WEST ORANGE, N.J. - Richard J. Codey, New Jersey's accidental governor for a second time, emphasizes that he knows his place - and it's a much different place this time around.
Last time, he had 14 months at the helm, his own plans and his own people to carry them out. This time, the guy he's replacing is in the hospital - not gone for good.
So this time, the Senate president said, his job is to work with Gov. Corzine's people on Gov. Corzine's agenda.
"But don't take me for a potted plant," Codey said in an interview yesterday in his Essex County district office. "I would never be a caretaker."
Codey's role as Senate president - second in line for the governor's office - has twice put him in charge without being elected to the job.
He first took over as governor in 2004 after the fall of Jim McGreevey; he was forced into the role again April 12 after Corzine was injured in a car wreck. He is expected to serve at least through the beginning of next week, while Corzine is hospitalized.
Codey has attended funerals for New Jersey victims of the Virginia Tech massacre, surveyed recent storm damage from a helicopter, made two Camden school board appointments, and plans to sign some labor-related bills tomorrow - all with the Corzine administration's blessing.
This is not to say that he is not trying to make his own mark.
He's meeting with the state treasurer to float an idea for the administration's plans to sell or lease state assets such as highways; Codey wants to look into the idea of different toll rates for New Jersey residents, versus out of state drivers. He's been talking to Corzine aides about the political and financial consequences of their ideas for distributing money to hospitals to treat the uninsured, and about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to impose a fee on drivers entering Manhattan.
"It's a tough situation. It's a balancing act," Codey said. "I've got to be a leader who's respectful and understanding of the situation. I am not an elected governor. I have an elected governor over me."
Codey acknowledges some tension between him and Corzine aides, but says it was minor. Tom Shea, Corzine's chief of staff, has also dismissed the reports, saying they were "emblematic of what happens in the Statehouse, or as I like to call it, 'statehouse high.' "
"Acting Gov. Codey is the acting governor of the State of New Jersey for as long as it takes for Jon Corzine to come back, and he has the full cooperation of this administration in helping to keep the state running on an even keel," Shea said on Monday.
Harold Hodes, a top Democratic lobbyist and Codey adviser, said that Codey is well aware of his place.
"He may or may not raise questions about some things," Hodes said, but "he knows the governor is still the governor, and so on appointments and things like that, he'll do what the governor wants. He's not going to supersede Corzine."
Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) agreed Codey recognized that he was there to "step into a tough situation to provide constitutional continuity." What made the transition smooth was that Codey was not only experienced as governor, but also a fellow Democrat and "ideologically in step" with Corzine, Roberts said.
But Codey's style is much different from Corzine's. While Corzine often favors big, complex words, Codey is quick with quips and media-savvy. This has contributed to the tension, leading to some grumblings that Codey is grabbing attention in Corzine's absence.
"I'm not looking for publicity," insists Codey, who enjoyed record approval ratings as governor. "I've had enough publicity."
For instance, he said, "I'm not [New York Sen.] Chuck Schumer doing press conferences on Sunday," saying he preferred to play golf with his son and coach his eighth-grade basketball team.
Even after Corzine resumes the governor's office, Codey says he expects to play a role. Mostly, he says, he can lend his "gravitas" as a former governor to make public appearances Corzine can't get to.
Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley said no decisions had been made about whether or how Corzine would delegate his duties because of mobility issues, though two of his cabinet members plan to fill in for him at a May town hall meeting in Red Bank. "We have not given serious thought to that because we're in no rush," Coley said.
He said the administration was focused on Corzine's health, which yesterday continued to improve. Corzine ate pancakes and sausage for breakfast at Cooper University Hospital, had physical therapy and was for the first time moved from his bed to a chair, where he sat upright for an hour.
Aides have also said Corzine has even been talking about his plans to lease or sell state assets.
Yesterday, this made Codey roll his eyes. With Corzine on medication, "He doesn't need anything to put him to sleep," Codey said. "I mean, geez, does he want the others around him to go to sleep, too?"
Though no decision has made on where Corzine goes after he leaves Cooper, Codey says he's pointed out that the largest rehabilitation hospital in the country - the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation - is just down the road from his own West Orange offices, where he says Corzine aides are welcome to have space.
Codey says he sees no legislative changes arising from the revelations that Corzine was unbuckled and being driven along at 91 m.p.h. - and says the public should let Corzine recover before jumping on him for these actions.
He also tells of a basketball game he coached over the weekend. After leaving the gym, he drove past the entrance and a crowd of onlookers recognized him and began whispering.
Codey said he held up the seat-belt strap, showing them he was buckled up. There was applause from the crowd.
Richard J. Codey
Age: 60, born Nov. 27, 1946
Family: Married to Mary Jo Codey. They have two sons.
Education: Graduate of Oratory Prep and Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Experience: New Jersey governor, November 2004 to January 2006; New Jersey Senate, 1982 to present; New Jersey Senate president, 2004 to present; General Assembly, 1974 to 1981.
Noteworthy: Was acting governor for 14 months after Jim McGreevey's 2004 resignation; was 26 when first elected to the Assembly, becoming at the time the youngest person ever elected to the New Jersey Legislature; once assumed the name of a dead criminal to get a job at state psychiatric hospital to see conditions firsthand, an experience that led to reforms.