Everyone is excited about the fact that President-elect Barack Obama is talking with New York Senator Hillary Clinton about the prospect that she might serve as Secretary of State. But the big news from inside the transition process is the speculation that New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine might be selected for the essential economic position of Secretary of the Treasury.
Corzine certainly has one of the “qualifications” that official Washington demands. He is a former senior partner with Goldman Sachs, the firm that has contributed so many Cabinet secretaries and administration insiders over so many years that it is referred to as “Government Sachs.”
But Corzine is not your typical Goldman-Sachs man.
After he was elected to the US Senate from New Jersey in 2000, Corzine searched out Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. The new senator from New Jersey informed the iconic liberal Democrat — who was often at odds with his own party’s leadership — that he hoped they could work together on social and economic justice issues.
Corzine, a very wealthy former Goldman-Sachs chairman and co-CEO, might have seemed like an unlikely economic populist. But he soon made the senator from Minnesota a believer. Indeed, when we were sitting in his office one afternoon in 2001, talking about the senators who could be counted on to stand up to the new Bush-Cheney administration, Wellstone said, “Put Corzine of the list. He’s going to surprise people.
During his five years in the Senate, Corzine did, indeed, side with Wellstone (until the Minnesotan’s death in 2002) and with the left wing of the Democratic Senate Caucus — sponsoring the “Start Healthy, Stay Healthy Act” to expand access to health care for children and pregnant women and a proposal to lower the marginal tax bracket from 15 percent to 10 percent for low-income wage earners. Corzine worked with Wellstone and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy to defend Pell Grants and entitlement programs that were under attack, he criticized schemes to privatize Social Security and played a critical role in passing legislation designed to crack down on corporate malfeasance.
The senator from New Jersey promoted regulation of major industries (chemical and nuclear power, in particular) and he was one of the few senators to question blank-check giveaways to the airline industry in aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Corzine also voted against authorizing Bush to take the country to war with Iraq and got a whole lot of other issues — not all of them, but a whole lot — right.
It is rare that someone with Corzine’s record even gets on a list of prospective Treasury officials.
Corzine may or may not be the perfect pick. But the fact that he is being considered is one more sign that a change — maybe even a “change we can believe in” — is coming to Washington.
After all, when was the last time that a potential nominee for the Treasury post was being talked up by the head of the Service Employees International Union. On Thursday, Andy Stern told reporters he thought the governor’s strong economic credentials and government experience make Corzine an appealing prospect. Stern’s right.