New Fund-Raising World for New Jersey Governor


corzineOf all the gloomy economic indicators since the Wall Street collapse, perhaps the most startling one seen by New Jersey residents is this: Gov. Jon S. Corzine with his hand out. Mr. Corzine, 62, famously spent $60 million of his own money on a record-shattering Senate race in 2000, then $43 million more laying siege to Trenton four years ago. But now, after a costly divorce and a steep decline in his net worth, Mr. Corzine, the onetime chief executive of Goldman Sachs, is in the unfamiliar position of seeking donations to help foot the bill for his campaign.

It is not the easiest sell.

Mr. Corzine is trying to raise upward of $15 million from donors, according to people involved, which he hopes to match with no more than $25 million of his own.

He is calling wealthy donors personally to ask for money, holding receptions and staging larger events, like a performance by Jon Bon Jovi last month.

On Thursday, President Obama joined him at a $5,000- to $10,000-a-plate luncheon expected to raise more than $1 million.

In approaching donors, Mr. Corzine is a bit apologetic and a bit ill at ease, according to those who have observed him. He gets right to the point, though he does so politely.

“He kind of has a Midwestern, aw-shucks approach: ‘Sorry to be asking you for this, but it’s important, for New Jersey and the country,’ ” said Zenon Christodoulou, a member of the governor’s campaign finance committee.

Bernard L. Schwartz, the retired chairman of Loral Space & Communications, said a somewhat downcast Mr. Corzine visited him in Manhattan recently to ask for money. The governor offered a clear-eyed assessment of his chances against Christopher J. Christie, a former federal prosecutor and the Republican nominee, telling Mr. Schwartz the race would be costly and he could not guarantee a victory as a return on Mr. Schwartz’s investment.

“He said it was going to be a tough race,” said Mr. Schwartz, a major Democratic donor. “He was not happy about it.”

Mr. Schwartz wrote a $25,000 check.

Mr. Corzine has accepted contributions before, but has never hunted them so aggressively. In 2005 , he raised less than $2 million from a few thousand donors in a token effort to show popular support; the remaining $43 million was his own, generated by cashing in his last Goldman shares.

Mr. Corzine declined a request for an interview about his fund-raising and personal finances. But since his entry into politics, he has experienced a precipitous drop in his net worth: to perhaps $150 million today from an estimated $400 million after he was forced out as chief executive and co-chairman of Goldman Sachs in 1999.

“He doesn’t specifically say it, but his finance team says it: ‘Jon’s not going to be putting in the same amount of money this year. It’s going to be difficult for him to. You’ve got to help out the party,’ ” said a Democratic operative who had been approached by Corzine fund-raisers. Having used up more than $100 million on his two previous races and having turned over half his assets to his ex-wife in their 2003 divorce, Mr. Corzine sustained big losses in the stock market’s dive last year, advisers and friends say. Paying the full freight of another campaign, in after-tax dollars, would mean parting with a much bigger slice of his net worth, let alone his liquid assets.

“It used to be a hiccup for him,” said Jennifer A. Steen, a political scientist who has studied self-financed political candidates. “But if you’re only worth $100 million, then it actually is a chunk of change.”

For Mr. Corzine’s financial team, the task is proving a heavy lift. He trails in the polls, and around half of New Jersey voters have a negative view of him.

The economy has squeezed fund-raising of all kinds. And his own pay-to-play reforms limit those doing business with the state from giving more than $300.

(Mr. Christie is said to be having his own fund-raising problems, but he is participating in the state’s public financing system, so he needs to raise only $3.6 million to receive matching funds; his spending will be capped at less than $11 million.)

Several people trying to raise money for Mr. Corzine described resistance from prospective contributors who asked why the governor did not just reach into his wallet again.

“We always talk about it and joke about it, how it’s like selling sand to the Saudis,” said Mr. Christodoulou. “But when people say, ‘I’m having trouble paying my bills; what does he need my money for?’ I just tell them, ‘It’s not fair to tell him to foot the bill himself.’ ”

Coming up with tens of millions of dollars in cash could prove harder for Mr. Corzine now than in 2000 and 2005, when he merely had to sell Goldman stock. With his Goldman shares gone, it is unclear how liquid he is: His latest yearly disclosure showed only that his cash on hand was “greater than $500,000” and that he had earned $10,000 to $50,000 in dividends and interest on checking and money-market accounts. Much more of his money appears to be spread among real estate investments, private equity funds and hedge funds, the records indicate.

But those sectors were all hammered last year, and Mr. Corzine did not emerge unscathed. One of the private equity funds he invested most heavily in, TPG-Axon Partners, reportedly lost a third of its value in 2008. In all, Mr. Corzine disclosed that his adjusted gross income for the year was a $2.76 million loss.

Still, while Mr. Corzine has made it clear that there is a limit to how much he can spend this year, those who know him well say his determination to win may overcome his desire to exercise restraint.

Mr. Corzine’s campaign attributes its fund-raising push not to need but to strategy, saying it is borrowing a page from the Obama campaign, building a network of support by recruiting more donors, including small-dollar contributors. As of the most recent state filings, Mr. Corzine had contributed $3.25 million to his campaign and raised $1.36 million from others, but fund-raising and expenses have ratcheted up considerably since.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}