Putting the Jersey in Jersey Politics

by Daniel Foster

So Chris Christie has won his second budget battle in a row, albeit in a much different fashion than his first victory — which came at the end of a massive public relations battle with the unions and a round of brinksmanship with the Democratic legislature. This time around, when Democrats in Trenton released their own budget — instead of releasing a joint proposal negotiated with the Christie administration, as the governor had wanted, in order to present a unified front to the public — Christie simply wielded the powerful line-item veto afforded the executive in the New Jersey constitution and decimated the Democrats’ funding priorities before signing what was left of their budget. Bada-bing, bada-boom. No counter-offer, no conference with legislative leadership, no token compromises.

Democratic senate president Stephen Sweeney, fresh off of working with Christie on bipartisan public pension reform, was not happy. How not happy was he? Not happy enough to tell the Star-Ledger he thought Christie was a “a bully and a punk” whom he wanted to “punch. . . in his head.” And Sweeney was just getting started:

“You know who he reminds me of?” Sweeney says. “Mr. Potter from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the mean old bastard who screws everybody.”

This is not your regular budget dispute. This is personal. And it could have seismic impact on state politics.

Because the working alliance between these two men is the central political fact in New Jersey these days. If that changes, this brief and productive era of bipartisan cooperation is over.

“Last night I couldn’t calm down,” Sweeney said. “To prove a point to me — a guy who has stood side by side with him, and made tough decisions — for him to punish people to prove his political point? He’s just a rotten bastard to do what he did.”

There’s more — including Sweeney calling the governor “a rotten pr**k” — but you get the idea.

If Sweeney’s account of the way things went down is accurate (and we don’t know because the Christie administration has yet to comment on it), I can actually understand his anger even if I can’t condone the way he expressed it. Sweeney apparently had assurances from the administration that he would get a face-to-face with the governor before anything was signed, but the meeting never happened. Moreover, Sweeney had risked his neck with his labor base by getting on the pension reform train and probably expected the governor to throw him a bone on the budget. No dice.

But I’m not sure what a meeting would have accomplished. Christie has demonstrated, again and again, that he intends to shrink the Garden State’s government as aggressively as is possible — political niceties, opinion polls, and Democratic priorities be damned. So if Sweeney wasn’t going to get any concessions anyway, it’s conceivable that Christie did him a great political favor by cutting him out of the process. And indeed, Jersey politicos are already suggesting the line-item vetoes give Sweeney an opportunity to distance himself from the governor and mend fences with his base.

Sweeney isn’t apologizing for his outburst. But for his part, Governor Christie was fairly restrained in his response. From a release today:

“The Governor believes the language used was inappropriate and disrespectful to the office, but he continues to stand ready to work with Senator Sweeney and the Legislature in a bipartisan manner to get things done for the people of New Jersey.”

Aggressive education reform — including tenure reform, merit pay, and charter school expansion –  is next on Christie’s agenda, and he is going to need Democratic support, or at least acquiescence, to get it done. Right now that doesn’t look like a safe bet.

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