Halftime In Trenton

Chris Christie scored big in his first two years as governor, brushing aside opponents, pushing through pension reform, balancing two budgets and developing a huge national profile. The second half of his term is unlikely to look quite as easy.

Illustration by David M. Brinley.

When it comes to football, Chris Christie is about as politically incorrect as any politician can get. The governor of New Jersey is a Dallas Cowboys fan. He realizes that doesn’t sit well with Giants, Jets and Eagles fans, but that’s the way it is. He grew up in the 1970s, he explains, and was a huge fan of Roger Staubach, the star quarterback of that Texas team. But if pressed to pick among the locals, Christie opts for the Jets. One of his sons, you see, is a fan of Gang Green.

Whatever his gridiron proclivities, football analogies suit the burly Christie. Two years into his term, the Republican governor has had a great first half, using his game-planning skills and outsize personality to barrel over opponents. He has reeled off one legislative victory after another despite being outmanned by the Democrats, who control both houses of the state Legislature. Quite simply, he has outplayed them, forcing mistakes and then taking whatever they would give him. And political correctness? That’s not even in his playbook.

Now comes the second half—and it promises to be brutal. The alliances Christie has formed with the state’s Democratic power brokers may not hold.  And the Democrats on the field—that is, in the state Legislature—may no longer allow themselves to be brushed aside by a popular governor as he readies his run for reelection.

“I think the governor will experience a great deal of resistance as he moves forward,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, tells New Jersey Monthly.

“How open he’ll be to our ideas is critical,” adds Stephen Sweeney, president of the state Senate and the most powerful Democrat in Trenton. 

That tougher approach is a departure from the last two years, when Christie seemed to impose his agenda on the Legislature. Christie’s victories would not have been possible without a huge assist from top Democrats—particularly Sweeney and Oliver. The Republicans simply did not
have enough votes.

Christie needed the Democrats to put in place his penny-pinching spending policy that allowed him to balance two budgets (although, like previous governors, he continued to short-change the state’s pension fund). The governor pushed for a taxpayer-friendly overhaul of government worker pension and health care benefits and he got it. State and municipal employees now pay more for their medical insurance and contribute more to their pension plans, reducing the strain on taxpayers.

Christie called for revamping arbitration rules that govern bargaining between the government and unions and he got that, too.

To force spending cuts on the municipal level—and take some of the pressure off homeowners—the governor wanted a tighter property tax cap, calling for a 2.5 percent limit in increases and the elimination of loopholes that had made the previous 4 percent cap more of a suggestion than a legal requirement. The Democrats went him one better, approving a 2 percent cap with many of the exceptions erased.

Christie’s policies have pleased many and enraged others, especially state government workers, teachers and their unions. Many of his public statements also have been a turnoff for other blocs of voters, including women, the targets of several well-aimed Christie barbs.

Still, Christie generates positive numbers. In a Monmouth University Poll in October, his approval rating was 54 percent with 38 percent disapproving. A Fairleigh Dickinson University MindPoll the previous month yielded similar results.

Christie’s accomplishments, his popularity and his toughness garnered attention from Republicans across the nation. They already had taken notice when he ousted Jon Corzine, a Democratic governor in a deep blue state who had the deepest of deep pockets. Christie’s successes brought a clamor for him to get into the GOP presidential race.

But after flirting with top Republican leaders and potential campaign donors who had come a-calling, Christie demurred. At an early October press conference, the governor explained that he wasn’t ready to move on. “When I look at what we’ve accomplished so far, I’m proud but I know we’re not nearly done,” he said.

For the second half, education and ethics reform top Christie’s list of goals “not nearly done.” He wants to revamp the teacher tenure process, establish a program to reward effective teachers, revise seniority rules, invigorate charter schools and provide more options for students in failing school districts. On the ethics front, he wants to end dual-office holding for elected officials and government employees. Under his proposals, a worker could collect only one government paycheck. Christie also wants legislators to file a more detailed financial disclosure and publicly acknowledge any possible conflicts of interest before voting on legislation. And along the way, he’d like to remake the state’s Supreme Court with a more conservative bent (see below).

