Michael Tracey | November 17, 2010
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did not attend the first annual Virginia Tea Party Convention in October, hitherto the largest gathering of the movement’s activist core. He did, however, win its presidential straw poll—edging out Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and other potential 2012 Republican candidates—despite repeated denials of any interest in seeking higher office. The victory was another example of Christie’s strangely magnetic appeal, which increasingly seems to transcend region, political faction and level of sophistication.From National Review, which ran an August cover story designating him the “Scourge of Trenton,” to conservative bloggers electrified by his boisterous YouTube clips, just about every relevant Republican constituency has found something to be taken with in Chris Christie. Policy analysts in Washington appear just as enthralled by his critique of public pensions as are the familiar talk-radio personalities. “Ladies and gentlemen, is it wrong to love another man?” Rush Limbaugh asked one afternoon. “Because I love Chris Christie.”
In a feat of strategic jujitsu, Christie has managed to tread a tenuous ideological line between Beltway Republicans and the Tea Party, endorsing Mike Castle over Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware Republican senatorial primary. The calculation implied that although he clearly welcomes its support, Christie is not tethered to the Tea Party’s every whim; meanwhile, the Republican National Committee was happy to shuttle him around the country on behalf of various candidates this election cycle. Even among social conservatives, to whom Christie does not often pander, he has amassed impressive credentials: Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, lauded “the victory of a pro-life, pro-marriage GOP governor in New Jersey” last year after Christie vowed to veto a same-sex marriage bill. This ubiquitous adoration suggests that should rumored presidential aspirations materialize, he may be able to unite the party’s balkanized base.
But in the current political climate, fiscal austerity is paramount in the hierarchy of conservative priorities. Emboldened by the anti-tax, anti-spending fervor that propelled Republicans to victory this year, Christie has gained a national profile by insisting that in order to close a $2.2 billion budget deficit, New Jersey must sacrifice many of its most valued social programs—earning him the moniker “Governor Wrecking Ball.” In the process, his agenda has become a model for what the incoming class of GOP legislators might pursue on state and federal levels. “He’s in a battle that a lot of conservatives think needs to be fought,” says Republican strategist Vin Weber, who characterizes the governor’s campaign against New Jersey public employees as a “proxy war” that could set the stage for a confrontation over entitlement reform in Congress.
Under Christie’s direction, New Jersey has become the country’s most visible laboratory for sweeping austerity measures as a response to pervasive budget shortfalls. Last spring, in what felt like an overnight blitz, he cut hundreds of millions in aid to public schools and municipalities—blindsiding the weak-kneed Democratic legislature into submission. Although dismantling social services has long been a feature of the Republican Party platform, that it could be so fully realized in a traditionally liberal stronghold—where public employees and labor unions are thought to wield much influence—shifts the boundaries of possibility for what conservatives can accomplish nationwide.
Remarkably, Christie’s aggressive reforms have not damaged his popularity. Ten months after launching the most far-reaching campaign against sacred-cow expenditures in state history, he is viewed favorably by about half of New Jerseyans. “You can cut spending, you can balance a budget without tax increases, you can make hard choices,” Christie said recently on Meet the Press, “and not only survive politically but thrive politically.” His success is also partly a result of succinct, forceful messaging that repeatedly emphasizes the supposedly dire urgency of reform. “If we continue to allow a minority group of union leaders to define for us our standard of living,” Christie warned ominously in May, “then we are bound to be Greece.”
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By insisting that calamity is imminent, Christie has been able to control the narrative such that those who receive state outlays must explain why they are entitled to taxpayer dollars—a burden of proof that predictably falls disproportionately on the disabled, the destitute and even those who rely on the government for nourishment. At Christie’s behest, programs that provided poor children with breakfast at school have been defunded, one of the most jarring examples of his platform’s real-life ramifications.
And New Jersey Democrats, encumbered by leadership disputes, have been unable to offer a coherent alternative. “Those of us in the legislature have not done a very good job of explaining what really happened here,” says State Senator Loretta Weinberg, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2009.
This disarray has allowed Christie to routinely castigate state programs without apparent regard for the thousands who rely on them to fulfill basic needs. From pre-kindergarten programs to maintaining state parks, even the most benign public services have become politicized as they fall victim to the “wrecking ball.” Suburban communities, once happily isolated from political wrangling in Trenton, have been forced to eliminate their schools’ music and sports programs; facilities for the mentally ill are closing down; professors at state universities are being furloughed. Every social program in New Jersey is now viewed in the context of how it affects the budget—and whatever benefit it may once have conferred takes a back seat.
