Why Corzine And His Checkbook Don't Threaten The Republic

He may have been a big noise on Wall Street. But until Jon S. Corzine spent $30 million of his own money in pursuit of a U.S. Senate seat, the former co-chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Co. was hardly a household name in Hoboken. Now, having shelled out megabucks on campaign ads and strategic gifts to hundreds of local pols, the Gold Man From Nowhere has reaped his reward: Corzine, 53, has vaulted 15 points ahead of former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio in the June 6 Democratic primary.

Barring a major gaffe, Corzine is on his way to buying himself the nomination. He has shattered all spending records for a self-financed congressional candidate--and the general election is still five months away. His spree is likely to top $150 per primary voter. Predictably, Corzine's checkbook candidacy has outraged reformers. "It's a classic example of how political spending is wildly out of control," argues Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan reform group.

Is politics in danger of being captured by freewheeling millionaires like Corzine & Co.? Hardly. History is replete with business biggies who failed to spend their way into office. In 1996, Democrats recruited eight well-heeled execs to run for the Senate. All lost. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes spent $37 million in 1996 and $47 million in the primary season just past chasing the GOP Presidential nomination. Ex-Northwest Airlines Corp. exec Al Checchi dropped over $38 million on a 1998 bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California that crashed on takeoff. Oil heir Michael Huffington lost $29 million trying to buy the love of Golden State voters in '94. And, of course, there is the original $60 million man, Ross Perot, who self-financed his 1992 Presidential bid.

So much for the Daddy Warbucks model. Even when tycoons succeed at the polls, they aren't the capitalist tools that critics fear. Most execs-turned-pols are social liberals--and many have been fighters for the underclass. Among them: Democratic Senators Herb Kohl (Wis.), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), whom Corzine would succeed. Even conservative execs, such as GOP Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, show maverick tendencies.

Nor is there much danger that Corzine is in thrall to his Wall Street buddies. Take gun control. While Goldman Sachs helped finance Smith & Wesson, Corzine wants to register and license handguns. He would require employers to provide workers with health insurance and opposes capital-gains tax cuts. "Can you say `liberal?"' says Rutgers political scientist Cliff Zukin. "He's a businessman, but he's definitely pro-government."

"VULNERABLE." If Corzine's bankroll helps power him past the primary, he still has to prove himself in the general election--something that often thwarts the CEO-turned-pol. In 1990, Texas oilman Clayton Williams spent his way to the GOP nomination for governor only to self-destruct later with a string of faux pas. Some analysts are watching to see if Corzine, who displays similar shoot-from-the-lip tendencies, follows suit. "Corzine's vulnerable," says Zukin. "People still don't know much about him, and impressions can change very quickly."

Even though reformers are trying to make Corzine a poster boy for big-money politics, the reality is that he's a bit of a fluke created by the weakness of the state Democratic Party since Florio's 1993 defeat. "New Jersey is unique," says Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "A guy like Corzine would have trouble running somewhere else." But Corzine isn't running somewhere else. He's in New Jersey--just trying to buy his chunk of the American Dream.

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