It’s a manageable to-do list—but with Democrats vowing not to be his patsies this time around, how many of the items will Christie be able to check off?

Christie attributes much of his first-half success to bipartisanship and compromise. While he declined to be interviewed for this article he has expressed this idea numerous times.

Addressing the Republican elite in September at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, Christie said, “In New Jersey over the last 20 months, you have actually seen divided government that is working. To be clear, it does not mean that we have no argument or acrimony. There are serious disagreements, sometimes expressed loudly—Jersey style.”

He went on to say it worked because “we compromised on a bipartisan basis to get results.”
That was then and this is now. The reality is that, with Christie eyeing reelection and a number of Democrats calculating their chances of beating him, campaign politics will figure heavily into the next two years. The stench of partisanship that smothers Washington may well seep into Trenton.
In fact, as might be expected of a governor who pulls no punches, Christie has rankled many in his first two years.

The Democrats, says Speaker Oliver, “are just fed up with what they consider to be the governor’s disrespect for a co-equal branch of government. They’re fed up with all the name calling.” 

Democratic senator Barbara Buono, often mentioned as a possible challenger to Christie, says the governor has polarized the Legislature and actually become an impediment to bipartisan legislation.

“Republicans grouse to me all the time about toeing the line,” she says. “He [Christie] has emasculated the Republican members of the Legislature. Maybe emasculate is too strong a term, but I don’t think so.”

Senator Dick Codey, also a Democrat, scoffs at the idea of bipartisanship. It’s “baloney” he says.
Rather, Codey traces Christie’s legislative wins to “an unholy alliance” between the governor and the top Democratic bosses. “It’s as simple as that,” says Codey. “It’s not bipartisanship.”

The bosses in question are a formidable trio: South Jersey’s George Norcross, Newark’s Steve Adubato Sr. and Essex County’s Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr.

Norcross, an insurance executive and chairman of the board of trustees of both the Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital, is credited with having engineered Sweeney’s ouster of Codey one year ago as Senate president.

Adubato, who like Norcross has never held elected office, founded a number of key Newark institutions, including the North Ward Center and the Robert Treat Academy, a highly regarded charter school. From these institutions, he has built a power base that influences decisions statewide.

DiVincenzo, who cut his political teeth working at Adubato’s North Ward Center, served 13 years as a freeholder before being elected Essex County executive in 2002. Among those on his county staff: Sheila Oliver, the assistant county administrator of Essex County. 

The trio of power brokers influences the votes of enough Democratic lawmakers to provide the governor with wins in the Legislature. While Buono thinks the governor’s heavy-handed style has emasculated Republicans, some in the GOP think the bosses have similarly neutered the Democrats.

“You never know if somebody’s word is the final word,” says one Republican legislator, who does not want to be identified. “There are no real commitments because nobody seems to have the power to do what he or she says they’ll do.” Everything, he adds, needs to be cleared by the trio.

A demonstration of that iron-fisted control came after November’s state legislative election in which Democrats retained their majorities in both houses. Within a week of the election, Buono was ousted as the party’s leader in the Senate and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan lost his leadership post in the Assembly. Both were critics of Sweeney and Oliver’s compromises with Christie.
The Democrats’ degree of cooperation with Christie’s agenda depends quite a bit on Norcross, Sweeney and DiVincenzo.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, notes that two of them—Norcross and Adubato—have a keen interest in charter schools and some other innovative education programs. “The likelihood is that they would want to work with the governor on that issue, but they may not want to give him wins on other issues,” he says.

The Christie administration is well aware of the give and take of the legislative process and has a warning for anybody who is thinking about playing political hardball.

“There are things that Democrats want done. They become obstructionists at their own risk,” says Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary.

Still, any cooperation likely will come grudgingly.

Codey says he’s waiting to see whom Christie picks to be his punching bag in the coming years. “It’s going to be very interesting now that he’s coming up to the reelection part of his term to see who he uses as his bogeyman. We’ve had the NJEA (New Jersey Education Association) and the teachers and then the judges. Who’s next? He’s very effective at anointing somebody as the evil one.”

