Former banker is banking on buying a seat in US Senate

 

Lately, much of the political attention around New York has focused on Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid for a US Senate seat in New York State. But an interesting, and expensive, race is going on in the neighbouring state of New Jersey where a former top Wall Street executive is spending millions of dollars of his own money in an attempt to represent New Jersey in the United States Senate.

Last year, Mr Jon Corzine was running the prestigious investment bank, Goldman Sachs Group, where Ireland's Peter Sutherland is a managing director. This year Mr Corzine is the Democratic contender for the New Jersey US Senate seat, vacant following the retirement of Sen Frank Lautenberg.

Mr Corzine (53) was co-chairman and co-chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs until January 1999 when, in what amounted to a coup, Mr Henry Paulson, Goldman Sachs's chief executive, ousted him after trading losses and a botched first attempt at a public offering. Mr Corzine had joined Goldman Sachs in 1975 as a bond trader. He worked his way up through the ranks to become a general partner in 1980 and chairman and chief executive officer in 1994. When Goldman Sachs held an initial public offering in May 1999, Mr Corzine received 4.4 million shares, worth $400 million (€478 million) at the time.

At Goldman Sachs, Mr Corzine was given credit for getting the venerable institution founded in 1869 back on track. He took over when Goldman had experienced the first money-losing year in its history. Together with Mr Paulson, he tightened the management structure, implemented risk controls and refocused the company on client relationships. He was known at the firm for his decency and concern for subordinates.

So far, in this election campaign he has spent about $53 million of his own money. Multimillionaires buying their way into politics are not unusual in the US. Mr Ross Perot - one of the guest speakers at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce annual dinner on Thursday night - spent more than $65 million of his own money in his 1992 bid for the presidency and Mr Michael Huffington spent $30 million in California in 1994 in a vain bid to win a Republican seat in the Senate.

However, Mr Corzine's $35 million outlay in the Democratic primary election in June when he trounced former governor Jim Florio broke all records. The previous record for a Senate primary was $8.1 million. This money went on television and radio advertisements and direct mailing campaigns that sought to introduce the then totally unknown Mr Corzine to New Jersey voters. He has never held publicly elected office.

His opponent in the Democratic primary, Mr Florio, was a wily and seasoned politician who had little trouble exposing Mr Corzine's political inexperience especially during their public debates. Mr Corzine also brought unwanted publicity upon himself through some of his verbal gaffes. On one occasion, he joked about how an Italian American in the cement business probably made "cement shoes".

However, many New Jersey Democratic voters had not forgotten that as governor Mr Florio had forced through a $2.8 billion tax increase in 1990. This fact combined with Mr Corzine's big spending ensured it was his name, not Mr Florio's, that would appear on the ballot on November 7th.

His Republican opponent is Mr Bob Franks, a four-term Congressman, who it is estimated has raised about $4.3 million since he became a candidate last year. Again it is Mr Corzine's money that is ensuring nearly all the TV ads come from his camp. It seems that the only way Mr Franks gets his name on TV is when he is mentioned in negative terms in one of Mr Corzine's ads.

Mr Corzine is a devout Methodist who has lived with his wife of 30 years, Joanne, in New Jersey since 1975. He is running on an agenda of universal health care, long-term care for the elderly, quality public education as well as free college tuition for any high school graduates with a B average, mandatory gun licensing and registration for gun owners, investment in inner cities and the environment.

Mr Daniel Montgomery, a Rutherford, New Jersey voter has mixed feelings about Mr Corzine. "I like what he's said about gun control," he said. "He also is supposed to be strong on education and both of these issues are very important aspects of his platform." The one negative comment, Mr Montgomery said, is "I don't like that he's bought the election".

Ms Marian Raab of Montclair, New Jersey said she had no problem with critics who accuse Mr Corzine of basically buying his Senate seat. "The man has the right to do what he wants with his own money," she said. "Some of the most progressive political dynasties of the 20th century were self-funded: the Kennedys and the Rockefellers," she added.

Polls seem to bear out Ms Raab's viewpoint. A poll in the New York Times this week showed that although Mr Corzine is shattering spending records in the New Jersey race, most voters either do not know or do not care. Only 24 per cent of voters were aware that Mr Corzine was spending more than $1 million a week. In outspending Mr Franks by about 17 to one, Mr Corzine has captured the attention of a majority of voters and with three weeks remaining to election day, 59 per cent of respondents said they had no opinion of Mr Franks.

Ms Raab said she met Mr Corzine before the primary election. At the time, she was an editor at the New Jersey Law Journal and the editorial board invited him to dinner. She said she "expected to see a rich dilettante" but was "very impressed by his grasp of complicated social issues and I agreed with him on almost all the issues on his platform".

She said it was no secret that Mr Corzine was left-wing but she found this trait to be "interesting and unusual for someone coming out of the conservative investment banking field with such a progressive, liberal platform".