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1-18-06 Star Ledger
The Corzine Era Begins


After taking oath, governor dwells on the tasks ahead
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

Jon Corzine was sworn in yesterday as the state's 54th governor, ending a six-year journey from Wall Street to the Statehouse with a blunt inaugural address that laid out the ethical and fiscal crises facing the state and asked the public to "hold me accountable."

Corzine's straightforward speech matched the sober tone of his first day in office, focusing on a pledge to restore public trust in state government.

"What we need is not a day of reform but a new era," Corzine said in remarks that made up in candor what his speaking style lacked in passion. "A new era where working with or serving in state government is not viewed as a chance to make a deal, but an opportunity to make a difference."

Just hours later, in his first act as chief executive, Corzine issued an order that expands the state's code of ethics to cover an additional 625 state officials.

Corzine's inauguration was an intentionally low-key entry into the political fray of Trenton.

The lack of festivity -- the de rigueur inaugural ball, at Jadwin Gym on the Princeton University campus, was the only clear celebration -- was meant to draw a contrast with the parades and parties of past administrations.

The focus of the day was squarely on the dignified and orderly transition of government, right down to the handing over of the official state seal that imbues Corzine with the authority of the office.

Corzine used his speech to claim an even higher authority -- the will of the voters who elected him in November.

"There was a clear message heard last fall. We must change how our government does business and we must remember it is for the people whom we work," Corzine said.

"Old orders and old ways may not pass easily, but the moment has come, the cause is urgent, and the will to act is at hand."

Corzine's day -- the inaugural slogan was "New Beginnings" -- began in the soaring Gothic chapel at Princeton University with a two-hour ecumenical prayer service. As Corzine made his way to the podium to deliver remarks, a Hindu priest blessed him with a garland of yellow flowers around his neck. A traditional gesture on days of great importance, the garland is meant to ward off evil.

Corzine may need it.

His inaugural remarks were not met with rave reviews; even those who welcomed his calls for reform said Corzine may have stepped on a few toes. "To the extent that there was some scolding, maybe we all needed a little scolding," state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Middlesex) said.

Republicans were even a bit surprised by Corzine's tough talk.

"It sure wasn't ruffles and flourishes," state Sen. William Gormley (R-Atlantic) said. "It was the truth. It was very direct. It was right on point."

The meat of Corzine's remarks, however, was a businesslike recitation of the state's financial tangle.

Next year's budget gap is forecast to be around $5 billion, and the state debt has soared to $30 billion. The $1 billion trust fund to build and maintain highways is broke. The state's pension system is inadequately funded, and an effort to build more schools has stalled after running through $6 billion.

The fiscal crisis will be the first item on Corzine's menu.

"As we rededicate ourselves to a new beginning and a better New Jersey, we also owe ourselves an honest accounting of where we stand," Corzine said. "It's time to balance the books."

But he has much more on his plate.

Corzine reiterated his campaign promises to restore property tax rebates, fund stem cell research and root out unnecessary spending. He called for a constitutional convention to address "real and enduring" property tax reform.

He began some of the work during his transition. He reached beyond state government for a chief counsel with unassailable ethics credentials. He issued layoff notices to politically appointed state officials.

But in his remarks yesterday, Corzine warned that there will be a bill to pay, and he hinted he won't be cowed by the political unpopularity of tax increases.

"I know my friends in the Legislature understand fiscal and tax questions are explosive, sometimes called the third rail, but the time for procrastination is past," Corzine said. "The decisions should be taken, the tough choices made. Let us seize this moment and meet our challenges. We have no other choice."

Quoting Woodrow Wilson, the Princeton University president who cleaned up New Jersey as governor 80 years ago and then was elected president of the United States, Corzine urged lawmakers to join him in governing without an eye toward re-election.

For all of the politics, inauguration day was also a point of personal triumph for Corzine.

At the prayer services, he recalled moving to New Jersey from Illinois, where he had been born, reared on a farm and educated, to take a job with the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.

"New Jersey is my home by choice," Corzine said. "I came here because I thought it was a great place to build a life."

After rising through the ranks to become chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, Corzine boldly took the company public. It made him and the other partners fabulously wealthy, but it also created animosity. When he found himself being pushed out of the firm in 1999, he turned toward politics.

He spent $63 million of his own to narrowly win the U.S. Senate race in 2000, shocking the political establishment. After Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned in scandal in 2004, Corzine opted to run for governor, and he spent an additional $44 million-plus to win.

Corzine's social liberalism belied his Wall Street résumé. His beard and penchant for sweater vests, now trademarks of his individualism, raised eyebrows in the starched-shirt world of politics. But Corzine saw in New Jersey a state that embraced his core beliefs.

"We have always been a progressive state, with progressive values," Corzine said. "I will fight to sustain that tradition."

After the inaugural ceremony, Corzine went straight to the governor's office, where he had a sandwich for lunch and swore in the new secretary of state. In shirt sleeves, he signed the executive order and then left to spend time with his family.

The day wasn't without its missteps. Twice, Corzine missed the office door he was supposed to go through -- once going into the office, and once leaving. Each time, staffers quietly reminded him: "It's this way, sir."

Deborah Howlett covers politics. She may be reached at (609) 989-0273 or dhowlett@starledger.com.

Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608