Remembering (and rating) New Jersey’s modern governors

Remembering (and rating) New Jersey’s modern governors

By Dan Cirucci
Posted with permission from The Dan Cirucci Blog

Growing up in a political family, I was aware of the politics of my home state from an early age and knew the name of the first governor I could identify, Alfred E. Driscoll. Governor Driscoll was the first governor to serve a four-year term under the 1947 constitution. Consequently, he served a total of seven years (three in his first term and four in his second) from 1947 to 1954. Prior to this New Jersey’s governors were only eligible to serve one three-year term. Governor Driscoll was the man who envisioned and oversaw the building of the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s because of him that we now know which exit of the state (I’m exit four) that we are from. Dirscoll was from my home county (Camden) and he would be the last governor from South Jersey until 1970.

As a youngster, the governor who made the greatest impression on me was Governor Robert B. Meyner. Bob Meyner looked, acted and spoke like a governor. He was a distinguished man who harbored national ambitions. But he seemed to squander his opportunity in 1960 when he insisted on being New Jersey’s favorite son choice at the Democratic National Convention even as the JFK train was leaving the station. He garnered a mere 41 delegate votes at the convention. Meyner served two terms but attempted a comeback in 1969 when he was the Democrat nominee for governor once again. I supported him and remember greeting him at a rally at the old, iconic Hawaiian Cottage in Cherry Hill where we wore leis and campaign buttons that declared: “I’m A Meyner Bird”. It was not to be. Collingswod’s Bill Cahill was elected governor.


As Meyner approached the end of his second term in 1961, it was widely expected that New Jersey would end eight years of Democrat rule and turn to a Republican. The GOP candidate was former US Labor Secretary James Mitchell. Mitchell was far better known and more highly thought of than the Democrat’s choice, Richard J. Hughes, an obscure superior court judge who seemed to come out of
nowhere to garner his party’s nomination. In an exceptionally close race, Hughes won the general election with less than 50.4 percent of the vote. Nobody expected much of the guy. But Dick Hughes turned out to be a shrewd politician with extraordinary people skills. A modest, highly-approachable man, he had no affectations whatsoever. He wore thick horned-rim glasses, always appeared a bit rumpled and knew (and remembered) thousands of New Jerseyans on a first-name basis. Hughes was a close friend of President Lyndon B. Johnson and was one of three final candidates considered by Vice President (and presidential nominee) Hubert Humphrey to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice President of the United States in 1968. Later when he was Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and I worked for the state bar association I got to know Hughes quite well and interviewed him for the state bar newspaper. He was always fair-minded, personable and scrupulously honest. He remains one of my favorite governors and a beloved New Jersey figure.


Back to Cahill. Call it the luck of the Irish. Cahill had the good fortune of being the GOP nominee after 16 years of Democrat governors. Though he was from South Jersey, I didn’t know Bill Cahill. He was our congressman and seemed to be a likable person but this was 1969 and how could I possibly support somebody who was part of the same party that embraced Richard Nixon? Disenchanted with LBJ in 1968, I was a liberal, anti-war Democrat who supported Gene McCarthy for president. Yes, I was young and idealistic and Bill Cahill (even though he was a moderate-to-liberal Republican) seemed to be too much a part of the old order. When Cahill was unexpectedly defeated for a second term in his own party primary, he became the first of three New Jersey governors in my lifetime to be rejected by the voters after only one term.

After the GOP dumped Governor Cahill and nominated conservative Jersey shore Congressman Charlie Sandman in 1973, it seemed inevitable that the Democrats would step back into power. Though many sought the Democrat nomination, party bosses settled on a seasoned former prosecutor, Brendan Byrne. Byrne’s trajectory closely followed that of Dick Hughes. A superior court judge, Byrne had never held elected office. In the era of Watergate, the Democrats marketed Byrne as a squeaky clean champion of integrity. But Byrne was an insider from the get-go. He was a tactician who operated with a wry (and sometimes sly) sense of humor. Now, here’s my Brendan Byrne story: At a bar association convention I presented the governor with the first copy of the association’s new newspaper, The Advocate. The publication was my baby. I labored over it for months, almost single-handedly brought it into being and was very proud of The Advocate.  As I handed the first edition to Governor Byrne he said: “Thank you, Dan. I’m going to read this tonight at bedtime when I have my milk and cookies.” That was Brendan Byrne!

Though they called him “one term Byrne” (especially after he oversaw enactment of the state income tax) Byrne managed to be re-elected and served through 1981. But by then Ronald Reagan was president, the GOP was resurgent and the Republicans saw an opportunity. That’s where Tom Kean came in. Though he lost in a bid to be the GOP gubernatorial nominee four years earlier, this time Kean was ready. But it was very tricky. This was New Jersey, after all. So Kean had to run to the left of most of the Reagan-ignited GOP but to the right of his liberal opponent, Democrat Congressman Jim Florio. It turned out to be the closest New Jersey gubernatorial election ever with Kean besting Florio by 1,797 votes. Kean became such an accomplished governor (so charming, so adept, so polished, so appealing) that he was re-elcted by the largest margin ever. I’m proud to say that I attended both Kean victory celebrations and counted myself among Governor Kean’s earliest and most loyal supporters. He remains a personal favorite.

