Why N.J. Democrats are smitten with Christie

Gov. Christie getting an endorsement from Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo (right), a Democrat.
Gov. Christie getting an endorsement from Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo (right), a Democrat. (RICH SCHULTZ / AP)
Posted: June 17, 2013

TRENTON - Three days last week, Republican Gov. Christie appeared publicly - and glowingly - alongside Democrats.

Tuesday alone, he collected endorsements in his reelection campaign from North Jersey's dominant Democratic power broker, a Democratic state senator, and five Democratic mayors.

The coup came Friday, when he lectured national leaders on "cooperation" - alongside none other than former President and Democratic hero Bill Clinton.

The governor may be conservative enough to defund Planned Parenthood, reject a minimum-wage hike, and keep same-sex marriage out of his state. But many Democrats across New Jersey are deeply smitten with the guy.

Why? Five reasons:

n Christie has cultivated close relationships with certain key Democrats through personal contact (texts, calls, meals) and, in some cases, has even refused to criticize their transgressions.

n He has millions of state tax dollars at his discretion, and pro-Christie Democrats have cited his generosity to their local governments as reason for their support.

n Politicians like winners, and Christie leads State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) by more than 30 points in the polls. A Rutgers Eagleton poll shows eight in 10 Democrats believe Christie will win in November.

n Many of the most powerful Democrats allied with Christie are fiscal conservatives who agree with him on education and union issues and are at odds on those issues with their own standard-bearer.

n Polls and interviews with Democrats indicate Christie has irresistible personal charms, including a sense of humor, tough-guy leadership style, and willingness to do the unexpected, like praise President Obama during Sandy.

These five elements have coalesced to form Christie's reelection strategy, and they exacerbate existing divisions within a state Democratic Party that at times seems on the verge of civil war.

With endorsements from 26 elected Democrats and counting, the governor can sell himself as the bipartisan leader.

"He likes to talk about bipartisanship, but when you look down into the details, he's anything but," charges David Turner, Buono's spokesman, citing Christie's conservative governing record.

Yet in a state with a Democratic Legislature and with voters overwhelmingly Democratic in party affiliation, Christie has said he needed to work with Democratic leaders to get things done.

That cooperation is best personified by Joseph "Joe D" DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive and a North Jersey power broker long allied with Christie.

DiVincenzo leads a flank of the Democratic Party that has split with Buono and her more liberal ilk on policy issues and politics - like a recent feud over the next state party chairperson.

In 2002, when DiVincenzo was running for Essex County executive and dogged by rumors of corruption, Christie - then U.S. attorney - wrote a letter that in effect exonerated him. The letter said DiVincenzo was not being investigated.

DiVincenzo won the race, and the next year, he invited Christie to lecture his staff on ethics.

They became friends. And even though DiVincenzo endorsed former Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2009, the day after he won, Christie showed up in Essex County to meet with top Democrats.

"He turned to me, and he embraced me," DiVincenzo said in an interview Friday. "And he says, 'OK, now let's move forward. How we can work together?' And I didn't know whether he was kidding or what . . . but he was a man of his word."

By the time Christie got into office, it was clear to DiVincenzo "he did things nobody was able to get done." And in turn, DiVincenzo provided crucial backing to Christie on statewide policies, such as a property-tax cap, cuts to public employee benefits, and teacher-tenure reform.

Locally, too, Christie was there to provide support and funding, DiVincenzo said.

"The doors have opened for us," he said. "You know what most Republicans do when they get into office? They shut off Essex County."

Like several other pro-Christie Democrats, DiVincenzo praised the governor for something simple: promptly returning his calls.

"He gets himself in sync with everything - governmentally and politically," he said. "I've never seen anything like this."

DiVincenzo said he could have stayed neutral in the gubernatorial race, but that would have meant Essex would "wait in the back of the line" for funding from the state next year.

DiVincenzo added that Christie had never told him that. "But that's the way it should be," he said.

He asked: "What am I supposed to do, die with the [Democratic] Party and screw 800,000" Essex County residents? "No way."

This kind of personal politics extends to Christie's bully pulpit, which he has been far less likely to use against allies.

When it was revealed in 2011 that DiVincenzo was simultaneously collecting a pension and a paycheck, Christie didn't slay him from the lectern, as he has other politicians engaging in allegedly wasteful practices. Instead, he chided reporters for not going after a legislator - a Democratic adversary of his - for doing something similar.

And in 2012, when asked to comment on DiVincenzo's use of campaign funds for trips to Puerto Rico with political allies, Christie said it was "appropriate."

Similarly, though Christie has sought to forbid state legislators from holding a second public office, he has refrained from criticizing State Sen. Brian Stack (D., Union), who is also the mayor of Union City.

Stack has supported much of Christie's agenda in the Legislature and has repeatedly called him "the greatest governor the state's ever had."

Asked about Stack's ex-wife, whom a TV crew caught using Union City-paid gas to drive around a city-owned SUV, Christie expressed "great confidence in Brian Stack and his integrity." She later reimbursed the city.

Stack delivered his endorsement at a Union City rally Monday alongside two Democratic candidates for the Assembly.

One of those candidates, Raj Mukherji, said that he was a "proud, bleeding-heart, liberal Democrat," but that he decided to stand with Christie because of his work in protecting urban hospitals and boosting tax incentives in cities like Jersey City, where Mukherji is deputy mayor.

"And the last straw was seeing the governor reach across party lines and embrace my president to fight for New Jersey after Sandy," Mukherji said. "He shed party labels for his constituents, and I owe my district the same service."

Burlington City Mayor James Fazzone also calls himself "left wing."

"Name anybody in South Jersey - I'm further to the left of all of them," he said.

But he cites Christie's performance during Sandy, when the governor held regular conference calls with mayors. He says the Christie administration was "head and shoulders above any other" in terms of responding to mayors' concerns.

The Christie administration has also been directly helpful to Burlington City, providing three transportation-related grants. That was cited by Burlington County Democratic Chairman Joe Andl, who has called for an investigation of any possible quid pro quo after Fazzone's endorsement of Christie.

"We get grants on a regular basis, just like every other town," Fazzone said.

Aside from Andl, Democrats have largely refrained from criticizing the pro-Christie forces within their ranks. Part of the reason is many are allied with DiVincenzo and with George E. Norcross III, another powerful Democratic ally of the governor's.

Norcross, chairman of Cooper University Hospital and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer, stood with the governor at a news conference Monday to announce a new cancer program at Cooper. Although he didn't endorse Christie, Norcross praised him for caring about Camden.

Friday evening, Clinton interviewed Christie on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Chicago. The sight of the Republican and Democratic stars, seated in white armchairs and talking disaster-recovery policy, was unusual in a hyper-partisan country.

For Christie, it was just another day with his Democratic friends.


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

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