03.06.10

New Jersey's Revenge

With New York and its corrupt politicians suddenly very, well, Jersey-like, the Garden State is actually exceeding expectations. Mitchell Blumenthal on the unlikely rise of Gov. Chris Christie.

For once, the joke isn't on New Jersey.

As David Paterson has immolated in spectacular fashion across the Hudson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—somewhat shockingly—has been coasting, turning himself into a model for national conservatives looking to establish beachheads in blue states.

“Is it wrong for a man to love another man?” Rush Limbaugh wondered aloud on the radio recently. "Because I love Chris Christie.”

“Is it wrong for a man to love another man?” Limbaugh wondered aloud on the radio recently. “Because I love Chris Christie.”

It's not as if there was much enthusiasm among Republicans—or anyone else—for Chris Christie as he criss-crossed New Jersey during last year’s gubernatorial campaign. Even his idol, fellow Jersey guy Bruce Springsteen, snubbed him in favor of his lackluster Democratic opponent, Gov. Jon Corzine. The right-leaning editorial page of The Wall Street Journal went so far as to dismiss him as “content-free.” The conventional political wisdom pegged Christie as a fortunate and unwitting benefactor of an anti-incumbent wave, the un-Corzine who garnered a modicum of sympathy after his desperate opponent ran ads accusing him of “throwing his weight around.”

Yet from the time he took the oath of office, Christie—he of the multiple chins and wide frame—has disarmed many Democratic opponents by offering them a hand of friendship and a place in his cabinet, and impressed conservative Republicans by vowing to rein in spending in a state drowning in red ink and hemorrhaging wealthy residents. One former Democratic governor concedes that Christie—who came into office in January after a race that more closely resembled mud wrestling—is handling himself well under perilous circumstances. For now, New Jersey residents approve of the job he’s doing by a 52-21 percent margin, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Wednesday. What’s more, by 66-21 percent, residents say the state budget should be balanced even if programs are cut as long as taxes are not raised.

The question now is whether it can last.

Christie raised considerable controversy several weeks ago when he called legislators together and told them he had unilaterally come up with more than $2 billion in budget cuts to get the state through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. That was just a speed bump compared with the mountain of red ink—as much as $11 billion, according some estimates—that he faces in next year’s budget.

“Now is the time when we all must resist the traditional, selfish call to protect your own turf at the cost of our state,” Christie said, in a speech to both houses of the Democratic-controlled legislature.

The politics and legality of Christie’s budget balancing by fiat has left an open wound. For now, lawyers are mulling Christie’s move, and the whole thing could land in court. But even if the governor is on firm legal ground, his decision to thumb his nose at Democratic leaders shows that his arrogant streak is easily as broad as that of the prickly Corzine, a former chief executive at Goldman Sachs.

Democratic legislators say they feel like they’ve been sucker-punched by the class bully. As for residents of New Jersey, a suburban commuter state if there ever was one, they will not appreciate having transit fares raised by a third. And any cuts to school spending are likely to add to local property taxes, already the highest per capita in the nation.

It was a far different gesture than the 47-year-old Christie made during his inauguration, when he surprised the Democratic leaders—Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver—by asking them to join him at the podium for a handshake, and pledging to cooperate.

“So much for a handshake,” Sweeney said after Christie delivered his dire budget message. “Governing by executive order and keeping plans secret until the last minute is not bipartisanship.”

The slap at Sweeney, a labor leader from South Jersey, came as a bit of a surprise to some political observers in the state, since the Democratic Senate president and the Republican governor seemed to have found a good deal of common ground, including their positions on at least one explosive issue: cutting the pensions of retired state workers.

Sweeney claims that as a union ironworker, he does not think it is right for public employees to hold the state up for far better deals than their brethren in the private sector.

Christie’s ambush of the state’s budget process came as no surprise to those who have watched the career of Limbaugh’s latest love object. In 1995, just two months into his first term as a county legislator, the ambitious Christie irked party leaders by announcing his intention to run for the State Assembly—saying he knew what he needed to know—only to get clobbered in the Republican primary.

Then in 1997, when he sought reelection to the county legislature, Morris County Republican leaders made sure he was soundly defeated in the primary.

After getting roughed up in New Jersey’s clubhouse political culture, Christie gave up seeking elective office for a while. Instead, he helped George W. Bush get elected president, and as a thank-you gift, the young lawyer was named United States attorney for the District of New Jersey.

Last spring, during the gubernatorial campaign, Christie assured a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger that he had “grown up a lot.” He said that the experience in county government trained him “how to make the levers of government move,” and how to compromise. He said that would come in handy when sharing power with a Democratic legislature.

During his seven-year tenure, Christie's office won convictions or guilty pleas from 130 public officials without losing a case. But while winning wide praise for running an aggressive office in an ethically challenged state, he also drew complaints from Democrats, who accused him of focusing largely on officials from their party. And he managed to anger a number of juiced-up New Jersey lawyers—Republicans and Democrats alike—who complained privately about some of his tactics.

So as Christie wades hip-deep into the swampy ways of Trenton, there should be few people scratching their heads in wonder over the governor’s punch-in-the–mouth approach, despite his protestation on a local radio show that “I am not a dictator.”

“He's a real New Jersey tough guy,” Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in a recent interview with Reuters. “New Jersey has attitude, and he has attitude.”

Mitchell Blumenthal was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years. He served as assistant to the national editor and New Jersey editor. Before coming to The Times, he worked at newspapers in Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and on Long Island.