TRENTON, N.J. – Sen. Jon Corzine (search) probably never thought he would need to woo environmentalists in the race for governor of New Jersey.
The liberal Democrat has consistently earned high marks for his pro-environmental voting record, and green activists' loyalty to New Jersey Democrats seemed automatic. However, a series of actions early in his campaign has put him at odds with the state's largest environmental groups.
He has been lauded by environmentalists for a voting record that includes opposing offshore oil and gas drilling and calling for more money to preserve the nation's coastline from erosion.
But representatives of several groups recently stood shoulder to shoulder with his opponent, moderate Republican Douglas Forrester (search), to condemn proposed development of an chemical-tainted island on the Delaware River in south Jersey.
The state had rejected a proposal by landowner Citgo Petroleum Corp. to clean up Petty's Island, nesting site of one of New Jersey's 49 pairs of bald eagles, and donate the 392-acre tract as a wildlife refuge. Instead, the state endorsed a plan favored by local officials to claim the island by eminent domain and use it for a hotel, conference center and homes.
Corzine suggested the oil company might have been trying to hand off polluted land without setting aside enough money to clean it up. He supported local officials' right to decide the island's fate.
"He's hurt himself overall with environmentalists and environmental voters in New Jersey," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the state Sierra Club, which despite the recent criticism has endorsed Corzine for governor. "He's got a very strong record on the environment in Washington. But he clearly needs to re-establish his environmental record with New Jerseyans."
Among the issues raised by environmentalists, Corzine supports extending the license of one of the country's oldest nuclear power plants, Oyster Creek, and he has endorsed construction of an enormous entertainment complex in the Meadowlands, the sprawling wetland across the Hudson River from New York City. The state's three biggest environmental groups are suing to stop the Meadowlands project.
The move drawing the most heat is Corzine's hiring of Susan Bass Levin (search), an administrator in former Gov. James E. McGreevey's Cabinet, to run his campaign. She is reviled for her pro-development record, which includes support for a law that speeds up approvals for some developers.
The Forrester campaign sought to gain political traction by linking Petty's Island and the Bass Levin hiring to George E. Norcross III, an influential Democratic fundraiser.
"With Corzine, what you find is when he's come up against party bosses, like he did on Petty's Island, he didn't take the environmentally responsible position," said Forrester spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester.
Other than the environment, the New Jersey governor's race has centered on lowering highest-in-the-nation property taxes and cracking down on government corruption. It is one of just two gubernatorial races in the country this year; the other is in Virginia.
Corzine, 58, ran for the Senate after resigning in 1999 as the chairman of the Wall Street firm of Goldman Sachs & Co. Forrester, 52, is a former mayor and president of a prescription drug management company.
Both millionaire candidates have declined matching public funds for their campaigns so they can spend their own money freely. At the end of June, Forrester had spent $11.69 million and Corzine had spent $5.4 million.
Corzine has been the favorite since declaring his candidacy in December, a month after James E. McGreevey, a fellow Democrat, resigned following his announcement that he had an extramarital affair with a man while in office.
Corzine bristles at the thought of losing ground to Forrester on green issues, even though the two most recent polls showed him leading Forrester by 10 percentage points.
"I would be concerned if I said things that I didn't believe are right and responsible for the public," Corzine said.