon Corzine, 52, grew up on a farm in Willie's Station, a suburb, so to speak, of Taylorville in central Illinois. He warmed the bench for the University of Illinois basketball team, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, earned a University of Chicago MBA, wheedled an entry-level job from Goldman Sachs in 1975, profited from Ronald Reagan (public debt is a boon to bond traders) and in 1994 became CEO. After losing a power struggle within the firm, he retired in 1999 with $300 million and time on his hands. Then Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg said he would retire in 2000, and national Democrats came looking for their dream, a self-financing candidate.

So this morning Corzine is explaining himself to about 20 business people and educators, most of them African Americans. He only occasionally lapses into MBA-speak, as when he says that New Jersey gets back only 65 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington: "That's one metric I'd like to see changed." Hardly a hot button goes unpushed as he advocates subsidized loans to create a "silicon alley" in this city and says the census undercounts urban minorities. The bearded, rumpled Corzine is friendly, industrious (he was on the road before dawn this day), intelligent, intellectually curious, liberal with his own money (he endows eight parochial schools), forthright (the five-year lifetime eligibility for welfare legislated in 1996 "will be horrible" and will have to be softened), well-meaning and caught in a time warp. He wants to be Hubert Humphrey.

His late father was (and his mother still is) a Republican, and Corzine told him everyone should benefit as farmers do from government solicitousness. Corzine admired three Illinois icons of liberalism, Adlai Stevenson, Paul Douglas and Paul Simon. Corzine's Midwest liberalism--think of Humphrey frolicking with a trillion-dollar surplus--can be distilled to two words: "universal" everything.

As in "universal health care" and "universal access to four years of college or a quality vocational or technical education" and (seriously) "universal equal opportunity." His promises to women include lifting the cap on damages for sexual harassment and discrimination, multiplying Women's Business Centers, expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, including gender in hate crime laws, training teachers "to engage girls in technology," ending discrimination against women "globally" . . . you get the idea. Like most liberals today, he wants radical restrictions on freedom of (other people's) speech. He would close the "loophole"--a k a the First Amendment--that permits citizens to finance issue advocacy ads.

Corzine's rival for the nomination is the pugnacious (literally: he was a Navy boxer) former governor Jim Florio, who lost in 1993 to Christine Whitman. His pugnacity is suspected of being behind, at one remove, anonymous faxes charging Corzine with overseeing mergers that cost workers jobs, and other sins.

Corzine's problem, which is solvable with time and money, is that he is unknown. At most, 15 percent of the electorate has heard of him. Never mind, says his staff: In New York, Charles Schumer--that is Sen. Schumer now--had 10 percent name identification two years ago.

Florio's insoluble problem is that he is known as the one-term governor who, when he broke his pledge not to raise taxes, did it with amazing gusto--$2.8 billion worth. Florio says Wall Street values threaten Democratic values in Corzine's attempted "hostile takeover" of the party. However, many party leaders, perhaps softened by Corzine's $500,000 party-building (and self-promoting) radio advertising this fall, seem amenable to the takeover.

Corzine's staff says he is winning the competition for endorsements by party leaders in the state's 21 counties. Endorsements matter--they mean being part of a ticket in a preferred place on the ballot--and Corzine expects to have by next week endorsements from leaders of the counties with 55 percent of Democratic voters.

If Corzine wins the June primary, he will have an easier time than any of his prospective Republican opponents getting a message heard in the fall. New Jersey is served by New York and Philadelphia television stations, which will be saturated with advertising for the presidential candidates, and for Senate candidates in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. More than $40 million may be spent with Philadelphia stations. Cutting through the clutter--the Olympics will swallow NBC Sept. 15 though Oct. 1--will require extra money.

Republicans, already feeling like Saint Sebastian, can see another incoming arrow. Bob Grant, conservative New York talk radio host, says he has the signatures needed to get on the ballot as an independent. He also has the accouterment of the modern statesman, a Web site (

No wonder Corzine is, as Humphrey was, a happy warrior.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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©1999, Washington Post Writer's Group