Odd Couple

05.16.12

New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Cory Booker Swap Partisan Bickering for Collaboration

Garden State Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker have so far bucked the national trend of partisan stalemate with a rare show of cross-party collaboration on several hot-button issues, writes John Avlon, but how long can this honeymoon last?

Is this the Golden Age of New Jersey politics? 

After the chronic embarrassments of Governors James McGreevey and Jon Corzine, beyond the scores of mayors indicted for corruption, the Garden State is suddenly fielding a bipartisan team with national appeal.

They’re the ultimate political odd couple, a stereotypical comedy duo in a thin guy/fat guy, black guy/white guy sort of way. And now they’ve co-starred in their first online comedy feature, filmed for the benefit of the New Jersey Press Association Legislative Correspondents Club dinner, which quickly went viral.

The frenemy tension that animates the video (“Booker!”) highlights the fact that these two figure–Governor Christie Christie and Mayor Corey Booker–are both believed to have their best days ahead of them. They manage to excite their respective party bases while also impressing establishment heavyweights. And despite their record of constructive collaboration and personal chemistry, they just might find themselves on a political collision course in the future.

Given the courting of Chris Christie to run for president this year–and his full court press for Romney VP consideration–it’s easy to forget that of the two Christie is the relative newcomer on the political scene, achieving office just over two years ago. He’s drawn national conservative accolades for his eagerness to confront budget gaps and big labor powers. He’s proven controversial but also enormously effective–contrast Christie’s record with Jerry Brown’s deepening fiscal hole in California for one snapshot of different philosophies leading to different results. And despite New Jersey trending Democrat as national Republicans abandon the Northeast, Christie’s 56 percent approval rating means he is more popular in the state than President Obama right now, no small feat.

Corey Booker has cultivated a national reputation far beyond traditional occupants of Newark’s City Hall. His city still struggles on a number of fronts, but Booker’s relative youth, oratorical skills, social media accessibility, and intermittent on-the-ground heroics have made him the Democrats’ most likely to succeed--that rare local leader considered ready for prime time. The gist of the video’s joke was that Booker keeps making national news with local heroics like rescuing a neighbor by busting into her burning home. You just can’t buy that kind of publicity–you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time and be willing to put your hide on the line.

Booker, like Christie, retains an ability to pick tough fights and appeal across partisan lines.

Despite their different political parties and political philosophies, the two have been able to find common ground on the critical area of education reform, thanks largely due to Booker’s willingness to buck the powerful teachers’ unions with his support for school choice and charter schools. Despite boosts like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to the Newark school system–and one of the highest per pupil spending rates in the nation at $22k–student performance and graduation rates still lag. Likewise, the per capita murder rate is far too high.  But Booker, like Christie, retains an ability to pick tough fights and appeal across partisan lines, even if his approach is focused more on healing than confrontation.

With Christie up for re-election in 2013, there is some talk of a Christie-Booker confrontation, a fight between two possible top-of-the-ticket leaders in the future.  This would be a must-win for Christie if he hopes to run for president in 2016. But an electoral car-crash between these two would be a waste of talent from a national and New Jersey perspective. Better to have Booker replace–and primary if necessary–the state’s geriatric Senator Frank Lautenberg.

We’re living in an age where politicians from different parties seem to have lost the ability to disagree agreeably. That’s why the joint video was such a welcome departure from the Washington warfare we’ve become accustomed to. Someday more politicians will realize that a bit of humanizing humor goes a long way–but the necessary self-deprecation doesn’t come easily to the self-importance that propels most politicos. So kudos to these two Garden State Warriors for finding ways to work and laugh across party lines.