In the past 200 years, New Jersey has had an acting governor a dozen times. But no one in that position has made as much of an imprint as Richard J. Codey, the state Senate president who unexpectedly ascended to the executive office in November 2004. Although his tenure lasted just over a year, he accomplished more in that time than many governors do in a full term — or two.
A 32-year veteran of the legislature, Codey was the constitutionally designated successor when Governor James McGreevey resigned following a sex and ethics scandal. Codey wasted no time in getting to work on his agenda. Over the next 14 months, he pushed through measures to raise the state minimum wage, increase school security and require steroid testing for high school athletes. He banned junk food in schools and smoking in indoor public places, including bars and restaurants. He signed legislation to clean up diesel vehicles in the state, reducing soot pollution in the air by 10 percent. He called for expanding the state’s investment in stem-cell research, with $380 million in research grants and a new research lab. In his budget, Codey eschewed one-time revenue fixes and set aside $600 million for emergencies. The state’s credit rating improved as a result.
And, in what many New Jerseyans are sure to consider his greatest accomplishment, Codey negotiated a deal to keep the New York Jets and Giants playing in New Jersey.
Codey, whose wife has publicly battled depression, had championed mental health issues throughout his three decades as a legislator. On the morning of his first day as governor, he announced the creation of a panel of mental health professionals and advocates to outline a master plan for educating schools, employers and others who deal with the mentally ill. He boosted mental health spending by $40 million and established a $200 million trust fund to create 10,000 permanent housing units for the mentally ill.
More than any single act of legislation, however, the 59-year-old Codey is credited with restoring public trust and pride in a government rocked by scandal. In his first week, Codey announced a series of ethics reforms, including an inspector general to look for fraud and corruption, an overhaul of the executive branch’s ethics rules and tougher fund-raising laws. He also banned political contributions from state contractors. “It was like the adults were in charge again,” says Assemblyman John McKeon, a close friend of Codey’s for 30 years. “He restored people’s faith in the office of the governor and in state government in general.”
The son of an undertaker, Codey was raised in the town of Orange and attended a community college. In 1973, at age 26, he became the youngest person ever elected to the New Jersey Assembly. Eight years later, he was elected to the state Senate, and he became the Senate Democratic leader in 1999. When he became governor, he continued to coach his son’s basketball team and declined to move his family into the governor’s mansion, because he didn’t want to live “above a museum.” And in one highly publicized incident, after a local radio D.J. made a joke about Codey’s wife, Codey went to the radio station and threatened to punch him. “I wish I wasn’t governor,” he said. “I’d take you out.”
Codey’s accomplishments and his average Joe demeanor endeared him to the citizens of New Jersey. He left office with approval ratings above 70 percent, and he remains the most popular politician in the state. But he decided early on that he would not seek election to a full term as governor. Under New Jersey’s quirky line of succession, Codey never stepped down as Senate president. Indeed, the state constitution requires the acting governor to retain his Senate president title. Last year, however, voters approved legislation to create a lieutenant governor position and to retroactively change Codey’s title from “Acting Governor” to “Governor.”
This summer, once again fully engaged as the Senate leader, Codey brokered a compromise to end a budget stalemate that had shut down state government for nearly a week. His continued high profile and popularity puts him in the center of speculation about future statewide office. But for now, Codey is applauded for being the right leader at a difficult time for New Jersey.
— Zach Pattont
Photo by Carol Seitz