And now we see a pattern here. Kean tries once and fails but later becomes governor. And then Jim Florio tries once and fails (by the skin of his teeth) and later goes on to succeed Kean in 1989. Since Florio represented Camden and became a huge success in South Jersey, I knew him fairly well — not that anyone knew Jim Florio very well, because he always remained somewhat distant and inscrutable. But I did some work for him when he first ran for the State Assembly and later when he sought and won a seat in Congress. I remember sitting in his office in Camden strategizing prior to one of his earlier campaigns.  Florio was a cautious, centrist Democrat who moved a bit too far, too fast after he was elected governor. During the election campaign, Florio reportedly said: “You can write this statement down: ‘Florio feels there is no need for new taxes.'” But after assuming office he faced a three billion dollar budget deficit and attempted to enact the largest, across-the-board tax increase in state history. That triggered a mammoth taxpayer revolt fueled by an emerging statewide talk radio station. This all proved to be the undoing of this promising politico who suddenly seemed to be in way over his head. It was a sad thing to watch. But, then again: Why in hell did he ever propose a tax on toilet paper, among other things?


This opened the door for the first woman governor, the GOP’s Christine Todd Whitman. Like Tom Kean (but unlike Hughes, Cahill or Florio) Whitman arrived with a genuine pedigree. Both her father and her mother came from prominent, well-heeled political families and both were active in Republican politics. Even though he was battered by the tax revolt, Christie Whitman faced a tough battle against Jim Florio in 1993. She had to prove she could endure the rough and tumble of New Jersey street politics and relate to real, everyday Jersey taxpayers. It was onetime Reagan advisor and noted political guru Lyn Nofzinger who turned Whitman’s campaign around and put her on the right track. He packaged a more accessible Whitman by putting her on a bus and having her visit New Jersey diners, transit stations, roadside markets and workplaces. On my recommendation the bus came to Cherry Hill and Whitman had a chance to thank me for the invite as I chatted with Nofzinger. The more people got to know Whitman, the more they liked her. I liked her a lot and I felt a special pride as my daughter and I cheered her on throughout two campaigns and on two long, raucous election nights which resulted in a slim victories both in 1993 and 1997.

After Governor Whitman left office near the end of her second term to become the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President George W. Bush, four “fill-in” acting governors served out the remaining year of her second term. This was before New Jersey had a Lieutenant Governor and since these acting governors were never actually elected to that office, we’ll skip over them.

And now we come to a somewhat sordid chapter in New Jersey’s history — the brief reign of a central Jersey wunderkind, Jim McGreevey. Like Florio and Kean, McGreevey ran for governor before (taking on Governor Whitman) and failed. I didn’t know McGreevey but I knew people who did know him very well. They greatly admired him. He was a driven, highly-charged guy who seemed groomed for politics his whole life. And, he could be quite a charmer. McGreevey followed an all-too-typical liberal Democrat pattern. He came into office whining about a massive budget deficit and quickly raised taxes on the heels of that. What’s the point of going over McGreevey’s fall from grace? Everybody knows the story. It made national, even international, news. But actually, his coming out appeared to be a sort of ruse, hiding something far worse — an alleged pattern of bribes and corruption. Democrats knew they had a real problem on their hands with this guy, so Dem bosses quietly pressured him to leave — and leave promptly. He was succeeded by a likable chap, Senate President Dick Codey who served as Acting Governor for about a year. Codey had a folksy appeal and might have made a very good governor had he actually sought election in his own right, but that was not to be. Senator Jon Corzine decided that he wanted to be governor instead. And Corzine had the money to make it happen.

Former Gov. Chris Christie.

Of all the New Jersey governors in my lifetime, no one appeared to be more ill-suited to the job than Jon Corzine. Born in Illinois and groomed as a bond-trader and bank executive, his career didn’t really start to take off till he arrived at Goldman Sachs in 1976. By the time Corzine left the legendary Wall Street firm he had cashed in to the tune of $400 million. He could have done anything he wanted but, curiously, he decided to enter politics. Being elected to the United States Senate was not enough, however. So, Corzine repackaged himself as a super-executive and financial whiz who, as governor. could finally — finally! — solve the Garden State’s financial problems and save us all a ton of dough. Well, it didn’t work. We ran out of money again and Corzine stubbornly forced a government shutdown to win a one-percent increase in the state sales tax from six to seven percent. And of course property taxes simply continued to rise. Corzine proved to be an awkward leader who simply lacked people skills. His controversial toll hike plan (dubbed monetization) was the final straw. Corzine became the third Democrat governor in 20 years to serve just one term (or less) when he was defeated in 2009.

I knew the minute I met Chris Christie in early 2009 that he had the makings of a great leader. It was obvious to me that he had the political skills and know how of Dick Hughes and the insight of Tom Kean or Brendan Byrne. He was a person who could actually get things done — and not just day-to-day things but big, meaningful things. Christie combined a common touch with a super-sharp intellect and dogged determination. On top of that, he proved to be a compelling speaker, a formidable debater and a shrewd political infighter. But he seemed to lack the discipline of Byrne, Hughes and Whitman or the charm of Kean. He could be (and has been) impatient, abrupt, dismissive and maddeningly unpredictable. On top of all that, he’s highly theatrical. Which are just some of the reasons why he’s never, ever dull. What a contrast to his predecessor! Over the past eight years, I’ve written so much about Christie (here and elsewhere) that there’s not much else to say. He’s been an immensely consequential governor. That fact stands, no matter what you make of him or his time in office. I look upon him as the most vivid New Jersey political personality in my lifetime and someone who I’m proud to know and proud to have avidly supported from the very beginning. And, if you’re thinking of counting Chris Christie out, you’d better think again. His time as a public figure is far from over. Stay tuned!

Now, Phil Murphy is the 17th governor in my lifetime. That’s about as much of a mention as we’ll make of him.

And here’s a quick summary:

Most fascinating: Christie

Most genuine: Hughes
Most well-bred: Whitman
Most charming: Kean
Most distinguished: Meyner
Most witty: Byrne

Squandered opportunity: Corzine, McGreevey, Cahill

Intriguing might-have-been: Codey

My personal favorites: Christie, Kean, Hughes