NJ’s gov speaks loudly and carries a big stick
Sunday, February 27, 2011
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — It was the kind of dilemma that could make a new governor wring his hands.
The state Senate was considering a bill to restore higher taxes on millionaires. Sign it, and Chris Christie would break his no-new-taxes campaign promise; veto it, and he’d break another promise to protect tax rebates in the state with the nation’s highest average property tax bill.
Christie knew the bill was on its way, and so he ordered his staff to prepare. They unfolded the white spectator chairs and lined them in rows in his mahogany-lined ceremonial office. A single pen was placed on a long, bare table.
Then, he waited.
Finally, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat and hulking ironworker from the Philadelphia suburbs, burst into the office to deliver the bill personally, a swarm of reporters in tow.
Christie may have been cornered, but you wouldn’t know it from what he did next.
He stepped out of his private office, picked up his pen — and gleefully vetoed the bill.
No hemming and hawing, no apologies. It’s the Christie Way, and New Jerseyans have grown accustomed to it.
Happy to wield a veto pen, seemingly eager to lambast anyone and anything that stands in his way and apt to use sarcasm to make his points, Christie is a phenomenon — and not just in New Jersey. He’s become a talk show regular, a star on YouTube and Twitter, a headliner at campaign events for conservative candidates, the favorite of some Republicans looking to the 2012 presidential race.
All on the basis of his first year in office — a year defined by the fights he’d picked.
He’s sparred with the federal government, the Legislature, the public workers’ unions, the state Supreme Court, and the authorities and commissions that oversee components of daily life like sewer fees and bridge tolls.
No one seems off limits, including citizens who dare question him in his series of town hall meetings or those who question his policies on Twitter.
What most call fighting, he calls having a conversation — Jersey style. Which is to say, brash, loud and direct.
“Sometimes you can’t get to a compromise unless there’s a battle first,” he said.
New Jersey is, to put it mildly, a contentious state.
It is the nation’s most densely populated with 8.8 million people crammed together. It’s one of the most expensive places to live — not least because of the nation’s highest average property tax bill of over $7,300 — but also has among the highest average incomes.
The state’s schools are among the country’s best performing. But its worst schools are among the worst anywhere, and its struggling cities, like Camden and Newark, are among the nation’s poorest.
New Jersey leans to the left, but has elected six Democratic governors and five Republicans since World War II. It’s the bombastic home of “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore,” but it’s also home to Princeton University and the people who make a lot of Wall Street’s money.
Aside from his undergraduate years at University of Delaware, this is where Chris Christie has spent all his life.
He was born in hardscrabble Newark and raised in nearby Livingston, a comfortable suburb. He pledges allegiance to the Mets, the Jets and the Boss (Springsteen, not one of the state’s several political kingmakers known by the same title). He and his wife Mary Pat, an investment banker, are raising their four children in affluent Mendham Township.
After graduating Seton Hall law school in Newark, he worked as a corporate attorney. He entered politics in the mid-1990s, serving one term on the Morris County Board of Freeholders. His brand of fiery reform troubled constituents enough that he never got a second term — he didn’t survive the Republican primary.
Christie resurfaced politically as a key campaigner in New Jersey for George W. Bush’s first presidential run and emerged from that as Bush’s surprise pick to be U.S. Attorney.
For seven years, he burnished a reputation as a corruption buster, convicting more than 130 public officials. And then he ran for governor, offering lots of criticism but few specifics on how he would do things like balance the budget.
His strength was explaining to a frustrated public just how simple the state’s problems were. That worked well against Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine, a liberal former investment banker whose chief oratorical skill was explaining why everything was so complicated.
New Jersey’s governor may be the nation’s most powerful. He is the only statewide elected official, aside from his lieutenant and the two U.S. senators, and appoints the attorney general, secretary of state and nearly every Cabinet post and all state judges and prosecutors, subject to confirmation.
Supreme Court justices are nominated for initial seven-year terms; after that, they must be renominated to receive lifetime tenure, and every governor has done so in every instance since the state constitution was enacted in 1947.
But Christie is determined to change an activist court that has forced the state to spend billions on education in poor districts, dictated that towns make room for homes for low-income people and verged on allowing gay couples to marry. When Justice John Wallace, a moderate and the court’s only African-American member, came up for renomination, Christie said no.
