Picture the scene: Five kids gathered on the third floor above Codey Funeral Home in Orange, cutting out photographs of cars from any magazine we could find. When we collected enough, we’d go into the hallway and stage our own funeral procession, mimicking scenes playing out below.
That’s how I grew up — a funeral home kid. And that’s the life that shaped what followed.
Next week, I’ll get in the car and head down the New Jersey Turnpike, making a trip I’ve made thousands of times. Tuesday, Jan. 9, will be the final day of my legislative career. The date marks 50 years and one day since this handsome young man was sworn in as a 27-year-old assemblyman, and some 70 years since I was staging mock funeral processions with my brothers and sisters.
There have been a lot of campaigns, a lot of meetings and what feels like 5 million phone calls along the way. So, how did I make it 50 years in the Legislature, or 54 years in public service if you count my time on the county committee in Orange? And how did I manage to avoid the scourge of modern democracy — the political bosses getting their hooks into me?
That goes back to my childhood and watching my dad and grandfather run the funeral home. My dad always stressed a personal touch, and he taught me to listen to people. Then, and only then, he’d tell me, would I know the right thing to do.
He also taught me how to connect with people — not just tell them I cared, but show them in my actions. He’s why I went undercover and worked the graveyard shift for a week at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, using the identity of a deceased sexual offender. And he’s why I would sit down at night and call voters, writing follow-up notes to those same people between other calls. There were thousands upon thousands of those handwritten notes — notes I would drive to the post office after a long night on the phone, in hopes they would be delivered the next day.
Those calls and notes made a difference. And they made me a much better public servant.
In talking with friends and colleagues the past few months, I’ve had the chance to do a lot of reflecting. The other day, someone asked if I had any regrets.
I think my answer surprised him.
I really don’t have many. I would have loved to have gotten the casino workers covered when we passed the smoking ban, but that was a compromise that had to be made at the time. I just never thought we’d still be allowing smokers to poison those workers. It’s crazy, but that’s just one example of political bosses protecting their special interests instead of our neighbors.
A lot of people also think I should hate Jon Corzine, whose personal wealth drove me out of the 2005 gubernatorial election after I took over as governor when Jim McGreevey left office. But it was really just math. Corzine had the money to buy a bunch of county lines, and I didn’t. End of story.
How about the things I’m most proud of accomplishing?
I always did what I thought was right. That meant making sure anybody could talk to me about any issue. But, at the end of the day, I made up my own mind how I wanted to vote, and then I voted for what was right. I’m also immensely proud of the fact that, when I was the governor and president of the Senate, it was the people’s work being done in Trenton and not the bosses’ agenda.
As for specifics, there’s the smoking ban, widening the Turnpike, making the tolls one way on the Garden State Parkway, all the work and development at the Meadowlands, getting the state’s bonds upgraded. And, of course, there’s everything my wife, Mary Jo, did by going public about her battle with postpartum depression, and the broader commitment she made to raising awareness of mental health issues.
Public figures weren’t exactly lining up at the time to speak openly on the topic. I still marvel at Mary Jo’s eloquence and courage when she asked an interviewer more than 30 years ago: “What about people who don’t have money? Where do they go? How do people treat them?”
Today, there are still voices not being heard, but, when people like Mary Jo share their stories, the stigma fades, and access to mental health services improves for all. One of my goals moving forward is to build on the work Mary Jo and I started with the Codey Fund for Mental Health.
Everything I have accomplished in office is a testament to Mary Jo, our family and my staffers over the years. They all made me a better person and a better elected official, and they’re why I’m still learning today.
As I prepare to turn out the lights one final time, it’s my sincere hope that the people are returned to power. The political bosses have had their time, and, if they want to serve, they should get on the ballot and get elected.
There are 120 men and women in the New Jersey Legislature who did just that, and another 14 our state has sent to Congress. Some are independent thinkers, free of the strings and free of the bosses.
Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), my U.S. representative, is one example. In fact, Sherrill is the best candidate I’ve seen in decades — the total package in every way, shape and form. She’s independent, totally down to earth, and she can speak to Democrats, Republicans and independents.
She’ll make a great governor for New Jersey — hopefully, when she wins the 2025 election.
As for me? I’ve got the Codey Funeral Home in Caldwell and the Codey & Mackey Funeral Home in Boonton to run. There’s also an insurance business. And, of course, I’m looking forward to spending time with family and being the best husband, father and grandfather I can be.
And my parting wish? If you’ve been paying attention at all you know it’s this: To live long enough to see a Legislature free of political bosses.
Richard Codey celebrates his final day of public service on Tuesday — and does so as the longest-serving state legislator, having served since Jan. 8, 1974. He served as the 53rd governor of the state and the state Senate president.