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Christie's 'Not My Time' Signals Start of Governor's Race

Governor says he could have won White House, but work in New Jersey isn’t done. Will the Democrats confront or cooperate?

Credit: Andrew Mills/Star Ledger

One race ended yesterday, but another began.

Gov. Chris Christie's announcement that he would not run for president in 2012 marks the unofficial beginning of the 2013 race for governor.

It guarantees two years of rancorous debate in the legislature, starting in December with Christie's education agenda to end teacher tenure, expand charter schools, and institute a school voucher pilot program.

And it requires Democratic legislative leaders -- especially those who are considering running against the governor -- to carefully calculate how they will deal with Christie moving forward, when to confront and when to cooperate.

Like the speech to the Reagan Library last week that sparked the most recent Christie presidential frenzy, Christie's "non-announcement" yesterday was broadcast live nationwide. This time, however, he was aiming his remarks not at a national audience, but at a New Jersey electorate he will need to rely on for support first on policy issues and then when he runs for reelection.

"Over the last few weeks, I've thought long and hard about this decision. In the end, what I've always felt was the right decision remains the right decision today. Now is not my time," Christie said.

"I have a commitment to New Jersey I will not abandon. That is the promise I made to the people of this state when I took office 20 months ago, to fix a broken New Jersey," he said. "This is not the time to leave unfinished business for me. The stakes are too high, and the consequences are too real. New Jersey, whether you like it or not, you're stuck with me."

New Jersey Republicans generally greeted Christie's announcement with relief, a tacit acknowledgement that an all-consuming Christie presidential campaign would have left a vacuum in New Jersey that no one in the GOP could have filled. Asking Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who was an unknown Monmouth County sheriff two years ago, to fill in for Christie in dealing with Sweeney and Democratic power brokers would have been a tall order. And Christie's insistence on lockstep Republican unity in the legislature has relegated the GOP leadership to working in his shadow.

The Democratic Reaction

Meanwhile, the state's top two Democratic legislative leaders, who cooperated with Christie in June on bills requiring public employees to pay more for their pension and health care benefits, but quarreled violently with the governor over the summer, adopted very different tones in their response to Christie's announcement.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) declared angrily: "A governor who has presided over painful property tax hikes, paid little attention to job creation, opposed new job training, showed no regard for healthcare for women and the poor, made college more expensive, and ignored the needs of impoverished cities had no business even considering running for president."

However, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), said, "Thankfully, we can now move ahead and focus on the real issues that are impacting the people of this state. Unemployment here is above the national average, while more people, particularly children, are living in poverty.... Every moment of the governor's day needs to be focused on how we can get New Jerseyans back to work and how we can grow and aid our business community. I stand ready to work with this governor on doing just that."

The biggest test of Sweeney's willingness to work with Christie will come on ending tenure, expanding charter schools, and passing the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), which would divert state tax dollars to private schools through a voucher program in a handful of cities. These education bills are slated for consideration during the lame duck legislative session that takes place following the November 8 elections and before the new state Senate and Assembly are sworn into office in early January.

Controversial bills are often considered during "lame duck" sessions, and the coalition of Democratic legislators aligned with South Jersey power broker George Norcross (including Sweeney), Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo (including Oliver) and Senator Brian Stack (D-Hudson) would be enough to put Christie's education agenda over the top. Norcross and Newark North Ward Democratic power Steven Adubato Sr., DiVincenzo's political mentor, are both outspoken charter school advocates. Support for the voucher bill is particularly strong in Essex County, including the Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Crossing the Aisle

Christie tacitly acknowledged at yesterday's press conference that he will have to rely again on Democratic votes because the legislative redistricting map adopted in April favors incumbents and leaves little chance for the GOP to pick up seats.

If Sweeney is going to run for governor against Christie in 2013, however, he will have to consider whether to give Christie another legislative triumph. Sweeney could conclude that he has nothing to lose because he is unlikely to get any support from the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) anyway because of his support for strict caps on property tax increases last year and for the pension and health benefits bill that stripped public employees of the right to bargain on healthcare issues for the next four years.

For other potential Democratic gubernatorial aspirants, including Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who is also the state Democratic chairman, the battles over tenure, charter schools and school vouchers offer a clear opportunity to continue to stake out their differences with Christie and to woo traditional Democratic constituencies heading into a gubernatorial campaign that will begin shaping up a year from now.

