Christie speech focuses on Sandy - almost nothing else

Gov. Christie delivers his State of the State address to the Legislature. Democrats huddling behind him: Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Speaker Sheila Oliver.
Gov. Christie delivers his State of the State address to the Legislature. Democrats huddling behind him: Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Speaker Sheila Oliver. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 10, 2013

TRENTON - Gov. Christie triumphantly touted the bipartisan accomplishments of his term, but made not one proposal for the coming year in a State of the State speech Tuesday that focused nearly entirely on Sandy.

Christie, riding a new 73 percent approval rating in the state, did not mention the 10 percent income-tax-cut proposal that dominated his summer. Nor did he reference the anticipated budget deficit that prompted legislative Democrats to reject that plan.

Instead, in the first major speech in a year in which he is running for reelection, Christie used October's devastating storm to talk about the resilience of New Jerseyans, the need for Congress to approve billions in aid, and the bipartisan commitment to rebuild.

"Sandy may have damaged our homes and our infrastructure, but it did not destroy our spirit," he told lawmakers, lobbyists, cabinet members, former governors, and reporters packed into the ornate Assembly chambers.

"The people of New Jersey have come together as never before. Across party lines, across ideological lines, across ages and races and backgrounds. From all parts of our state. Even from out of state. Everyone has come together."

Christie shared anecdotes about Sandy heroes and victims, some of whom were in the crowd and were recognized with standing ovations. But he did not detail how the recovery would be handled, and the Democrats who control the Legislature hammered him for it.

"I didn't hear anything about how we're going to help people, I just heard a speech," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in a news conference held afterward by Democratic leaders.

What homes will get rebuilt, and which homeowners will get bought out? Democrats asked. Will towns get state money to repair firehouses? And are state budget cuts looming that could affect the recovery?

According to Sweeney, Christie told legislative leaders not to introduce storm-related bills until state officials had a better grasp of the storm damage. Plans should be further along, he said.

"If it's me and I'm out of my house, how much more time do you need to get some answers? Give people answers now," Sweeney said. "You have the ability and you have the obligation."

The Democrats' discontent was not evident in Christie's speech, which at times sounded as if it could be spliced into campaign commercials. In reviewing his three years in office, Christie described a state that was "a national model for reform and bipartisanship and leadership."

He ticked off accomplishments beginning with his first year, all secured with help from at least some Democrats: the controversial reorganization of the state's higher-education system, a partial victory on changing teacher-tenure rules, a 2 percent property-tax cap, an overhaul of public workers' benefits, and a voter-approved capital plan for higher-education construction.

"Maybe the folks in Washington, in both parties, could learn something from our record here," he said.

Standing within feet of Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) and Sweeney - the very ones who have blasted him for driving the state's economy downward - Christie cited optimistic economic news. Unemployment "is coming down," and 2011 "was our best private-sector job growth in 11 years," he said.

Some of his salesmanship lacked context. Christie touted "four balanced budgets," but they are a constitutional requirement. He spoke of "no new taxes," though local property taxes - which are affected by state funding cuts - have gone up. And he said, "We have held the line on spending," though the current fiscal budget is higher than 2012's.

Christie listed what his administration has done, with the help of federal dollars, to rebuild post-Sandy. But he said that to recover fully, Congress must provide the $50 billion in aid for which he has lobbied for more than two months. Last week, Christie called out a member of his own party, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, for delaying a vote on that money.

"One thing I hope everyone in America now clearly understands: New Jersey, both Republicans and Democrats, will never stand silent when our citizens are being shortchanged," Christie said.

He then blamed Sandy for stalling New Jersey's economic recovery - a point that Democrats repeatedly rejected.

On Monday, Sweeney said Christie had "prayed" for a calamity like Sandy so he could blame it for his administration's economic failings. Sweeney immediately apologized, but on Tuesday, Democrats stood by the larger point that Christie could not blame the nation's fourth-worst unemployment rate and second-worst foreclosure rate on the storm.

"We were in crisis before Sandy hit," said Sen. Barbara Buono of Middlesex, the only major Democrat to have declared her candidacy for governor. "He continued to turn a deaf ear to the hardworking middle-class and poor families of New Jersey."

Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) broadened the criticism, saying that crime had increased in the state and that 1,400 police jobs had been lost since Christie cut municipal aid.

Greenwald also noted an opinion by bipartisan analysts that the state could be running a deficit of as much as $2 billion when the fiscal year ends June 30, because Christie based his budget on robust revenue growth that has not materialized. (Democrats passed that budget.)

Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University who attended the speech, said Christie could likely ride the Sandy wave through Election Day.

"The governor doesn't feel he needs to propose any new policies in order to win reelection," Murray said. "If the majority of these affected beach towns are open for visitors in the summer, he's going to be able to claim a lot of credit . . . and we won't see the bills for that until after the November election. That's an easy way to run for reelection."


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

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