For New Jersey governor Chris Christie, 2010 was a big first year. He closed not one but two multi-billion-dollar budget holes without raising taxes; he defied his state’s federal legislators and the Obama administration by canceling the ARC tunnel, a bloated transit project he says would have left New Jersey taxpayers on the hook for billions in cost overruns; and he won a game of chicken with teachers’ unions on education spending, driving a wedge between Trenton Democrats and what is perhaps their most powerful constituency while laying the groundwork for fundamental reforms across the public sector.
Now, in 2011, what Christie calls “The New Jersey Model” — it could just as accurately be called “the Christie Model” — has gone national, as Republican and Democratic governors alike are finally catching up with Christie, coming around to the necessity of tackling the flawed public-employee-compensation systems and federal mandates that are beggaring their states. And the governor himself is subject to constant presidential talk: first whispers, then shouts, and finally pleas that he stand against Barack Obama in 2012.
“In ’09, I think we were in some respects surprised we won. So the idea that a year and a quarter later we’d have all this national attention is nothing we expected,” Christie tells National Review Online. “But I also understand it, because we’re saying what needs to be said, and now you’ve got a whole bunch of other states doing the same things. I feel gratified about that, but I try not to let it distract me.”
So what will Chris Christie do with his moment? For the umpteenth time, he doesn’t have his eye on the White House. “I see the opportunity, both at the primary and general-election level,” he says of 2012, but adds candidly: “I have to think I’m ready to be president. If you just make that decision based on seeing an opportunity, then you’ll have a president who isn’t ready.”
Instead, Christie is looking to consolidate and expand on his victories in Trenton, proposing an ambitious new budget that would shrink government and lower New Jersey’s tax burden, rein in Medicaid’s malignant growth, shake up the state’s overspending and underperforming education system, and consummate public-sector-pension and -benefit reforms.
Christie expects the biggest fight on the latter. Working alongside the Democratic Senate president (himself a private-sector union rep), Christie proposes increasing employee contributions to both health-care premiums and pension funds, raising the retirement age, eliminating automatic cost-of-living increases, and rolling back a promised but non-fungible benefit increase. But he stops short of taking on the right of public workers to collectively bargain at all.
Like those in Wisconsin, Christie says, his state’s public employees at all levels currently enjoy collective-bargaining rights. “All the different benefits you hear Governor Walker talking about in Wisconsin, they have. All the different advantages they get are all well entrenched statutorily in New Jersey,” he says. But while he supports Walker’s attempt to scale back bargaining in Madison, he doesn’t think the same is possible — or necessary — in Trenton.
“I trust Walker. I know him. I campaigned for him. I think he’s experienced and bright and he’s tough. If he thinks that’s what needs to be done in Wisconsin, I support him. But I haven’t had a crack yet in New Jersey at trying to negotiate these deals. And I think before I try anything else I want to get a chance to do it.”
Christie will get his chance soon enough, as the first group of public-employee contracts signed under the Jon Corzine administration is set to expire June 30. He says he has no problem in principle with “vigorous collective bargaining” so long as the process is “truly adversarial.” Public-sector bargaining, he says, is only a problem “because it’s been done unfairly.”
“In the last round of contract negotiations with state workers, Governor Corzine went out to the steps of the statehouse and said in the mic, ‘I’m going to fight to get you a good contract.’ So I’m like, ‘Well then the fight’s over, right? Who are you bargaining with? Pretty much done, right?’” The other problem, Christie says, is that when public-employee unions don’t get what they want at the bargaining table, they take their case to the (usually blue) legislature. “Now, we go back to the legislature to peel back some of that, and they say ‘Oh well that’s violating the sanctity of collective bargaining.’ Baloney. You can’t have it both ways.”
“If it’s really, truly adversarial, with someone standing up for both sides, I don’t have a huge problem with it.” He adds: “And I think folks will understand that I’m going to be a tough negotiator.”
While Christie expects the pension- and benefit-reform battle to be the toughest, it is education reform he feels most passionately about. His new budget would reinstate some $250 million in aid to local districts cut in last year’s fiscal emergency. But he would also expand funding for school choice, increase the number of charter schools in the state, and make it easier for future charters to be approved.
Christie plans to put Newark’s failing schools — which the state controls directly — in the vanguard of his vision of reform. Though Christie was born in Newark, his parents borrowed money to move to Livingston when he was five, so that their son would have a chance to attend good public schools. Had he remained in Newark schools, Christie says, he is sure he would not have become governor. Now, he has fired the district’s superintendent, and made it clear that he will close underperforming schools and “start over,” should it come to that. He speaks favorably of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who made a multi-million-dollar commitment to investing in the city’s schools.