Christie acknowledged yesterday that he had given serious consideration to running for president over the past several weeks at the request of party leaders and fund-raisers. Those weeks were a tumultuous period in the Republican presidential contest in which Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann plummeted after repeated misstatements, Texas Governor Rick Perry sank after uninspiring debate performances, pizza mogul Herman Cain became the flavor of the month, and GOP voters kept telling pollsters that were worried that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would win the nomination only to lose to President Obama.

Christie left no doubt yesterday that he thought he could have won the Republican nomination and defeated Obama. He repeated the sharp critique of Obama that was the centerpiece of his speech at the Reagan Library, asserting again that "the president's failed."

"There's no substitute for knowing how to lead. Everything else you can be taught. You can't be taught how to lead and how to make decisions," Christie said. He added that while there are areas where he agrees with Obama, "overall, he's failed the American people because he's failed that absolute litmus test to be president of the United States, and that's to know how to lead and to decide, and he hasn't done that."

It is a critique that Christie will undoubtedly be called upon to repeat before a national audience at the Republican National Convention next summer. He will not, however, be speaking as a presidential candidate, nor does it seem likely that he will be speaking as a vice presidential candidate after his unequivocal declaration yesterday that he owes it to New Jerseyans to complete his agenda.

Commentators and Criticisms

Christie laughed off criticisms of his record that started emerging from Cain and GOP commentators this weekend. GOP analysts questioned his acknowledgement that there is scientific evidence for global warming, even though he angered environmentalists by pulling New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). They pointed to his tacit support for New Jersey's gun control laws, a position that undoubtedly grew out of his experience as U.S. Attorney seeing police officers outgunned by drug dealers. And they noted his failure to strictly enforce anti-immigrant laws, his failure to oppose plans to build a mosque not far from Ground Zero, and his outspoken endorsement of the integrity of a Muslim judge he nominated. In short, Christie was already under attack for being too liberal.

"That's such a shock to the people of New Jersey," Christie said with a laugh. "That's when I knew that I could actually win, when all these people started shooting at me before I even got in the race. That's when you really know you've got something special..

"I've said all along I'm a principled conservative. You have to compromise sometimes to get things done," he said, referring to his compromises with Sweeney, Oliver and other Democrats on tax caps, pensions and health benefits, and other legislation. "That doesn't mean compromising your principles. If somebody calls that liberal, being compromising -- if you look at Ronald Reagan's record, Ronald Reagan had a record that was replete with principled compromises. If somebody wants to accuse me of that, I'm more than willing to wear that mantle."

Christie's mixture of humor and forthrightness, shown in that answer and in responses to other questions yesterday about whether his weight was a proper issue for comedians (yes) and political pundits (no), showed why so many Republicans across the country were begging him to enter the race.

"Can you imagine how well he would have done in debates?" marveled Roger Bodman, a veteran Republican lobbyist, former Cabinet officer under GOP Governor Tom Kean, and a longtime Christie adviser, as he sat in the hall outside the Governor's Office a couple hours after the announcement.

"He would have won the nomination and he would have won the presidency," Bodman asserted. "His boldness, strength and tough talk were perfect for this election. In tough times, people don't want to be told what people think they want to hear, they want to be told the truth. You can't 'lead from behind,' as Christie said in his criticism of Obama."

Bodman discounted speculation that Christie had decided not to run because it would be too difficult to put together a campaign virtually overnight, with the petition deadlines approaching rapidly for Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida.

"All of the mechanics of putting together an organization could have been done," he said. "It would have been a tough task, but we had people willing to jump in to set up organizations, we had people willing to do the fund-raising. And he would have been a great candidate. But if he's told me once, he's told me 20 times: He feels the people of New Jersey took a chance on him in 2009 and he feels obligated to finish the job."

Bodman acknowledged that in hindsight, 2012 could prove to have been Christie's best chance at the presidency, just as 1992 would have been U.S. Senator Bill Bradley's best shot if he had chosen to run that year rather than in 2000 against incumbent Vice President Al Gore. If a Republican wins the presidency next year, Christie will have to wait until at least 2020, which would be three years after his second term as New Jersey governor would expire -- if he is reelected, which is no guarantee in a state with a 700,000-vote Democratic registration edge.

"This could have been Christie's political moment," Bodman said. "But politics is a series of political moments. He's young -- just 49 years old. Who's to say his moment won't come again?'

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