It's the end of an era in New Jersey as Democratic state Sen. Richard Codey, who served as governor for 14 months from 2004 to 2006, announced Monday that he'd retire after a record 50 years in the legislature.
Codey made his declaration more than two months after he beat colleague Nia Gill 58-42 in the primary for a revamped seat in North Jersey, which means that the Essex County Democratic Party will have to pick a new nominee for this safely blue constituency. Codey tells NorthJersey.com he went through that incumbent vs. incumbent contest only to drop out because he "didn't want to back off from a fight."
Codey was in his third year as Senate president in August of 2004 when Gov. Jim McGreevey, a fellow Democrat, announced he would resign over his affair with an aide named Golan Cipel, a decision that came after Cipel's legal team threatened to sue the governor for sexual harassment. McGreevey, who made history as he announced his departure by acknowledging, "I am a gay American," waited three months to officially step down, a move that averted a special election and ensured that Codey would be able to serve out the remainder of his term.
Codey was first in line at a time when New Jersey didn't have a lieutenant governor. He held the title of acting governor for the next 14 months and simultaneously remained head of the Senate. Codey, as Steve Kornacki would detail in 2013, was popular and wanted to run for a full term as governor in 2005, but he faced an intimidating intra-party threat from wealthy Sen. Jon Corzine. "As Codey connected with The People," Kornacki wrote, "Corzine signed checks, to county Democatic parties, municipal organizations, individual politicians, civic groups. Anyone who might have some sway with some voters in the 2005 primary lined up for their cut of the pie, and Corzine was happy to serve it."
While one poll showed the incumbent drawing close to Corzine, Codey realized that he had little chance of actually winning as long as his opponent had a monopoly on support from the powerful county parties. It didn't help that prominent party bosses like George Norcross and Steve Adubato had a terrible relationship with the incumbent and were all in for the senator. Codey ultimately announced he wouldn't run for the top job, and Corzine went on to easily prevail. Voters that same year also approved a constitutional amendment to create a new office of lieutenant governor, which came into being four years later.
Just before leaving office Codey signed a bill giving the title of "governor of New Jersey" to anyone who had served at least 180 days as acting governor, an honor that belatedly applied to him, but his time as head of the state Senate would also come to an end sooner than he wanted. Just before the 2009 elections, Norcross and Adubato formulated a coup that deposed Codey in favor of a Norcross ally, Steve Sweeney.
Codey never returned to the leadership, though he'd remain in the legislature and outlast many of his intra-party rivals. Corzine lost reelection that year to Republican Chris Christie, while Adubato died in 2020. Norcross, for his part, has witnessed his influence decline over the last several years, most notably in 2021 as he watched Sweeney lose to Republican Edward Durr in a shocking upset. But McGreevey, who played the biggest part in instigating Codey's brief governorship, ironically may not be done with politics himself: North Jersey party leaders said in May they'd back the former governor if he chooses to run for mayor of Jersey City in 2025.