The governor had grown increasingly hostile toward the NJEA in the months since he’d introduced his budget, and had essentially stopped taking their phone calls in April, after the union had failed to discipline a functionary for circulating an e-mail praying for his death. Thereafter, he went from not pulling punches to putting his full weight behind them. When a teacher at a town hall in the borough of Rutherford complained to Christie that his budget would leave her inadequately compensated relative to her education and experience, he told her to find another job, and reminded her that the cuts wouldn’t be necessary if teachers made the most modest concessions.
“Your union said that is the greatest assault on public education in the history of the state,” he told the teacher. And then, to applause: “That’s why the union has no credibility — stupid statements like that.”
Indeed, the war of credibility between the unions and the governor had been settled weeks before, when New Jersey’s school districts put their annual budgets — many of which sought to hike taxes to erase Christie’s cuts — to a taxpayer vote. Nearly three in five failed, a greater number than in any year since 1976.
Meanwhile, what was supposed to be an epic battle with the Democrats largely failed to materialize. Sweeney and Co. had made their stand on the millionaires’ tax, which amounted to little more than a demonstration at Christie’s flanks, and then had more or less quit the field.
Elected Democrats were conspicuously scarce at the May 23 Trenton rally, and in reaction to the NJEA president’s warning against the majority’s becoming “accomplices” to the Christie budget, senate president Sweeney could only shake his head. “Instead of showing the public that we’re in it together, they’re showing them that they still don’t get it,” he had said of the rally participants. “We’re not accomplices. If anything, we’re trying to fix the state with him.”
And it was true so far as it went. Sweeney had shown leadership on pensions, working with the governor to assure broad Democratic support for reform. This struck some in the state’s labor movement as a special kind of betrayal, since Sweeney was himself head of an ironworkers’ union. But it made sense. Private-sector unions like Sweeney’s depended on economic activity for work, and his members were suffering mightily through the recession, even as public-sector labor was shielded from the worst of it.
Thus did Christie split the Democrats in the state legislature from their traditional labor base, exploiting fissures both between public- and private-sector unions and between the teachers’ unions and the taxpaying public. Having taken their best shot at Chris Christie, the opposition now found themselves chastened, confused, and cannibalized.
The rout was not unnoticed by one anonymous member of the Democratic leadership, who told a reporter from the Newark Star Ledger that “we’re getting murdered. We’re losing the public debate and we know that. He’s beating us and dividing us. He won’t forever. But he sure is now.”
Nor could the Democrats, having lost the public-opinion battle, count on stopping Christie’s budget in the house: New Jersey’s constitution gives an oppositional majority little in the way of procedural tools to block a determined governor’s path. As the only at-large elected official in the state, the governor not only commands the bully pulpit but appoints all the key executives — from attorney general to education commissioner — who might stand in his way. Moreover, his line-item budget veto is both powerful and precise, giving him the ability to strike whole clauses or decrease individual appropriations to the cent. The only thing the governor can’t do is raise spending.
Budget talks between the governor’s office and members of both parties hummed along through the late spring, but they were now on Chris Christie’s terms, and there was no longer any doubt that he would get 99.9 percent of what he wanted.