Christie’s war with the teachers’ union is well known. Last fall, he began vilifying certain members of the judiciary after Paul DePascale, a New Jersey Superior Court judge, challenged the new law requiring all government employees—including judges—to pay more for their health and pension benefits. DePascale’s suit maintains the law is unconstitutional. A judge in Mercer County—one of their own, Christie likes to point out—found for the judges and refused to throw out the case. It now is headed for the state Supreme Court.

During the past two years, the governor has frequently lambasted Democrats in the Legislature, although he has been careful not to conduct an all-out assault, realizing he needs their votes for his agenda. But a reelection run can change all that.

In the November election, in which every seat in the state Legislature was at stake, the Democrats increased their majority in the Assembly by one, making it 48 to 32, and retained the 24 to 16 split in the Senate. It was a minor repudiation of the governor, but one that could work to his advantage.

“The Democrats retaining control, in my view, is a good thing for the governor,” says  Brigid Harrison, a political science and law professor at Montclair State University. “He now has a constant adversary he can blame for any failure.”

But Harrison says partisan fighting could escalate to the point of causing a government shutdown in June over the budget. “Last year Democrats took a conciliatory attitude toward the budget, kowtowing to the governor, and he got what he wanted,” she says. “Many of the Democrats in leadership recognized that they had played into the governor’s hands. They’re not about to let that happen again.”

One way for the Democrats to assert themselves would be to circumvent the governor and go directly to the voters on certain issues. The addition of one seat in the Assembly gives the Democrats just enough votes to place constitutional amendments directly on future ballots. Such amendments, if passed by the general public, would not need the governor’s signature. That means, for example, the Democrats could let voters decide whether the wealthy should pay more taxes—something Christie has flat out rejected.

Former Governor Thomas Kean says the animosity in Trenton is not a given. During his first term as governor, from 1982 to 1986, Kean, a Republican, served with the opposition party in control of the Legislature. He says it’s possible to get things done in such circumstances, even when heading toward a reelection campaign.

“The second half of my first term was good because we had worked together and [the Democrats] knew my word was good,” says Kean. “They knew I would give them credit and extend them little courtesies that they appreciated.”

Kean says it is particularly important to have a solid relationship with the Senate president. In New Jersey, the Senate president determines what bills will get a vote and which gubernatorial appointments will be considered for confirmation.

Indeed, Christie has cultivated a respectful working relationship with Sweeney, easing the way for compromise on the pension and health benefits package. But Sweeney and Oliver came under considerable criticism from fellow Democrats, a majority of whom refused to go along when the vote on the  benefit changes was taken last June. Still,  enough Democrats joined with Republicans for passage of the reform package.

Sweeney, an official with the ironworkers’ union, knows that many aligned with his party—particularly the labor unions—were not pleased with his support of pension reform, but he stands by his actions.

“Being a leader isn’t about telling people what they want to hear,” says Sweeney. “My job is to get things done for the people of the state. If I screw around with partisan politics, am I hurting or helping the taxpayers?” 

He adds, “People can criticize me all they want, but we put taxpayers first and enacted reforms nobody dreamed could happen”—reforms he says he supported for years before Christie became governor.

Still, Sweeney’s tactics could change. He felt Christie betrayed him when the governor used his line-item veto to slash hundreds of millions in spending from the last budget. Sweeney’s response was emotional and bitter. He called Christie a “bastard,” a “rotten prick,” and described him as being “mean spirited” for cutting programs designed to help the needy. He has since cooled down, although he has not apologized.

And he concedes that not everybody will be willing to work with Christie. “It could easily happen where people could make the decision, ‘Well, we’re just going to make everything look bad and not give him any victories.’”

In the Assembly the animosity runs even deeper. “Members feel the governor has no respect whatsoever for the Legislature,” says Oliver. She too has had bitter words for the governor, calling him “mentally deranged.” Her comment came after the leak of a taped closed-door speech Christie gave last June in Colorado to high-powered conservative donors. The governor maintained that Oliver asked for his help in retaining her speakership if her fellow Democrats tried to oust her for pushing through the pension and health benefits bill. She denied that ever happened.

