Click play for audio version of this story
The current drama of New Jersey politics doesn’t hold a candle to the events that occurred between 1999 to 2004 – a five-year period of constant folly that causes politicos over the age of 45 to appear a bit unfazed by the state’s contemporary political scene.
The era began on February 17, 1999 when Democrat Frank Lautenberg, 75, announced that he would not seek re-election to a fourth term in the United States Senate. Lautenberg cited the constant need to fundraise as a top reason for his retirement.
The announcement came five days after a Quinnipiac University poll showed Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman with a nine-point lead, 50%-41%. Whitman had approvals of 58%-33% at the time.
New Jersey’s Bob Torricelli was the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the time and didn’t want to see a rematch of the 1993 gubernatorial election between Whitman and former Gov. Jim Florio. A March Quinnipiac poll showed Whitman with a 51%-35% lead against Florio, who formed an exploratory committee the following month.
Whitman announced her candidacy in April 1999 – setting up the possibility that Senate President Donald DiFrancesco would become governor in January 2001 if she won the race.
There were no shortage of first-tier candidates considering a challenge to Florio, but Torricelli had a different idea. He recruited former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine to self-fund his statewide campaign. Some thought he was willing to go as high as $15 million to win a U.S. Senate seat.
By September 1999, Whitman changed her mind and dropped out of the race. She said the campaign be a distraction from her gubernatorial duties and like Lautenberg, cited the amount of time she had to spend raising money.
As a first time candidate, Corzine had a few high-profile hiccups. When introduced to an Italian-American man who was in the construction business, Corzine wisecracked, “Oh, you make cement shoes.” Another time, introduced to attorney David Stein, Corzine said, “Oh, I guess he’s your Jewish lawyer who is here to get the rest of you out of jail.”
He apologized for his comments.
Corzine won the Democratic primary against Florio by 69,004 votes, a 58%-42% win. Corzine won everywhere except the seven South Jersey counties. He took 77% of the vote in Essex and 78% in Hudson. In Passaic, where Democratic County Chairman John Currie and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) had endorsed Florio, Corzine won with 55%.
Corzine wound up spending about $65 million of his own money to eke out a narrow 90,970-vote win against Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Providence).
His 50.1% statewide win was boosted by taking 70% of the vote in Hudson and 68% in Essex. Franks won Bergen by 3,932 votes – the last Republican U.S. Senate candidate to carry New Jersey’s largest county.
Al Gore carried New Jersey in 2000 by 504,407 votes against George W. Bush, 67%-40%.