Christie hitting the road again

Gov. Christie wants to impose on public unions the same political-contribution restrictions that apply to businesses.
Gov. Christie wants to impose on public unions the same political-contribution restrictions that apply to businesses. (MEL EVANS / Associated Press, File)

He's pushing his ethics proposals - in his opponents' hometowns.

Posted: September 25, 2011

The Chris Christie Road Show began its fall tour last week with a new set list but the same swagger.

Following on his successful 2010-11 trek, when he repeatedly called for an overhaul of public employees' health and pension benefits, Gov. Christie now is pushing a package of ethics proposals that he introduced more than a year ago.

As he did in town halls before a summer hiatus, the former prosecutor identifies his adversaries and tells his adoring audiences in plain-spoken, aggressive, and occasionally funny ways why those foes are wrong, lazy, and/or blatantly incompetent.

His opponents could be identified last week by where Christie chose to visit. First up, on Monday, was Union Township, home of Joseph Cryan (D., Union) - perhaps Christie's most consistent critic in the Assembly. On Wednesday, the governor went to Sayreville, hometown of Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Through the ethics-focused town halls, Christie is able to accomplish his immediate political mission - supporting Republican legislative candidates - while pursuing a heroic goal that he says has been thwarted by a recalcitrant Democratic Legislature.

In November, when every seat is up for election, Christie hopes to pick up more Republicans, or at least prevent Democrats from achieving a veto-proof majority.

At the town halls, the governor kept with tradition and walked into theater-in-the-round set-ups after the presentation of a brief pro-Christie video. He exited to "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen.

And in between he got ovations on topics such as pay-to-play reform.

"I know it's really hard for many of you to believe we have any ethics problems to be dealt with in New Jersey," Christie cracked in Union Township.

Referring to the Legislature, whose members are mostly tending to their reelection campaigns these days, he said acidly: "How about come back one day to vote on ethics reform?"

The Democratic response also was election-oriented, with a series of news releases that accused Christie of ignoring the issue voters really care about: Jobs.

"They're theater more than anything else," Wisniewski said of the town halls, to which members of Republican groups get advance notice.

"This is not grassroots New Jersey coming out to meet the governor. This is a set stage performance to help burnish Gov. Christie's appeal on a national stage," Wisniewski said.

Among the ethics proposals Christie has put forth is imposing on public unions the same political-contribution restrictions that apply to businesses. Such a change would disproportionately affect Democrats, one reason the measure has not been implemented.

On some of his other ethics proposals, Christie glosses over the details.

He would ban legislators from holding two elected positions simultaneously - a rule that would affect fewer than 10 of the 120 current legislators. In fact, he would ban legislators, who are paid $49,000, from holding any other public job - preventing police officers and teachers from serving.

He also would forbid politicians charged with corruption from using campaign funds for legal defense, but the courts have already ruled that practice illegal.

At the town halls, Christie stood in front of a sign that read "378 days," the length of time since he introduced his package of ethics reforms.

"Let me tell you about what has happened in the Legislature in the last 378 days," he said in Sayreville, then paused for several seconds.

"That's right."

Laughter.

Then he trashed Wisniewski, saying his "nasty" and "whining, crying" news releases only "helped me learn how to pronounce his name."

He suggested Wisniewski had something to hide by not pushing for a bill to mandate detailed financial disclosures.

Wisniewski said he publicly discloses his annual income from the Legislature and his law firm. He countered that it was Christie who was not forthcoming, noting the controversy in the spring when the governor showed up at his son's baseball game in a state police helicopter. Flight logs were released, but the names of those who joined Christie on helicopter trips were redacted for security reasons.

All week, as Christie pushed ethics reform, Democrats fought back with their own ethics accusations. They cited a report that Christie had two previously undisclosed meetings with David and Charles Koch, billionaires who oppose efforts to curtail global warming.

Christie received cues on state policy at the meetings, according to Democrats, which they allege is why he pulled the state out of a regional greenhouse gas initiative.

"He talks about ethics for others, but not for himself," Wisniewski said.

Christie has confirmed meeting with the Kochs, but said they had not spoken about the intiative.

After standing in front of TV cameras for years as a U.S. attorney, announcing indictments against corrupt New Jersey officials of both parties, Christie appears to have credibility with much of the public on ethics issues. He reminded his town hall audiences that he went 130-0 in winning convictions of corrupt public officials.

"It plays to his strength," said Ben Dworkin, a political scientist at Rider University.

Christie is "rarely vulnerable on any one thing," so Democrats go after him with little attacks, trying to dent the "iconic image that the governor has cultivated," Dworkin said.

"Their hope is, piece by piece, by taking a little bit at time, they can reframe the image in the public's mind," he said.

To that end, Democrats this week noted a new $1.5 million pro-Christie TV ad campaign sponsored by a group run by two of Christie's University of Delaware classmates. The group has not disclosed all of its donors.

Christie said he had nothing to do with the group, but one of its leaders sits with the governor and his wife at University of Delaware football games, Democrats pointed out.

It's unclear how often Christie will host town halls, but he has modified his approach slightly since the spring. When removing his suit jacket for the question-and-answer session, he does so with new gusto, dramatically tossing it to an aide at the side of the stage.

He looks like a kid in a schoolyard, ready to rumble.

"Here's what I learned in 20 months in this job," he told the crowd in Sayreville. "You don't get anything done in this job by saying, 'Mother, may I?' "


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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