The speaker says she and Sweeney “worked very hard swimming upstream in our caucuses to get things done and now to have the governor not respect the fact that there are Democratic legislators with worthy ideas—that’s troubling. He’s not willing to meet us halfway, and, well, that’s not helpful to push his agenda for the next two years.”

Tom Kean Jr., the Republican leader in the Senate, acknowledged the partisan tensions but said he was “optimistic that things can get better.” He added, “It’s unfortunate, the rhetoric that’s being used by the leaders of the majority in the Legislature.”

He also takes issue with the Democrats’ claim that Christie has let the economy slide. Democrats argue that the governor has largely ignored what should be his priority—putting people back to work. They note that the New Jersey unemployment rate hovers around 9.2 percent—slightly higher than the national average and well above that of surrounding states. Kean counters that jobs are being created; some experts agree.

Joseph Seneca, a professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers and a longtime monitor of the state’s economic climate, says the state has “had some strength recently in the private-sector job growth.”

Seneca says Christie has focused on the right things to improve the climate for business investment. For example, despite the severe loss of tax revenue as a result of the recession, “the state didn’t engage in the usual practice of raising taxes, but rather tried to get a hold on spending,” Seneca says.

Support for Christie is seen in a PublicMind poll from October in which 46 percent of respondents said the state was headed in the right direction; 43 percent thought the state was going off the tracks. Peter Woolley, the poll director, says it marked the first time since July 2004 that the survey showed a positive attitude among those polled.

Kean Jr. cites this as a solid endorsement for the Christie agenda. “The public believes the state is headed in the right direction because they see real financial decisions being made, decisions that bring spending into line. We’re not spending money that we don’t have,” he says.

Businesses, he adds, see “predictability” in the way Christie and the Republicans run government. Further, they are confident the GOP won’t raise taxes. “Jobs are being created because of the environment that Chris Christie and the Republican legislators have created,” he maintains.

Hardly a week goes by that Christie isn’t touting a company moving into New Jersey or one already here expanding. From January 2010 through October 31, 2011, the administration says, there was $5.3 billion in public and private investment in New Jersey, and that business activity retained or is expected to create 35,300 jobs. Some examples include the decision by Panasonic to stay in the state and move its headquarters from Secaucus to Newark; Honeywell International’s plan to remain in Morris Township; the Damascus Bakery’s willingness to move from Brooklyn to Newark; and plans by Puratos, a bakery supply firm, to expand its operations in Pennsauken.

To Sweeney, Christie is just “nibbling around the edges” when it comes to jobs. “I can’t get him to sit down with me and talk about putting people back to work. He talks about ethics reform and education reform but doesn’t say anything about jobs. He’s got to be able to do more than one thing at a time,” says the Senate President.

While some joint legislative initiatives on jobs and the economy have been enacted, the Democrats are likely to continue assigning Christie the blame for the state’s stubborn unemployment rate. “The Democrats think they can make an issue on jobs and force him to talk about it,” says Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, Christie has been successful at dominating the public debate.
“One thing interesting in the polling is that his public approval rating rode above the issues,” says Murray. “People were upset with the cuts he made, and people continue to be pessimistic about his efforts to rein in property taxes. And yet they continue to give him positive scores.” It’s as if by “force of personality” the governor is able to convince people that he’s really working for them, Murray adds.

Part of that perception is the result of Christie’s years as U.S. Attorney, when he went after corrupt politicians who were ripping off the taxpayers. And there was also the notion that he was not one of the politicians who over past decades had made such a mess of things.

But that perception may be changing.

“He’s a politician who made his reputation on the idea of being an outsider,” says Montclair State’s Harrison. “At some point the public stops buying that. After two years you’re no longer an outsider.”

And so, she says, what has happened during his term belongs to him. That includes continued increases in property tax bills for most homeowners.

Polling shows that concern about property taxes has never been as high as it has been for the last five years—especially the past two. The Christie administration is well aware of this and last fall trumpeted $267 million in savings for 2012. That’s how much the governor claims local governments will save as a result of pension and health care-benefits reform.

Carl Golden, who served as press secretary to governors Kean and Christie Whitman, says New Jerseyans are anxious for evidence that they will benefit from such cost-cutting.