The result? For nine months, Sweeney and the state Senate have refused to give his nominee a confirmation hearing.
New Jersey’s governor also has a conditional veto that can force changes in bills, and veto power that can be used to shape the actions of scores of lesser-known but vital public agencies.
Christie has made the most of that power.
“He’s not afraid to use it. He’s swinging for the fences,” said Sweeney.
New Jersey, one of the original colonies, has a government structure that no one today would design. Its 566 towns are mostly small — and can be fiefdoms for their leaders. Beyond that, there are more than 700 appointed water authorities, bridge commissions and other agencies that conduct the public’s business — but without much public oversight.
Some of them are famous for patronage jobs and doling out contracts to politically connected firms as rewards for financing elections.
Christie started taking them on as soon as he arrived in the State House. In his first month in office, he vetoed the minutes of four of them to try to rein in spending, and pressured the head of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission to resign over his $313,000 annual salary. Since then, 94 people at the commission have been fired or stepped down and three have been arrested.
In July, he seized on a scandal at the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates a commuter train line and four toll bridges in the Philadelphia area. An executive admitted accepting a prepaid E-ZPass transponder for his daughter from another employee. The incident sparked anger: The public hadn’t realized that workers were getting free rides at all.
Christie demanded that the DRPA board eliminate the perk of free tolls for workers.
The board rescinded the perk — a common one for workers at transit and transportation authorities across the country — then returned it amid pressure from employees.
So Christie overruled the board.
In the end, an arbitrator ruled that governor had overreached — the benefit could not be taken away from union-represented workers of the agency because it was part of their collective bargaining agreements.
But Christie had made his point, and a splash. His push to end the benefit was front-page news. The arbitrators’ decision to reinstate it? Not so much.
Christie does not only attack low-grade functionaries. Twice, he has taken on the federal government.
The biggest blunder of Christie’s governorship so far came in August, when the state barely lost out on a $400 million federal education grant, apparently because the state’s application didn’t include some required information.
A “clerical error,” Christie said, on an otherwise strong application.
Instead of apologizing, he blamed President Barack Obama.
“He’s going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he’s depriving them of $400 million,” said Christie. He insisted that the state education commissioner, Bret Schundler, attempted to fix the mistake.
The U.S. Department of Education swung back, releasing a video that showed Schundler never tried to correct the error. Blame, instead, was fixed on the governor’s office, which rewrote the proposal at the last minute after rejecting a compromise Schundler had struck with the state teachers union.
Then, in October, Christie canceled a project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and double the capacity for commuter trains to get between New Jersey and New York City. The federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were sharing in the cost, but overruns would be solely New Jersey’s responsibility. And Christie said they could come to more than $5 billion over time.
The U.S. Department of Transportation responded by sending the state a bill for the $271 million it had already spent designing and building the tunnel.
The feds said the state was on the hook for those costs because just six months earlier, Christie had persuaded officials to use a little-used type of fast-track funding that the state would have to repay if it backed out.
The governor has appealed. Washington, he says, is being unfair.
“I’m not going to allow them to say, ‘Hey, New Jersey has a Republican governor, so we’ll get the money back from them, so states where we have Democratic governors, we don’t ask for the money back,”’ Christie said.
When Amtrak and New Jersey’s U.S. senators announced a new proposal as an alternative to the one Christie killed, he claimed credit for it. His decision to cancel the first plan, he said, led to a far better one.
Four months after taking office, Christie began holding town hall meetings across the state to press his campaign to cap annual property tax increases. These days, the events push his overall agenda — as is made plain by the banner that looms overhead, announcing “The Christie Reform Agenda.”
He lays out what he’s done and what he hopes to do. His riffs range from standup comedy to tender tales of what his mother told him before she died. A big man, he strides the stage in shirt sleeves for question-and-answer sessions, microphone in hand.
Almost invariably, someone stands up to defend teachers.
When he cut the budget in his first year in office, he actually added more state aid to schools. But because about $1 billion in one-time federal aid had gone away, it meant that every district got a smaller check from Trenton.