Poor, urban (and thereby Democratic) areas like Newark, Camden and Trenton—which lack a robust property tax base and depend deeply on state aid—have sustained the heaviest losses. In Camden, the most dangerous city in the country, nearly half the police force will be fired if administrators cannot negotiate new contracts; in Trenton, another 111 officers are at risk for termination. Gang members in Newark roam the streets with T-shirts celebrating the date of scheduled police layoffs. In the interest of closing the budget gap, New Jersey’s cities may soon descend into chaos.
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Part of Christie’s strategy in rationalizing such breathtaking cuts has been to cast organized labor, especially the state teachers’ union, as a greedy impediment to reform. “He’s succeeded in tainting us as the problem,” says Steve Wollmer, communications director of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which Christie has regularly berated. “Every chance he gets, he slams us, he smears us, he lies about us. He’s done it since he took office.” When James O’Keefe, the discredited conservative videographer, surreptitiously recorded teachers at an NJEA conference singing “Let’s have a whiskey and get a little misty. Join me now and slander Chris Christie!” the governor eagerly piled on. “This is what I’ve been talking about,” he said. “The arrogance, the greed, the self-interest, the lack of introspection, the lack of standards.” Christie falsely claimed that union leaders were depicted in the video, and failed to mention that the teachers on tape had been plied with drink.
His penchant for chastising the NJEA at all costs is a consistent trend: Bret Schundler, Christie’s former education commissioner, testified to the state assembly that the governor turned down a compromise with the union that would have brought the state millions in federal education funding because “it was intolerable for him to be perceived as giving in to the NJEA,” adding that Christie was especially concerned about how the compromise might play on local talk-radio.
“Chris is a very sharp politician,” says former Democratic Governor Richard Codey. “He’s created a bogeyman out of the teachers and the unions to divert your attention from the fact that he’s cut your aid.”
A few weeks later, the governor helped orchestrate a $100 million matching donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the blighted Newark school system. Conveniently for Christie, the money deflected scrutiny from the structural inequities that had doomed Newark in the first place—and which his cuts have exacerbated. Hundreds of district employees were laid off in the months before the donation was announced, and Christie is still inexplicably delaying construction of a new state-of-the-art high school in the city’s West Ward. “He giveth with one hand,” Newark Councilman Ronald Rice says of the governor, “and he taketh away with the other.”
But all the same, Christie has managed to christen himself as a tireless champion of education reform, bolstering his national profile among conservatives. He extended a job offer to Waiting for Superman heroine and former Washington, DC, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and has actively promoted the controversial documentary. In May, the American Federation for Children, a leading “school choice” advocacy organization, hosted Christie as the keynote speaker at its annual summit.
Despite Zuckerberg’s proclamation that Christie is a “great leader,” and despite Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s assurances that the donation will be used for public purposes only, Christie’s critics allege that he’s put New Jersey on the path to outright privatization. “His goal is to demonize and defund public schools,” says Wollmer, “en route to getting vouchers.”
Shrewdly, Christie has created the impression that money-sucking public schools are to blame for New Jersey’s property tax burden—long decried as the highest in the country. But he forgoes mentioning that New Jersey also ranks forty-fifth in the amount of funding its schools receive from state aid, and with Christie’s cuts, the situation can only worsen. Weinberg, Codey, Rice and other Democratic critics predict that in the next fiscal year, municipalities will be forced to fill the void left by the loss of state aid by increasing property taxes—just what Christie had ostensibly sought to avoid. “People are going to be very upset with this governor very soon,” Wollmer continued. “Or they’re going to see their public schools gutted. Either way, that’s not what they voted for.”
Education is only one front in Christie’s wholesale effort to roll back progressive policy in New Jersey. In April he revoked the state global-warming fund of its entire $65 million allocation; in July he eliminated all $7.5 million in taxpayer support for women’s health services, forcing several Planned Parenthood facilities to close. And Christie infamously rebuked the Obama administration by canceling construction of a tunnel into Manhattan that had already been partly paid for by the federal government. All this may delight conservative activists, but New Jersey nevertheless remains a blue state—and the vexing impact of Christie’s cuts may soon deflate his appeal at home.
As he ponders his electoral prospects, the consequences of Christie’s budget will become tangible: class size will increase in schools, public employees will lose their jobs and infrastructure will continue to decay. Christie’s supporters argue that these immediate hardships are necessary for long-term fiscal solvency. “If you break your arm, you have to endure some pain before it heals,” says Brian Hackett, chair of the Monroe Township Republicans. But the pain for many in New Jersey is unlikely to subside. Instead, while millionaires enjoy fresh tax cuts, the most vulnerable will be asked for further sacrifice. Anything, of course, to close the deficit.