“When I get my little card with the property taxes, I have to see something. It doesn’t have to be hundreds of dollars in reductions, but there should be something,” says Golden. He notes that Christie is “the guy who said he would stabilize property taxes without raising other state taxes. He has to make that happen.”

Meanwhile, several Democrats are sizing up their chances of unseating the governor in the 2013 election.  “Anybody is beatable,” says Codey, who briefly served as acting governor twice and as governor from 2004 to 2006. He, as well as Sweeney, Buono and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, are often mentioned as potential challengers to Christie. If the governor’s poll numbers start to slip, DiVincenzo also may get into the race. 

The Democrats like their odds of defeating Christie. The traditional Democratic coalition of labor unions, minorities, women and the economically disadvantaged is formidable. The teachers’ and the government employees’ unions want to get even and will be ready to spend and do whatever it takes to make Christie a one-term governor.

Further evidence of Christie’s vulnerability came in the November legislative elections, when Democrats beat Republicans in the few districts that were considered competitive. The GOP spent millions and the governor taped television ads making a personal appeal for several of the candidates, and still they lost.

Despite all this, Christie, who will turn 50 in September, is, for now, the favorite to win in 2013 for several reasons. Primary among them is his communication skills. He has the ability to sense the public psyche and play to it. Money certainly won’t be a problem for a governor whose contacts file is jammed with the names of prominent Republican donors—not just in New Jersey, but across the country.

And then there are the Democrats in the Legislature—the same Democrats who aided him in efforts to bring some fiscal stability to the state. Regardless of what they do, Christie knows how to spin it to his advantage.

The Democrats, says Montclair State’s Harrison, provide Christie with a “constant adversary he can blame for any failure.”

That play could come in handy as Christie takes to the field in the second half.

Josh McMahon is a former political editor and Statehouse bureau chief for the Star-Ledger. Most recently he was a member of the newspaper’s editorial board.

Leaving His Mark on the High Court
While Chris Christie may have made his reputation cutting spending and fighting the teachers’ union, his longest-lasting legacy from the next two years may well be his impact on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

While campaigning for governor in 2009, Christie pledged to appoint judges who were concerned with enforcing the law rather than rewriting it. Citing court rulings on school financing and affordable housing, he complained that the Supreme Court had usurped the Legislature’s prerogative of determining public policy. 

Before his first term is over, Christie will have named four of the seven justices on the court. Three of those appointments will come in the next two years. He has already placed Anne M. Patterson on the bench, a nomination that led to a nearly year-long standoff between Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney and generated a chorus of criticism from the legal establishment.

It wasn’t so much Patterson’s qualifications as whom she replaced. Christie, thumbing his nose at tradition, opted not to reappoint Justice John E. Wallace Jr. In the past, justices who were nominated for an initial seven-year term were routinely reappointed and obtained tenure, meaning they could serve until they turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges. Wallace was 68 in May 2010 when Christie, citing his intention to restructure the court, opted not to keep Wallace on the bench.

Miffed by Christie’s break from tradition, Sweeney refused to allow a Senate vote on Patterson’s confirmation, saying the seat would remain vacant until March 2012 when Wallace would have retired. Eventually the two sides reached an accord. Another justice, Roberto Soto, stepped down at the end of his first term in September and Patterson took Soto’s seat.

That leaves Christie with two appointments this spring—for Wallace and Justice Virginia Long, who turns 70 in March. Christie also will get to review the tenure of Helen Hoens, who will come up for reappointment in September 2013.

Steve Lonegan, who ran against Christie in the GOP primary in 2009 and is considered a leader of New Jersey conservatives, sees this as big, real big.

“The most important thing he can do is appoint good, solid, conservative judges,” says Lonegan, who monitors the court’s decisions and publishes his findings at his website, courtsgonewild.com. Lonegan says the rulings of the high court have been the “single biggest culprit” in affecting state policies and taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

Lonegan points to former President George W. Bush as a model for Christie. With his appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Bush helped shift the balance of power on the U.S. Supreme Court. “The legacy of George W. Bush is the conservative judges he appointed,” says Lonegan.

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