TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey's acting governor seems to go out of his way to look like an average guy. He doesn't live in the stately governor's mansion. He eats Cheerios for breakfast. He makes time to coach youth basketball.
Pushed into office by his predecessor's gay sex scandal, Dick Codey (search) is now a lame duck, a status that has enabled him to keep a low profile - and take unpopular stands. Among his boldest moves were raising the minimum wage, promoting stem cell research and calling for spending cuts to ease a $4 billion budget deficit.
"Codey made decisions that made running (for governor) nearly impossible," said political scientist David Rebovich. "He preached belt-tightening in an election year."
The 58-year-old father of two flirted with a run for the position he inherited when James E. McGreevey (search) resigned in a stunning, nationally televised announcement that he was gay and had an extramarital affair with a man. But citing family concerns, Codey opted to throw his support to popular fellow Democrat Sen. Jon Corzine (search) instead.
Corzine faces two unknowns for the Democratic nomination in the June 7 primary. Seven Republicans, led by former West Windsor mayor Doug Forrester (search) and former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler (search), are battling for their party's nomination.
Codey shrugs off suggestions the governor's race, one of only two in the nation, will soon shift the public's eye from his work as acting governor.
"They're going to be watching an election, I can appreciate that. We're going to do policy. I'm not going to stop. It's as simple as that," he said.
Some of Codey's boldest moves include raising the state's minimum wage to $7.15 and brokering a deal to get the New York Giants a new football stadium at the Meadowlands.
He has proposed borrowing $230 million for stem-cell research grants in the hopes of finding cures for Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries — a move that angered right-to-life groups, who oppose research that can entail using human embryos.
Codey also took a swipe at New Jersey's generous public employee pension and health benefits system, blaming it for part of the state's crushing debt. He brought on the wrath of labor unions, a key constituency for his party.
Lawmakers, including some Democrats, were cool to both the stem cell proposal and his budget cuts. But Codey remains undaunted.
Polls show wide support for stem cell research, and the financial hole New Jersey is in will take years to escape, he said.
Polite and affable, Codey likes to talk about his Irish roots and middle-class rise working in the family's funeral home business. He chose not to move into the governor's mansion and doesn't use the spacious office or desk preferred by his predecessor.
He hadn't sat at the desk McGreevey used until a month ago.
"I sat in the chair, and just opened the (desk) drawer. Lo and behold, unbeknownst to me, was a note from him to me, dated Nov. 12. It was a personal thing, 'Best of luck, I know you'll do well.'"
Codey sought to bury the McGreevey scandal by enacting ethics reforms and signing a law that shut off campaign contributions from contractors vying to do business with the state. Democrats were relieved, and even Republicans, who picked up election-year ammo from McGreevey's meltdown, gave Codey some applause.
"We had a governor with a lot of troubles personally. Codey has come in and restored public trust in the office. This couldn't have worked out better if we had planned it," said Rick Thigpen, a Democratic strategist.
When he announced that he would not seek a full term as governor, Codey's approval ratings soared, slumping only three months later with his budget proposal. In March, a brush with a radio shock jock who mocked his wife's battle with depression further buoyed public appeal for Codey.
Come January, he will return full-time to the Senate president post that he has retained throughout his 14 months as McGreevey's successor. He said he has no regrets about deciding not to run for a full term.
Well-wishers, Codey said, still note their preference for him. "They tell me they're going to write me in," he said.