It was supposed to have been the biggest fight of Chris Christie’s young administration: a May showdown over what Democrats in Trenton were calling the “millionaires’ tax,” designed, like each of the 115 statewide tax increases of the last decade, to paper over a small part of a yawning structural deficit by soaking the rich, one last time. Never mind that half the filings and a third of the revenue from the tax were to come from New Jersey’s business community, already battered by a perfect storm of overtaxation, capital flight, and recession. The Democrats were loaded for bear, and had the legislative majorities in place to pass the measure, having spent all winter threatening a government shutdown should Christie use his veto pen.
Democratic senate president Stephen Sweeney had even admonished, in a turn of phrase eminently Trentonian in its sheer backwardness, that “to give up $1 billion to the wealthy during this crisis is just wrong.” He promised that the millionaires’ tax was where the Democrats would “make our stand.”
The tax passed on party-line votes in the assembly and senate on May 20. Sweeney then certified the bill and walked it across the statehouse to Christie’s office, where the governor — who had vowed to balance the budget without raising taxes, and who’d developed a bewildering habit of keeping his promises — vetoed it. The whole thing took about two minutes.
“We’ll be back, governor,” Sweeney told Christie on being dispatched with the dead letter.
“All right, we’ll see,” came the reply.
And just like that, the biggest obstacle standing between Christie and the realization of his sea-changing, fiscally conservative first-year agenda was gone.
“We have not found our footing,” Democratic state senator Loretta Weinberg later said, still reeling from the decisive defeat. “I think a lot of people underestimated Chris Christie.”
Christopher James Christie is fond of saying that he’s been underestimated his whole professional life. The Newark-born son of an Irish father and a Sicilian mother, Christie is the product of respectable but middling schools — the University of Delaware and Seton Hall Law — and enjoyed a successful, if not spectacular, career as a partner in a small New Jersey firm. He served a single term as a Morris County freeholder, but was primaried, and soundly defeated, in his bid for reelection. When, despite a lack of criminal prosecutorial experience, he was appointed U.S. attorney in 2002, some detractors thought it a bit of cronyism — the Bush administration rewarding Christie for the fundraising work he’d done during the 2000 election.
They were wrong. By the time Christie left the job six years later, he had put over a hundred crooked pols — “from the school board to the state house and of both political parties” — behind bars, without losing a single case. And he had tried and convicted terrorists, Mafiosi, and child pornographers; arms dealers, gang members, and corporate hacks.
So when he announced for governor in 2009 — as a low-tax, small-government alternative to Democrat Jon Corzine, who had the misfortune of being both an incumbent and a former CEO of Goldman Sachs — he did so with a brand name. Yet the initial response from the right was skeptical. New Jersey had become deeply blue over the past 40 years, and its Republican executives tended to be milquetoast centrists. Even as Christie beat conservative favorite Steve Lonegan in the primary and surged past Corzine on a wave of anti-incumbent fervor, the state’s small conservative establishment feared they were in for more of the same. Those fears seemed justified, since Christie, despite employing the proper rhetoric about Trenton’s unsustainable “addiction to spending,” was frustratingly vague about his plans to fix the state’s finances, more or less claiming that he had to see for himself how bad the situation was before he’d know what needed to be done. To many, this was the tack of a governor who intended to go along to get along, and who’d be swallowed whole by the Democratic Trenton machine.
About this, too, Christie’s critics were wrong.