Christie vs. Lautenberg

The governor and senator's animosity baffles political pundits.

Posted: August 09, 2011

The conservative Republican governor and the liberal Democratic senator do not agree. On anything. At all. And they want you to know it.

Consider the flurry of news releases from Sen. Frank Lautenberg's office over the last several months eviscerating Gov. Christie for cutting money for women's health, refusing to raise taxes on millionaires, pulling out of a regional greenhouse-gas initiative, and signing a bill that forces public employees to pay more for benefits.

Lautenberg's schedule was too packed on Thursday and Friday for him to speak with The Inquirer by phone and expound his disdain, according to his spokesman, Caley Gray. But Gray pointed out that Lautenberg does not just hide behind e-mailed statements to reporters.

He also goes after the governor on the stump - as when he told those at a gay-rights rally last month not to "succumb to the evils of our governor," or when he called Christie the "king of liars" at a Democratic Party event in Atlantic City in May.

Last week, the king fired back.

"Stuff like Sen. Lautenberg is doing in general, just the kind of tone, is really bad," Christie said when a reporter asked him about Lautenberg's vote against the federal debt-ceiling deal.

"The tone is just awful. I don't know why he's so angry, you know? I really don't. He's in his 80s and in good health. If I'm in my 80s and in good health, I'll be really happy, you know?"

The remark about Lautenberg's age (at 87, he's the oldest U.S. senator), and the reference to his own health (Christie, 48, was briefly hospitalized in July for an asthma attack), drew laughs from the state legislators in the crowd.

Perhaps, though, they were just laughing at the irony of Christie - known for his sharp teeth and biting remarks - opining on someone else's "tone."

Lautenberg retorted in a statement, criticizing Christie's tepid support for the debt deal: "It's no surprise that Gov. Christie supports the tea party's cruel cuts aimed at the American people. I think a lot of Americans are angry right now and should be. This deal threatens to take away seats from young children in Head Start, home heating assistance from struggling families, and cops from our streets. This may not faze the governor, but it sure makes me angry."

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, finds this all very unbecoming, unusual, and useless.

Why would Christie go after an old-timer like Lautenberg, who has served for more than a quarter-century, especially as the public showed such distaste for the veiled ageism against him in his last senatorial campaign?

And why would Lautenberg get in the ring with Christie? Lautenberg is not up for reelection until 2014, and Christie has nothing Lautenberg wants.

"I find it really bizarre, but I don't know who stepped on who's toes and when that happened," Harrison said.

Who hit whom first? Hard to tell. Christie's 2010 cancellation, because of cost, of the multibillion-dollar tunnel to New York City made the senior senator supersteamy. The pair fought for months about it in the media.

It's not all rhetoric, though. Last week, the New York Times reported that Christie's friend and sounding board, Bill Palatucci, may have been given special consideration for a detention center contract in Essex County - where Christie's ally Joe DiVincenzo is the county executive. The next day, Lautenberg essentially tattled on Christie, writing a letter asking the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to examine the deal.

Similarly, when Christie moved to kill the public broadcasting station New Jersey Network and replace it with NJTV, run by a New York organization, Lautenberg wrote to the Federal Communications Commission asking for a review.

This all really comes down to the "politics of ego," Harrison said. "It's part of the degeneration of the dialogue we've seen, and it will increase in severity over the next couple of years."

One possible indication of this trend? Compare these events:

In February 2010, when Lautenberg became ill, the new governor released this statement: "As he's proven through the years, Sen. Lautenberg is a tenacious fighter. I wish him the best for a speedy recovery and a successful fight against his illness so he can get back to doing what he loves most, helping New Jersey and its people."

In February 2010, when Lautenberg became ill, the new governor released this statement: "As he's proven through the years, Sen. Lautenberg is a tenacious fighter. I wish him the best for a speedy recovery and a successful fight against his illness so he can get back to doing what he loves most, helping New Jersey and its people."

But when Christie was hospitalized recently, Lautenberg did not issue a press release with get-well wishes. Although his spokesman, Caley Gray, later said the senator had sent a get-well note.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

 

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