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Opinion: How Would New Jersey’s Power Politics Translate on National Stage?

Christie in Washington, like Christie in Trenton, would mean insults, absolute loyalty, and an impenetrable inner circle

potter
Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

With Gov. Chris Christie moving swiftly to put Bridgegate behind him and regain his standing as Republican presidential frontrunner for 2016, it seems high time to ask what kind of president he would make. Would he be the bipartisan, get-things-done chief executive of the nation that he claims to have been for New Jersey? Or would he align himself with the right-wing, antigovernment Tea Party, whose members scorn compromise and dominate the nominating process in the GOP?

Based on his record to date, President Christie would most resemble a conservative version of President Richard Nixon -- an ultraliberal by today’s Republican Party standards -- coupled with a strong dose of the bully pulpit wielded to such great effect by President Teddy Roosevelt (TR) a century ago.

Much like Nixon, Christie has shown a willingness to wield the full powers of his office for political gain and to dish out punishment to those who oppose him. Recall Nixon’s “enemies list” of detractors, some targeted for illicit audits by a compliant IRS. And like a latter-day TR on steroids, Christie has relished the opportunity to verbally accost detractors, famously calling a Navy Seal vet an “idiot” and urging reporters to “take a bat” to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

In other words, Christie loves power and takes obvious pleasure in using it whenever it advances an agenda item.

More than any governor in modern history Christie has centralized authority within the Trenton version of the Oval Office, where he and a tight circle of loyalists dictate virtually every policy move throughout state government, and demand strict obedience from appointees. And woe be to any cabinet officer who steps out of line or merely crosses an invisible one.

Christie’s rough treatment of his first education commissioner, former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler, set the precedent. In his first year in office, Christie fired Schundler allegedly for missing a Race to the Top filing deadline that cost the state millions in federal education aid. But more likely, Schundler was shown the door because he negotiated an agreement with the dreaded teachers union, which Christie likes to pummel in town hall meetings.

Most troubling, Christie has cast aside many of the unwritten customs consistently observed by Republican and Democratic officeholders that have helped contain the extraordinary power vested in the governorship by the 1947 State Constitution.

Unlike other state constitutions, New Jersey’s charter empowers the governor to appoint every cabinet officer, including the attorney general and treasurer, every judge, every county prosecutor, and just about every other executive position down to literally dozens of part-time councils and advisory and licensing boards scattered throughout government agencies.

The New Jersey governor can rewrite any bill that emerges from the Legislature by issuing a conditional veto in which he redlines any terms he dislikes and rewrites the legislation before returning it to the house of origin. This power extends to the state budget since any expenditure may be deleted through the line-item veto, subject to legislative concurrence.

But the prerogative Christie seems to enjoy most is the legally ambiguous executive order that enables him to issue new policies unilaterally, daring timorous legislators or the courts to stop him (as recently occurred when an appellate court overturned Christie’s executive order abolishing the Council on Affordable Housing). Ruling in this manner, he terminated the ARC project to build a much-needed third trans-Hudson commuter rail tunnel into New York City, despite billions of dollars in federal money. He also unilaterally removed New Jersey from the multistate compact for reducing carbon emissions, known as RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative).

And each year in office, Christie has raided special-purpose trust funds to plug holes in the state budget, staving off Democratic Party efforts to pass a “millionaires tax” to help balance the budget. Prominent among these statutorily dedicated accounts was the Clean Energy Trust Fund, committed by law to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Christie has taken nearly $1 billion, thereby converting a utility rate fixture promoting alternative energy development into a new state tax.

(Full disclosure: My law firm challenged in court the governor’s power to divert clean energy funds, which a three-judge panel upheld after the diversion was folded into the budget and endorsed by the Legislature.)

Topping the list of bipartisan customs ended, Christie declared he will not reappoint any state judges or justices of the Supreme Court -- after their initial 10-year term ends -- to tenured posts that expire at age 70 if any of their rulings displease him. Former Justice John Wallace, the sole African-American justice at the time, was the first to go. Never before has a governor used his reappointment power to retire a Supreme Court justice, sending shockwaves throughout the state court system, long heralded for its independence from political pressures.

Christie loves the power of the office; he speaks loudly and carries a big stick. But unless you fully agree with his take-no-prisoners approach to advancing decidedly conservative causes and his authoritarian tactics, you have to worry about what he might do as the next president of the United States.

"Be afraid, be very afraid," as the character in the horror movie warns.

Better yet, be forewarned.

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