Opinion: Forget the Legislative Springboard to the Governor’s Office

Carl Golden | September 22, 2014 | Opinion
Of 11 past governors, none have moved directly from the Legislature to the top executive’s post

Carl Golden
In the 67 years since New Jersey’s modern-day constitution was written, 11 governors have been elected. None came directly from the Legislature.

Five (Alfred Driscoll, Robert Meyner, Tom Kean, Jim Florio, and Jim McGreevey) served in either the Senate or Assembly in their careers, but all left the Legislature before mounting successful gubernatorial campaigns. The other six ascended to the governor’s office either from the private sector or other elected or appointed posts in government.

This history, then, suggests fairly strongly that when choosing a chief executive, voters respond more favorably to candidates perceived as outsiders, despite their earlier legislative service. Partisan affiliation doesn’t seem to weigh all that heavily either; of the 11, five were Republicans and six were Democrats.

The voter mindset seems to be that fresh ideas and perspectives are to be found in those who are not a part of the establishment, that those with varied backgrounds and experience outside of state government are better equipped to deal with the complex and difficult issues facing a chief executive.

These outsiders come to the task without political baggage, the theory goes, while incumbent legislators are viewed — fairly or not, consciously or not — as part of the problem.

Someone who’s either been out of office for several years or has served in some other private or public capacity is free from the political accommodations an incumbent legislator finds so frequently necessary. Nor are they burdened by a record of votes and positions taken on controversial, emotional, and often divisive issues.

It is difficult, for instance, for a legislator to seek the governor’s office by pledging to “clean up the mess in Trenton” — or some equally clichéd campaign slogan — when he or she is perceived as playing a role in creating said mess.

Legislative service, history tells us, is a springboard to a pool that’s already been drained.

With the next gubernatorial election a mere three years away, the temptation beckons to test that springboard and possibly defy some eight decades of futility.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, for example, has skipped around the state from his Gloucester County base, helping raise money for county and municipal candidates while calling attention to the shortcomings of the Christie Administration on a wide array of issues.

He’s weighed in on everything from the need to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to the controversy over the National Football League’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse incident.

His travels, news conferences, and editorial board interviews, he says, are simply all a part of fulfilling his responsibilities as presiding officer of the Senate and shouldn’t be viewed as setting a foundation for a gubernatorial campaign. The number of people who accept his assertion at face value shrinks each day.

While Sweeney’s had the field pretty much to himself up to this point, a recent poll found Essex County Sen. Richard Codey as the choice of Democrats as a candidate in 2017. Codey — who served as acting governor for 18 months after the resignation of Gov. McGreevey — dismissed the entire survey exercise with his customary candor: “If anyone’s going to run their life based on running for governor, that’s stupid.”

Codey may be the sentimental favorite of Democrats at the moment, but the odds of his seeking the nomination are long.

Other names have popped up from time to time, notably Union County Sen. Ray Lesniak, but the odds for him are longer than those for Codey.

Both senators, with a combined 78 years of legislative service between them, appear comfortable in their roles as their party’s senior statesmen, secure in their districts and in the likelihood they’ll serve until they decide to retire.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. who, as a candidate, wouldn’t find it necessary to struggle to establish name recognition, almost automatically became the object of speculation on the part of those intrigued by the possibility of his following in his father’s footsteps, but he’s shown no overt sign of interest in 2017.

Democratic Assemblymen Lewis Greenwald and John Wisnewski are mentioned most often as potential candidates, Greenwald on the strength of his legislative leadership role and Wisnewski as a result of leading the media-intense investigation of the Christie administration’s involvement in the Bridgegate scandal.

Assembly Minority leader Jon Bramnick has elevated his profile recently, emerging as the spokesman on Republican Party issues and initiatives and as the most vocal critic of the Bridgegate investigation.

While Greenwald, Wisnewski and Bramnick are mentioned more often than other Assembly members in discussions of 2017, they’ve remained relatively low key with respect to their future plans, preferring to see how developments play out over the next three years.

The Democratic Party is both confident and optimistic about its prospects for regaining the governor’s office, convinced the Republican Party has been weakened organizationally and financially and will be unable to field a strong candidate.

Christie’s strength is personal, they believe, rather than deriving from broad popular support for his party. They point to his landslide reelection last year and the failure despite his overwhelming victory to carry a single Republican legislative candidate into office with him.

Because he is such a dominant figure, the party has lost much of its relevance and, at one point last month, was some $300,000 in debt, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the party in control of the governor’s office is normally the party to which significant fund raising comes quickly and easily.

For these reasons, Democrats believe the political stars are in proper and favorable alignment for them in 2017. Whether that alignment will hold firm and enables an escape from the curse of the Legislature remains an open question.

Remember, the curse of the Bambino lasted 86 years.