Today marks the 15th anniversary of the day that rocked New Jersey: the resignation of Governor James E. McGreevey.
“At a point in every person’s life one has to look deeply into the mirror of one’s soul and decide one’s unique truth in the world. Not as we may want to see it or hope to see it, but as it is,” McGreevey said, with his wife and parents standing beside him. “And so my truth is that I am a gay American and I am blessed to live in the greatest nation with the greatest tradition of civil liberties in the world. And a country that provides so much to its people.”
The resignation was prompted by threats that an attorney for Golan Cipel, the man with whom McGreevey had an affair, had threatened to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the governor. Cipel was an Israeli McGreevey met on a 2000 trip and came to the U.S. to work on the 2001 campaign. McGreevey later named Cipel as his counselor and gave him a portfolio that included homeland security issues.
The attorney, Allen Lowy, said that a McGreevey representative offered Cipel money in exchange for his silence. Cipel alleges that McGreevey made “repeated sexual advances” to him while working for the state, but the statute of limitations for a lawsuit appears to have passed.
He was be succeeded by Senate President Richard J. Codey, a 57-year-old Democrat from Essex County who has served in the legislature since 1974.
Had McGreevey resigned before September 15, a special gubernatorial election would have been held on November 2, 2004. Codey will take office on November 15 and will serve until the end of McGreevey’s current term in January 2006.
“So the first phase of the succession sweepstakes will play out between now and Labor Day, with Republicans prodding the media and general public to rise up and demand an immediate resignation and Democrats hoping McGreevey can withstand the impact of a sexual harassment lawsuit,” PoliticsNJ reporter Steve Kornacki wrote.
“It’s only got to hold another 20 days or whatever, until the 60-day deadline,” one Democratic observer told Kornacki at the time. “It’s a big disadvantage to everyone in the Democratic Party for there to be a special election.”
A top New Jersey Republican told Kornacki that there was no legal means to force McGreevey to resign earlier than November 15.
“So that leaves us with the scenario of whether there’s going to be enough public pressure to force him to resign once the other shoe drops.”
There was immediate speculation that Jon Corzine, then a U.S. Senator, would run for governor – either in a special election or in 2005. Corzine was said to prefer avoiding a special, which would have been for just one year.
Corzine might not have a clear shot at the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Democrats said at the time.
“Anybody who knows Dick Codey knows this is a job he’s wanted his whole life,” one of his allies told Kornacki. “He’d probably want to make that decision based on how things go during his term. It’s going to be a tough budget year next year.”
Other Democrats were also quickly added into the mix: Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Haddon Heights); New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority chairman and former state Commerce Secretary George Zoffinger; Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson); State Sen. John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) and Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees).
Former Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, who served for eleven months after Christie Whitman resigned, said that he would consider running in a special election.
Republicans were already preparing for the 2005 campaign against McGreevey: former West Windsor Mayor Douglas Forrester, who nearly won a U.S. Senate seat in 2002; State Sens. Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park) and Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield); Morris County Freeholder John Murphy; Washington Township Councilman Robert Schroeder; Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan; and former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, who had run against McGreevey in 2001.
Another name circulating as a candidate was U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
Major party nominees for a November 2004 special election for governor would have been chosen by the respective state committees.
The timing was inconvenient for Corzine, who was serving as Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the time.
Corzine telephoned several key Democrats on the day after McGreevey’s resignation to discuss
his fledgling gubernatorial campaign and the prospects of a November 2004 special election.
Corzine discussed possible candidates for appointment to his Senate seat — which he would make if her were to be elected Governor, and the post of Assembly Speaker — which will be vacant in January 2006, assuming Democrats maintain control, following the retirement of Albio Sires. Corzine huddled with his advisors that weekend.
Had Corzine won a 2004 special election for governor, there would have been a special election for U.S. Senate in 2005, for the remaining year of his term.
On the morning of the resignation, a new Star-Ledger/Eagleton- Rutgers poll showed McGreevey with a 43%-44% approval rating, still upside-down but different from a Quinnipiac University poll a week earlier that had McGreevey’s numbers at 38%-47%.
The Eagleton poll last January had McGreevey at 37% approve and 49% disapprove.
In a head-to-head matchup with an unnamed Republican, McGreevey led 34%-30%, with 5% saying they would back an independent candidate.
“Any gains McGreevey may have made with the public by funding property tax rebates and passing a budget that causes little pain appear to be offset by the dubious conduct of his associates,” said Patrick Murray, acting director of the Eagleton poll, told The Star-Ledger.
That day, McGreevey was expected to announce the nomination of Victoria Rivera-Cruz as his new Commissioner of Personnel.