Race for NJ's second-in-command begins

February 15, 2009 1:22:50 PM PST
There's more to this year's governor's race than a wealthy incumbent battling a popular former federal prosecutor. For the first time, New Jersey gubernatorial candidates will have running mates. You haven't heard their names because they haven't been chosen.

But as the June primary election gets closer, candidates will be pressed to name people under consideration for their running mates.

"It will make the governor's race more interesting, for sure. You'll have these other personalities tied to it," said political scientist Peter Woolley, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

"The candidates don't want to pick someone that's going to distract. Of course, that's usually easier said than done," Woolley said.

New Jersey will join 44 states that have a lieutenant governor.

The state will be the 25th to elect a governor and lieutenant governor on one ticket, meaning the two are elected together and won't represent different parties.

Sponsors of the 2005 measure that created the position did so hoping it will lead to more women and minorities in statewide elected positions.

Until now, voters have only elected one woman governor, Christie Whitman in 1993, and one minority, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, to a statewide office.

Backers hope the lieutenant governor post will offer more opportunity for diversity because the person will be chosen by the candidates, not by voters.

And so far, the idea seems to be working; among the most common names mentioned for both parties are women or minorities.

For the Democrats, lieutenant governor possibles include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells and Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-Trenton - all of whom are African-Americans. Gov. Jon S.

Corzine has also mentioned state Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Edison, as a possible choice.

"I don't know why for the first time, being with the governor, I feel like I'm auditioning now," Palmer joked this week during an event at a Trenton community health clinic attended by Corzine.

Palmer said Corzine told him he's was on the short list for the spot, but Palmer wants to know more about what the job entails.

The position was created without any specific duties; the governor will decide the lieutenant's role and salary.

"I believe I could be helpful to the ticket, certainly in cities and urban areas," Palmer said. "But it can't be a token person in there, or just window dressing.'

He said the pick needs to have executive experience: "The person should be able to be governor and be viewed by the citizens as ready to lead the state."

For incumbent Democrat Corzine, choosing a running mate could prove to be an embarrassment of riches.

He is in a position of reaching out across a broad coalition of groups, but runs the risk of disappointing whichever factions aren't represented.

Republicans, however, will have a more difficult time finding a candidate to appeal to a broad audience in such a Democratic-leaning state, observers say.

"That's a problem and an opportunity for them," Woolley said. "They need to reach out of the suburbs and reach into the urban areas."

State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Red Bank, is among the most popular names mentioned as a possible Republican running mate.

The impact of a lieutenant governor could be more important in the long run, Woolley said, by drawing out more candidates to run for the primary.

"You have this extra carrot to be eaten. There will be more of an incentive to get into the race, not necessarily because you'd like to be governor, but because you'd like to be a running mate."

If they do want to become governor, the odds of doing it after serving as lieutenant are good.

A 2006 study showed the office has a greater success rate of its occupants becoming governor than any other local, state or federal official. Since 2000, 16 lieutenant governors and officials second-in-command have succeeded to governor, according to the National Lieutenant Governor's Association.

Although the duties of lieutenant governor are unclear at this point, at least one thing is known: If something were to happen to the governor or the governor were to resign, the lieutenant governor would step in.

Over the last decade, 12 different people have served as New Jersey's acting governor at one time or another. But no one has done so longer in that time than Senate President Richard J. Codey.

In 2004, Codey took over for 15 months after Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned after he announced he was gay and said he had an extramarital affair with a male staffer.

"Most states, no one knows who the lieutenant governor is," Codey said, "and their chief function in life is to be there in case the governor dies."

Codey took over as governor again for about a month in 2007 when Corzine was almost killed in a car accident. During both stints, he remained Senate president - something critics said gave one person too much power.

Since becoming governor in January 2006, Corzine has transferred power 105 times - sometimes just for a few hours while he is out of the state.