Christie said that if teachers unions agreed to one-year pay freezes and to pay at least 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health insurance costs, layoffs could be avoided. But few local unions agreed to any concessions and there were layoffs. Christie, who blames many of the state’s financial problems on the deals struck by unions for public workers, has not been sympathetic.
At a September appearance in Flemington, teacher Marie Corfield complained that Christie has dumped on public schools.
Christie denied it, but Corfield rolled her eyes and swung her head to the side.
The governor was offended. “I stood here and very respectfully listened to you,” he said. “If you want to put on a show and giggle every time I talk, I have no interest in answering your question.”
The crowd — mostly Christie-friendly — cheered.
When he rails against salaries for school superintendents — his Education Department has a new rule that most will not be allowed to make more than the $175,000 a year Christie gets as governor — he gets personal. He called out one superintendent by name, describing him as “the new poster boy for all that is wrong with the public school system that’s being dictated by greed.”
His town hall meetings are like small rock concerts, usually witnessed by no more than several hundred citizens in person. But they’re made-for-YouTube moments — and they’re posted there by fans wielding iPhones and by the governor’s staff. The most popular one, of his encounter with Corfield, has been viewed more than 900,000 times.
Christie is more than open to modern online conversations, often taking to Twitter — and not just with the vanilla tweets about his next event that many politicians make.
Charles Kwiatkowski, a multiple sclerosis patient and one of the state’s most prominent advocates for medical marijuana, says he has e-mailed the governor several times complaining that Christie’s proposed regulations of medical pot are too restrictive. He says he would get form letters back several weeks later.
But in November, he sent the governor a message on Twitter making the same complaint. Kwiatkowski said he was shocked to hear back the same day from the governor, though Christie’s Tweet wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
Christie’s response: “NJ will not be allowed to become California or Colorado on my watch. Our regs will permit the truly sick to obtain pain relief.”
Christie said on the campaign trail that he didn’t care if he was re-elected, and his governing style reflects that — to a point. He’s made so many enemies that sometimes it’s hard to remember the folks he hasn’t upset.
Polls show about half the state’s voters approve of what he’s done so far. But many do not — vehemently. And he’s facing another budget season full of tough decisions; last year, he didn’t fund the state’s $3.1 billion pension obligation.
This year, he called for making only a minimum pension payment, which he offered to do early — but only if the Democratic Legislature agrees to reforms requiring government workers to delay retirement and pay more. He also tied an increase in property tax refunds to a proposal that would force public workers to pay more for their health benefits.
His state aid cuts are blamed, largely, for layoffs in local governments. The police force in Camden — one of the nation’s most dangerous places — has been cut nearly in half. Camden and other struggling cities could lose more state money this year.
Still, his town hall tour and must-see YouTube moments make it seem he never left campaign mode. And he clearly has more than just New Jersey on his mind. During his campaign, Christie predicted that New Jersey would get a year’s jump on many states when it came to coping with huge budget crises that came about as tax revenue fell amid a long recession.
And indeed, several governors who took office this year have said that they want to do the same kind of budget slashing that Christie has already done — something Christie bragged about Tuesday, as he unveiled his budget.
“Democratic governors and Republican governors now look to New Jersey as a beacon of hope for what can happen when leaders lead and a people sacrifice as one for the future of our children,” he said.
One, decidedly, hasn’t. Facing a huge budget hole, Illinois’ Pat Quinn raised income and corporate taxes by two-thirds. Christie’s responded by taking out ads to recruit Illinois businesses to move to New Jersey.
Christie has said repeatedly that he’s not running for president in 2012, sometimes joking that the only way he could get people to stop asking him about it would be suicide. But he’s just 48 years old, and he has plenty of time to run — assuming, of course, that he is successful in the Garden State.
“I’m very flattered by the question. What that tells me is that I had a good year,” Christie said. “If people didn’t think you were doing a good job, they wouldn’t be asking you about a promotion.”
“Once they stop asking, then that’s a bit of a problem,” he added, with a laugh.
Bill Palatucci, one of his closest friends and political advisers, said Christie is not making any moves to launch a campaign.
“He’s made it very clear to all of us in his inner-circle that that ain’t happening now,” Palatucci said. “But if he wanted to somewhere down the road, he’s already shown that he has the basic foundation to be a great leader.”