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Opinion: Christie Suffers Rare Setback in Attempt to Push Kean Aside

Blocking governor -- and Senate President Sweeney -- GOP reaffirms right to name its own legislative leadership

carl golden
Carl Golden

Gov. Chris Christie is fond of reminding people that in his 2009 gubernatorial campaign, he promised to “turn Trenton upside down.” In his successful reelection bid last week, he boasted he’d fulfilled that promise and would continue to pursue it in his second term.

It’s unlikely that when Christie made his pledge to invert the culture of state government, he intended it to extend to his selecting the Republican legislative leadership.

Two days after his 22-point victory over state Sen. Barbara Buono, though, Christie unwisely chose to become very publicly involved in a contest for the post of Senate minority leader, actively pressuring senators to support Essex County state Sen. Kevin O’Toole to replace the incumbent, Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr.

He lost.

It was a rare political misstep for Christie and, because it was so unusual, it attracted outsized attention from the media and from those who wondered aloud about the impact of the rebuff delivered to the Governor by his own party.

After all, Republican senators under Kean’s leadership had stood steadfastly behind the governor and his agenda for the past four years, sustaining his vetoes and supporting his budget cuts, even when there was political risk in doing so.

Where every prior governor had refused to tread --- becoming involved in the jealously guarded prerogative of legislators selecting their own leadership --- Christie barged in, summoning individual senators to his office in full view of reporters and leaning on them to deny Kean another term as their leader.

His attempt to replace Kean was perceived as a desire to mollify a remarkably thin-skinned Senate President Steve Sweeney who was so incensed by Kean’s recruitment of a candidate to oppose him in his Gloucester County district that he wanted him punished and sought the governor’s help to do it.

Kean, however, quickly lined up support in the party caucus and intensified the pressure by releasing a letter signed by 10 of his colleagues pledging their votes to him for another two-year term.

Whether Christie miscalculated the depth of resentment his efforts created or chose to ignore it is unclear, but a majority of Republican senators quickly deduced that ousting Kean would be tantamount to ceding to Sweeney the power to select their party’s leader.

No matter their years of unquestioning loyalty to Christie, the perception that they’d turned over their party to the Democratic leader was too much to swallow. Accepting such an outcome would be the equivalent of a political neutering.

Middlesex County Sen. Sam Thompson, one of the few Republicans willing to speak publicly, said that if Sweeney
 was allowed to claim victory with Kean’s defeat, it would relegate GOP senators to bystanders, unable to influence any Senate decision-making.

In the immediate aftermath of Kean’s reelection, Sweeney vented his anger by descending into personal attacks, derisively referring to Kean as “junior,” and characterizing him as “a trust-fund baby.”

Coming from someone who’s been quick to criticize Christie as a bully who enjoys hurling insults at anyone who questions him, Sweeney’s reaction and choice of words when he failed to get his way struck some as more than a little hypocritical.

The effort to portray Kean as being at fault for the failure of Republicans to gain any seats in the Senate despite the Christie landslide never really achieved much credibility as the rationale for denying him another term as minority leader.

The worst that could be said was that he was guilty of an overreach and that his predictions of a Republican takeover of the Senate and his subsequent ascension to Senate president were more rash than rational.

As predicted in virtually every poll, Christie’s influence on the legislative candidates beneath him on the ballot simply didn’t exist. His was a personal victory rather than a party victory.

Kean, aware as everyone else that there were few competitive districts, nonetheless did what was expected of party leaders -- he directed funds to Republican candidates whose chances of success were slender at best, but where the possibility of catching lightning in a bottle existed.

A disappointingly low turnout, a legislative district map tilted toward incumbents, and record spending on behalf of Democratic candidates doomed Kean’s efforts. Rather than expressing gratitude for bucking the odds and extending himself in behalf of his party, Kean’s detractors perversely blamed him for the losses.

While some speculated that Christie’s failed effort to replace Kean was the first tangible sign of a lame duck governor, it’s far more likely that his second term agenda will enjoy solid support from Republicans.

Resentments may linger, but they won’t get in the way of issues of substantial political benefit -- a tax cut that it is anticipated Christie will pursue aggressively, as well as proposals to provide local governments with tools to rein in property taxes.

As the new legislative session unfolds in January, the confrontation over Kean’s reelection as minority leader will fade, dismissed as the kind of political “inside baseball” that is largely ignored by voters.

Speculation will instead turn to Christie’s national ambitions, whether he’ll serve his full four-year term, and whether Sweeney will move to position himself as the Democratic candidate for governor.

    “Turning Trenton upside down” may continue to be Christie’s goal, but for at least two more years, Tom Kean Jr., by a caucus vote of 10-6 will remain upright -- much to Sweeney’s dismay.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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