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Opinion: Kean's Port Authority Proposal Looks Like a Win-Win for GOP, Dems

The Senate minority leader's plan seems to have something for everyone, including avoidance of a potential loss of face for Christie and Sweeney

carl golden
Carl Golden

In as adroit a political maneuver as has been seen around the Statehouse in many a year, the proposal by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. to bring greater accountability and openness to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by merging elements of recommendations of a study commission with provisions of legislation vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in December accomplishes the following:

  • Serves unmistakable notice that Republicans are committed to bringing the authority to heel.

  • Quiets the rising voices of critics who argue the authority has become an out-of-control behemoth that has exceeded its jurisdictional boundaries.

  • Cuts the ground from beneath the feet of Democrats intent on forcing a vote to override Christie’s veto.

  • Gives Senate Republicans a solid fallback position should an override vote occur, easing their concerns and fears that sustaining the veto would open them to charges of obstructionism and, in effect, be seen as a vote of support for the manner in which the authority has conducted itself..

  • Avoids the potential embarrassment to the governor of an override supported by members of his own party -- the first in his five-plus years in office.

  • Places Senate President Steve Sweeney in the awkward position of forcing an override vote -- aware that it would fail and be construed as his attempt to score cheap political points.

  • Ratchets up the pressure on Sweeney to abandon the override attempt -- currently scheduled for next week -- and embrace the Kean proposal.

Not a bad day's work.

It was an open secret that some Senate Republicans were dismayed by the governor’s veto, although only one, Sen. Michael Doherty of Warren County, publicly pledged to support an override.

Several of his colleagues agonized privately that as much as they supported Christie and had stood resolutely by him on earlier vetoes, they were wavering on such a high-profile issue as strengthening the hand of New Jersey and New York in dealing with the Port Authority.

Adding to their discomfort is the investigation by the U. S. Attorney of the authority’s involvement in the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee as well as a probe of former chairman David Samson -- a close confidant of Christie -- over possible conflicts of interest and ethical misbehavior on his part.

In this atmosphere of uncertainty, a potentially wide-ranging scandal and possible indictments, Republicans were understandably wary of a public vote to kill authority reforms.

In all likelihood, Kean conveyed the growing sentiment among his members to the governor, warning that enough Republicans could desert him and provide sufficient votes for an override.

Christie, too, has a good deal at stake as he continues to send increasingly strong signals that he intends to remain in the mix of potential presidential candidates. A rebuff delivered with the assistance of Republican votes would undermine his carefully crafted strong, decisive leader image at a time when he’s been damaged by serious declines in his public support.

Kean recognized his colleagues were desperately searching for a way out of the dilemma. And, he found it for them.

He borrowed liberally from the study commission report thereby lending a level of justification to Christie’s insistence that the commission recommendations were superior to the legislation he’d vetoed.

The commission’s central point called for abolishing the posts of executive director and deputy executive director in favor of the creation of a single chief executive. The dual positions -- filled by appointees by the governors of the two states -- produced internecine warfare within the authority, critics argued, while leading to an ambiguous chain of command and excessive political interference.

Kean’s legislation also enhances transparency at the agency by requiring regular financial reports to legislators from the two states and subjecting it to open public-records laws.

Sweeney and his fellow Democrats are reportedly reassessing the decision to schedule an override vote and, while they may be hesitant to throw their support to Kean’s proposal, it does represent significant progress toward exerting greater control over the authority.

If, for instance, Sweeney forges ahead and schedules action on an override, only to see it fail, how great would be the damage to him and his party to then follow it by supporting Kean’s legislation? Why not abandon an unnecessary and potentially embarrassing step and rake off a bit of the credit for pulling the Port Authority back into line in a demonstration of bipartisanship?

There are political considerations at play for Sweeney as well, given his increasing interest in seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2017.

Leading an effort to rein in the Port Authority would sit satisfactorily in Hudson County and, in particular, in Jersey City, whose mayor, Steve Fulop, could provide a significant challenge to the Senate President. Removing reforms at the Port Authority from the table of potential issues in two years would be a clear benefit to Sweeney.

By mapping a clear path out of their dilemma for his colleagues, Kean effectively ended the speculation over possible Republican defections and a defeat for the governor.

There exists a bit of irony here as well. It was, after all, in the immediate aftermath of the 2013 legislative elections that Christie joined a coup to overthrow Kean from his leadership position. It was an ill-advised move on his part and, to his chagrin, it flopped.

It seems that Kean, though, has a remarkable capacity for forgiveness.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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