A round with Senator Corzine

The announcement that Senator Jon Corzine, the Democratic contender in the state’s gubernatorial race, would be stumping at the College on Thursday came with only a day’s notice, and I, having never met a United States senator, was quick to jump on the story.

And as our weekly Wednesday morning staff meeting wrapped up last week, the phone in the Signal office started bleating. When I answered it, I met Brendan, one of Corzine’s handlers. He was calling with an offer: if I wanted, I could have ten minutes to interview the senator at the conclusion of his speech. Like any good journalist would do, I, of course, agreed.

And then Brendan asked me what I was going to ask the senator. And, again, like any good journalist would do, I did not tell him.

But to be honest, I didn’t know. It seemed silly to ask Corzine any policy-related question for fear of getting nothing in return but answers from a can, talking points put together by his campaign.

So I mulled. I asked everyone I knew for their input. The answers ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous – the latter embodied by my housemate’s suggestion that I ask the senator to bust a rhyme.

I wanted to make him squirm a little, I wanted to make him just a touch uncomfortable. I didn’t want to waste the chance I’d been given.

Carla Katz is the president of the Communications Workers of America, Local 1034, a union that represents more than 16,000 workers in New Jersey. She was also, at one point, Jon Corzine’s girlfriend. While the two were dating in 2002, the senator provided Katz with $470,000 to pay off her half of a mortgage she held on a Hunterdon County house with her ex-husband. It was a loan he forgave just a week after announcing his candidacy for governor.

Now for residents of New Jersey, doesn’t this just seem like business-as-usual? I could, without really thinking about it, rattle off a list of names of elected officials across the board – municipal, state, federal – whose names have been tied to cases of corruption: Scannapieco, Torricelli, Impreveduto, McGreevey. This is, believe me, a very abbreviated list.

A Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll conducted in May concluded that 58 percent of New Jersey residents would say there is “a lot” of political corruption in the state. Clearly, political cynicism has set in.

So considering our state’s sordid political history, and Corzine’s own questionable relationships, I figured I had my question: how does Corzine, considering the Katz situation, hope to muster the credibility to restore New Jerseyan’s damaged faith in government?

The interview was convoluted at best, with Corzine either not understanding the broader context in which I wanted him to place himself, or, more believably, just refusing to do so. He politicked me around the room like a boxer, interrupting me, rattling off talking points while I tried to stay on topic.

The reality of campaign politics exists entirely removed from the reality we know. For political candidates, reality is defined exclusively in terms of how a subject relates to them, how it could reflect on their image. They do not care about the broader context, they care about looking good in the present moment.

M: There’s a lot of cynicism on the part of voters in New Jersey, and I think especially the voting youth. They’ve gotten really sick of this kind of business-as-usual corruption that takes place in New Jersey and, regardless of whether or not you see yourself as a part of it … for a lot of people, this is still a strike against you. And for a lot of people, it’s not just that they’re cynical anymore, it’s more that they just don’t care.

JC: I think that people also will examine and hopefully young people will examine was the totality of what an individual is all about. I’m one of 23 Senators who voted against the war in Iraq, which wasn’t all that pleasant when it was going on. I have taken what many people will think are some of the most independent positions in the senate …

M: Well, getting back to it, regardless of whether … it will or won’t affect your ability to make decisions … people are prone to seeing it as another in a long string of suspicious looking political relationships that have taken place across the spectrum of New Jersey politics. And that’s an image that is burned into people’s mind by this point … How are you going to try to prove to the people of New Jersey that you can turn this around?

But Corzine didn’t seem to want to put the problem in a larger frame:

JC: I’ve been their Senator for five years, they’ve seen the decisions I’ve taken. They have an ability to assess whether my personal decisions have been impacting my public judgement … And I think that when they look at the assets and the minuses, they may say (I’m) one of the few people who had the intellectual honesty to vote against the war, one of those people who fought for corporate reform … (I’m) someone who fought for the lives of Darfur where genocide was recognized … People have to look at it as a composite.

It was then that Brendan leaned over between us: “We’re going to have to leave it there,” he decided.

M: Okay, just one more thing … You’re saying that your record as a senator and a public official is weighty enough by itself to try and change the image a lot …

JC: I think it will be a factor that people will have to balance. If that were the only factor that was in consideration. I mean, they’ll look at my agenda, whether they believe I can accomplish my agenda. Okay?

I snapped off my tape recorder and without another word, he stalked out of the room.

“Did you get everything you needed?” Brendan asked after the room had cleared.

“Not really,” I said, “but I guess that’s to be expected.”