New Jersey's Chris Christie in the trenches

Posted: June 10, 2010

FRED Barnes of the Weekly Standard calls him "the governor New Jersey's been waiting for." The Wall Street Journal says he's a man "on a mission to make New Jersey competitive once again." And George Will says he's "earned the name of the local minor league team, the Trenton Thunder."

But when I first met Chris Christie, he was simply campaigning town to town in an effort to win his party's nomination for governor against a strong conservative challenger.

Before Christie emerged from his SUV to greet a group of local South Jersey residents, I didn't know what to expect. Certainly, nothing prepared me for his physical presence. Not since Frank Rizzo have I encountered a politician who so dominated the landscape as soon as he arrived on the scene.

Since Christie earned his reputation as a tough prosecutor, I thought he'd be the straight-laced, button-down type.

But he was wearing khakis and loafers and an open-collar shirt. I observed him as he chatted one on one. With a quick smile and friendly manner, he seemed remarkably down to earth. He talked about sports, music, South Jersey, the Shore and his family.

When he turned my way, I decided to pass on the small talk. I told him that, beyond the primary, he faced a tough fight in a state dominated by Democrats and union bosses. "Get ready," I said "because they will do whatever they have to to defeat you."

He grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye. "I know what I'm up against," he said. "I'm ready."

That's when I knew the GOP had a fighting chance in this bluest of blue states. Why? Because Christie isn't like previous Jersey GOP leaders. Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman were classic country-club Republicans. They seemed more at home in Princeton and Basking Ridge than in the

"real" New Jersey.

Not Christie. A Newark native, he was raised in Livingston, where he graduated from high school and went on to the University of Delaware and Seton Hall law school.

For more than I year I've been observing Chris Christie, often up close and in person. And I've discovered that being governor hasn't changed him very much.

He's still blunt. He's still spontaneous. He's still real.

At a jubilant election night celebration in Morris County Chris Christie promised he'd "turn Trenton upside down."

And that's exactly what he's done.

Christie says over and over again: "I didn't become governor to be something. I became governor to do something." Sounds a lot like what Ronald Reagan might have said.

Christie has already put the state on a tough new fiscal regimen and set it on course toward being solvent once again. Refusing to raise taxes, he's challenged the entrenched, vested interests and has dared to take on the New Jersey Education Association, the state's powerful teachers union.

And now he's out to enact a constitutional amendment creating a 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases.

Through it all, he seems remarkably willing to take the flak that's inevitably come his way. At town meetings across the state he tells crowds: "I think I know why you elected me. I know you didn't elect me for my matinee idol looks or my charm. So, I'm trying to do what you elected me to do."

And ordinary taxpayers are reacting favorably.

FINALLY, THE beleaguered taxpayers of the Garden State are beginning to feel they're getting some respect. They're thinking they may have a governor who actually understands their plight, not because somebody has shown him poll results or focus group findings - but because he lives it.

Jersey's pulse is his pulse. Its (sometimes wounded) pride is his pride. And its dream is his dream.

Once upon a time New Jersey used to be a swing state that set national trends.

Could it happen again?

Stay tuned!

Dan Cirucci, a lifelong New Jerseyan, is a lecturer in corporate communications at Penn State Abington. He blogs at dancirucci.com.

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