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For Corzine, Picking a Successor Won’t Be Easy

Let’s cut to the chase. Barring the mother of all upsets, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) will win the Garden State’s governorship in November, no matter whom Republicans pick in their June primary.

Corzine’s expected victory has already prompted early maneuvering for the expected Senate vacancy (see Roll Call, April 12, “Quiet N.J. Senate Race Intensifies”). [IMGCAP(1)]

The soon-to-be governor must eventually decide whether to appoint a caretaker to complete his unfinished term or a true successor who would run for a full term next year as an incumbent.

Most observers expect Corzine to select a Member of Congress who will finish the term and proceed to the 2006 contest without a serious primary opponent.

But the new governor will have to consider a placeholder strategy or the appointment of someone outside of Congress, if only because the alternative is so unpalatable.

At least three House Democrats are salivating at the thought of being a Senator: Bob Menendez of Hudson County, Frank Pallone, whose once-competitive district in east-central New Jersey has become reliably Democratic, and Robert Andrews of the Camden area. Virtually the entire delegation would be interested in an appointment, but Menendez is widely regarded as at the top of the list.

The Hudson County Democrat is at once Corzine’s most obvious and most dangerous choice.

As chairman of the House Democratic Caucus — the No. 3 position in the party’s House leadership — Menendez has greater stature than any of the other possibilities, even though both Pallone and Andrews were elected to Congress before him.

The first line of CQ’s “Politics in America” says that Menendez “has dreamed of becoming a U.S. senator since childhood,” and he has proved to be a powerful fundraiser and effective political insider, both in local Hudson County politics and on Capitol Hill.

But Menendez is also a problem for Corzine. Fairly or not, the Congressman’s base, Hudson County, has become synonymous with political corruption and old-style machine politics. Former Hudson County Executive/Democratic county Chairman Robert Janiszewski pleaded guilty in 2002 to bribery and fraud, while two county freeholders have been convicted of bribery within the past two years.

Corzine views himself as a reformer and is promising to clean up the state. Picking Menendez, a former Hudson County Democratic chairman, to replace him in the Senate — in what would be one of the new governor’s first acts — would clash with the “reform” message that Corzine wants and needs.

Not only that, but Menendez’s political baggage — including a 2004 New York Sun story in which opponents claimed he had a long-term affair with a female staffer-turned-lobbyist who benefited financially from the Congressman’s contacts — could give a “clean” Republican, such as state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., just the hook he might need to produce the GOP’s first Senate victory in the state since 1972.

“A Menendez-Kean matchup is a terrible, terrible matchup from a Democratic point of view,” one thoughtful Democratic insider agreed privately.

So what are the alternatives to Menendez?

Pallone is openly campaigning to be appointed, and he emphasizes his electability, grass-roots efforts and “progressive” record, all of which he thinks will impress Corzine. But selecting him would be an obvious snub to Menendez, and some insiders believe that Pallone’s decision to turn down the party’s nomination in 2002, after then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) pulled out of the race, makes him an unlikely choice.

Selecting any other House Member would be a snub of both Menendez and Pallone, though Andrews’ independent reputation would surely get him some consideration.

No matter which Member of Congress Corzine picks, he will be passing over a number of other hopefuls. And every hopeful has friends and allies. The last thing a newly elected governor with a reform agenda needs is disappointed friends and new enemies.

“Given the nature of the state’s politics and the nature of tribal warfare, his path of least resistance is a caretaker,” speculates one interested Democrat.

In selecting a placeholder, Corzine essentially would be allowing candidates to fight it out in a primary for the right to represent the Democratic Party in the Senate race.

An open-seat primary would be the ultimate small-d democratic test, allowing each candidate to prove his appeal. For Corzine, who came to the Senate from the business world, not the Byzantine world of Garden State politics, it would be a safe, reform-style solution.

But an increasing number of state Democrats doubt Corzine can afford to pick a placeholder. Doing so would virtually guarantee a multi-candidate primary including Menendez and Andrews, whose South Jersey base would make him a serious contender in the race. A primary could well get messy, improving the Senate prospects of the younger Kean, around whom Republicans appear to be rallying.

But if the Congressional appointment and placeholder routes are risky, there is a safer choice: Acting Gov. Richard Codey, who after November will return to his “other” job, Senate President.

Picking Codey, who has stature and is widely liked, wouldn’t be a snub of the Congressmen. As a former governor and leader of the state Senate, Codey, who was pushed aside in the governor’s race by Corzine’s entry, would be a consensus, even sympathetic, pick.

Insiders say that Codey doesn’t want the U.S. Senate job and wouldn’t take it if offered. But Corzine may need him — or at least someone like him — for the sake of both the governor and the party’s prospects in ’06.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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