New Jersey's Chris Christie: Savvy savior or 'Gov. Wrecking Ball'?

Chris Christie promised changes. He's won admiration, even from some Dems. But his public popularity's dropped.
Chris Christie promised changes. He's won admiration, even from some Dems. But his public popularity's dropped.
Posted: April 06, 2010

WHEN Republican Chris Christie campaigned for governor of New Jersey last year, he promised to turn Trenton upside down.

Voters - even Democrats - must have liked the idea, because they kicked out incumbent Jon S. Corzine in favor of a tough-talking former U.S. attorney who had virtually no experience in elected office.

Now, Christie has a white-knuckled grip on the Capitol, and yet, amid his trying to topple established Trenton norms, his approval rating has dropped by 9 points.

"I think the public is confused," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "What we have right now is a governor who is doing exactly what he said he was going to do. It's certainly a breath of fresh air."

Christie, dubbed "Governor Wrecking Ball" by a Newark Star-Ledger columnist and praised as a reformer by Rush Limbaugh, unveiled a doomsday budget in Trenton last month that included deep cuts in state aid to school districts and municipalities. He proposed massive cuts to public transportation and Medicaid, all to help close the state's nearly $11 billion deficit. He also has pledged to veto any tax hikes.

"The day of reckoning has arrived," Christie said during his budget address.

About a week after he unveiled the budget, Christie signed sweeping pension reforms for public employees that include reimbursement caps for unused sick days and contributions toward health care.

"It's like cold turkey for the state," said Bill Layton, Burlingtion County GOP chairman.

Some say Christie's fresh breath has been a little too hot, like a fire-breathing dragon laying waste to municipalities and school districts across the state, with no regard to whether some have made budget sacrifices.

"I think part of the problem in New Jersey right now is that too much is happening too soon," said Chuck Chiarello, mayor of Buena Vista Township and vice president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

"I have to admire the governor's spunk, but New Jersey didn't get into this deficit last year or the year before," Chiarello said.

"It's been a 20-year process. The governor could actually be jeopardizing our state economy. The economic impact this could have on our communities hasn't been measured yet."

In an escalating war of words with the powerful New Jersey Education Association, Christie has accused teachers of being unwilling to give up raises to save jobs or the high-school marching band. Christie called the union "bullies." The union said that he was picking on teachers to give tax breaks to millionaires.

"We expect to lose anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 jobs," NJEA president Barbara Keshishian said. "There's going to be plenty of after-school programs cut, too. It's going to be devastating."

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, at Rider University, said that Christie was also proving to be a tactful politician, capable of creating a bogeyman out of public- school teachers.

"He really has the teachers union back on its heels," Dworkin said. "He's saying the reason your property taxes are so high, or the reason young Johnny's music program is being cut, is because the teachers are getting raises."

Earlier this week, Christie said that he would free up some state aid for school districts, if teachers were willing to accept wage freezes. His stance on the teachers' contracts has resulted in protests at schools he's visited recently, but it has also earned some unlikely supporters.

"We have to be in it together," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. "Unions are supposed to look out for the whole, not the few. I would rather take less to make sure I could save my colleagues' jobs."

The fragile state of New Jersey's economy would make partisan politics seem like theatrics right now, Sweeney said. Both parties have to work together now, he says, because they have no choice.

"We're not just going to fight for the sake of fighting," he said. "These things have to be done. There's no more looking the other way."

Sweeney said that Democrats would pick their battles, and right now they're trying to defend the middle class. It's that demographic, he claims, that would suffer the most from decreased state aid to towns and schools, along with cuts to public transportation. Although Christie broke his campaign promise not to cut property-tax rebates for families making under $75,000, he kept his promise to the rich, Sweeney said, by not renewing an income-tax surcharge for families making $400,000 per year.

"The only campaign promise he's keeping is not taxing the wealthy," Sweeney said. "I told the governor to his face that I'm not going along with that."

Chris Daggett, who ran against Christie and Corzine last year as an independent, said that this year's budget process would have been grueling regardless of who won, but he admires Christie's will.

"I might not have done it the same way, but he's stepping up and he has the discipline. It's long overdue," said Daggett, recently named president and chief executive officer of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. "He's in a tough situation."

Dworkin said that Christie, by taking drastic measures to address that "tough situation," has laid a mirror before all New Jerseyans and that they might not like what they see, hence the drop in his approval rating. Voters like their schools but not property taxes. They support teachers, he said, but not necessarily their unions. They claim that government is too big, but depend on it almost every day.

"People never realize how much their lives are subsidized by the government," he said.

Voters and special-interest groups will react in inevitable fashion, Dworkin said, by fighting for causes and candidates who will, in turn, fight for more state aid. The budgets will swell and shrink, and a tough-talking governor who vowed to make a change may be out of a job in four years.

The most refreshing things about Christie, Dworkin said, is that he doesn't appear to care.

"He always said he would govern as if he's only going to serve one term," he said. "That's kept people on their toes. No one knows what he's going to say or do next."