In defense of Jon Corzine

MF Global may have gone down on the Democrat's watch. But first, Jon Corzine was a proud progressive who made New Jersey proud

Robert Shrum

Friendship has its claims; so does fairness. And in the wake of the bankruptcy of brokerage firm MF Global, the media's portrayal of Jon Corzine, MF's ex-CEO and a former Democratic senator and governor in New Jersey, strikes me as profoundly unfair — and not just because he's a friend.

Corzine, one of the most principled and capable people I met in 40 years in politics, is a genuine progressive who ran for office for all the right reasons. He did so many right things. And now he's been turned into a poster boy for all that's wrong with Wall Street. Jon Stewart called Corzine "the one man [who] could embody the corporate-government-industrial complex in all its clusterf***-itude."

The Murdoch press was eager to join in. What could be better for the propaganda machine than to hold up Corzine as the proof point for right-wing populism. One typical New York Post story led with a phrase — "Screw you, Jon Corzine" — that revealed as much about the paper's inveterate hostility to his politics as it did to his company's fate.

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Jon Corzine is one of the most principled and capable people I met in 40 years in politics.

Politics is how I came to know Corzine — as the strategist and media consultant in his 2000 Senate race and his race for governor in 2005. The first time I met him, he was handed a poll that positioned him as an almost blue dog Democrat, a businessman and a cautious agent of small-bore change. Maybe that was the predictable assumption about someone who'd risen to the top of Goldman Sachs. But he'd come from modest beginnings. His father was a small-time farmer, his mother a teacher. He'd worked his way through college and business school with the help of student aid. As he told me, he had always hoped he was smart, but he knew he was lucky, too — and he wanted others to have the same chances he'd had. So he bridled at the poll: If he was going to run, he said, it would be to fight for big and progressive ideas. This guy, I thought, has character, the kind that isn't all that common in candidates.

He was criticized for spending his own money in the race; the critics presumably preferred someone in hock to PACs and special interest money. The New York Times endorsed his Republican opponent even as Corzine, ahead of his time, campaigned for universal health coverage and, still today ahead of his time, for universal access to college.

Just as he was no ordinary candidate, he was no ordinary senator. As a freshman in a body that enshrined seniority, he was a principle architect of the Sarbanes-Oxley bill that reformed corporate accounting practices after the Enron scandal. Corzine was a major force in expanding children's health care and coverage for pregnant women. He fought to outlaw racial profiling — and with conservative Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, was the lead sponsor of legislation to stop genocide in the Sudan.

Corzine was one of just 23 senators who voted against giving George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. I talked with him about it at the time. The case for war simply hadn't been made, he insisted; he didn't care what the polls said — and this war could become a quagmire. He was plainspoken and eloquent in his opposition. That wasn't the politically expedient course. Many of his Democratic colleagues, including his fellow New Jersey Sen. Bob Torricelli, went the other way. Some of them agonized; all of them faced political pressure, and at least some of them believed they were right. But what I saw in Corzine was the courage to follow his conscience.

I didn't want him to run for governor in 2005; he was headed for an easy re-election to the Senate the next year — and if he'd stayed, he'd now be on a glide path for a third term. But Corzine was worried about New Jersey's fiscal health and future. And that's the challenge that consumed much of his time in office. In 2009, he would be defeated for re-election at the front edge of the political storm that followed the Bush economic collapse and presaged a nationwide Democratic rout in 2010. So there's a narrative — glib, easy, and wrong — that he failed as governor, just as he later failed at MF Global.

Unlike his successor Chris Christie, Corzine was never a bully. With quiet strength, he made tough decisions in a hard time. He insisted on funding state pension liabilities that had plunged into the red as his predecessors raided or shortchanged the state's pension fund. He proposed $2 billion in cuts in his first budget and an increase in the sales tax; he shut the government down rather then surrender to his own Democratic legislature's reflex instinct to paper over the fiscal shortfall.

Corzine defied the polls again when he called for higher tolls on the New Jersey Tunrpike. The request was instantly demagogued as a sharp rise; in reality, it was phased in over years. It was another act of political courage, but he was defeated on it. He continued to push for fiscal responsibility — and honesty — while preserving the social safety net. His 2009 budget was smaller than his 2008 one. This represented the second-largest spending cut in the state's history.

Corzine pushed through New Jersey's civil unions law — and then moved on to a near-miss effort to legalize same-sex marriage. He's passionate about equality, stretching back to his days at Goldman Sachs, when he opened the way for more women and minority partners. And he's passionate about justice, too. He succeeded in abolishing the death penalty in New Jersey; it was the first time any state had done so in a generation. In a powerful speech when he signed the bill, he denounced "state-endorsed killing."

I admire what he accomplished and what he stood for in public service. For the moment, that's been wiped away by the events at MF Global. I don't know precisely what happened there — and by the way, neither do all those who are rushing to judgment not just about the firm, but about the man. I know Jon Corzine. He was a client who became a friend. Again and again in politics, I've seen his integrity and his commitment to high standards. And I believe that after all the headlines fade, and the process comes to an end, that is one thing about him that will not change.

A lot of his friends know this; I just thought someone should say it.

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