“When Mark Zuckerberg announced he was going to invest in Newark, when they asked him why he picked it, he said he thought it was a manageable-sized city to make a difference in, and because of me and [Newark mayor, and Democrat, Cory Booker],” Christie says. “He felt like he had a Republican and a Democrat on exactly the same page on what needed to be done: abolish tenure, more charter schools, more school choice. Zuckerberg’s a smart guy, and he picked Newark.”
NRO asks Christie whether he thinks Booker, whose star burns as brightly as Christie’s in the Garden State, will challenge him in 2013.
“I have no idea. Cory and I are friends, friends for nine years,” he says. “We’ve talked about this as friends talk. He’ll say he isn’t running for governor, but we’ll see. He’s an ambitious guy, so he may, and if he does, I’m sure we’ll have a good race. If I’m weakened and he sees an opportunity, he may go for it.”
As zeroed-in as Christie is on the future of New Jersey and his place in it, he is also well aware of his position in the national conservative imagination, and is starting to flex his muscles as a spokesman for tough-minded fiscal righteousness at all levels of government. After turning down a number of invitations to speak on national issues in Washington, Christie recently agreed to deliver a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, in which he chastised President Obama and much of the elected class for squandering an opportunity to take on entitlement reform. His decision to go public with this criticism, he says, was born of his frustration with the president’s State of the Union address and his realization that he could use his own national standing to help shape the debate.
“If [President Obama] came out and said he’d embrace Bowles-Simpson in some effect, and took aggressive action on entitlement reform, he could have cemented reelection,” Christie says of the SOTU. “He was smart enough to do it, but in the end he let his ideology go over political sense.”
“When I saw that speech, I thought: One, it’s enough of a crisis for the country that I should speak out, and two, there’s such an analogy to what I’m going through in N.J. with health benefits, so I thought, let’s accept AEI’s invitation.”
Washington’s lethargy when it comes to confronting spending contrasts starkly with what Christie sees as the urgency animating newly elected Democratic and Republican governors across the country.
“The only [governors] that seem to be off the reservation here are Pat Quinn [D., Ill.] and Dan Malloy [D., Conn.]. Other than that, if you’re talking about Jerry Brown [D., Calif.], or me, or Andrew Cuomo [D., N.Y.], or Kasich [R., Ohio], Walker [R., Wis.], Snyder [R., Mich.], or Nikki Haley [R., S.C.], we’re all looking at the same thing. And so, if you don’t believe that raising taxes is a good thing in a bad economy, then you’re left to make these cuts and do it this way.”
He singled out Cuomo, his counterpart across the Hudson, for praise.
“I’m encouraged by Governor Cuomo. I think he’s serious, and I think the legislature is up against an adversary who’s a lot smarter and more committed than they’ve been up against for a long time in New York,” he said. “He’s been around, he’s seen how this works, he’s watched his father work for all those years. I think he comes to the job pretty well-prepared.”
But what prepared Christie, who doesn’t have the benefit of a political pedigree, for the governor’s mansion? He credits his seven years as U.S. attorney, where he learned how to spot and manage talent, incentivize within a civil-service pay-scale, and, most important, make tough calls. “There are so many hard decisions, that you develop and get comfortable with your own process of decision-making.”
And Christie relishes his role as the decider. “I wouldn’t want to be in a job where I didn’t get to decide things, size up different points of view,” he says. “Part of my [budget] speech on Tuesday was that there was a very specific line in the speech describing specifically what we were doing. Some of the counseling I was getting was ‘Well, let’s try to be less specific in this line, because some of these things might offend some people.’ And I asked ‘Is this what we’re doing?’ They said ‘yes,’ and I said, ‘Then that’s what I’m saying. We’re doing this. That’s what we’re doing.’”
The governor is well aware that this congruence between speech and act can seem jarring and confrontational to the ears of seasoned politicos. And he knows some pundits are warning that it will be his downfall. If anything, he says, he’s too aware of what’s being written and said of his flaws.
“I have a Google alert on myself. Who doesn’t?” he asks. “I’m well aware of it, I’m well aware of all the stuff. My temperament is off, I’m too fat, I’m too abrasive, I shoot from the hip, I read all of it. Some of it’s right, but that’s okay. Nobody sold me as perfect, I have my faults also. But I think people from New Jersey generally look at me and say “‘He’s one of us.’”
— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.