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Opinion: Democrats Fumbled Chance to Enact Real Reforms at Port Authority

By refusing to accept Kean’s compromise deal, they lost any chance of overriding Christie veto

carl golden
Carl Golden

The Senate’s failure to override Gov. Christie’s veto of legislation to exert greater control over the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was touted as another victory for the governor, keeping his streak of successful vetoes intact, but it was an object lesson as well in the consequences of clinging stubbornly to a guaranteed to fail political strategy.

In the nearly two weeks leading up to the override effort, the Senate Democratic leadership knew it would fall short of the 27 votes necessary, yet decided to plow doggedly ahead while expressing guarded optimism that at least three Republicans would desert the governor and throw in with them.

A window of opportunity did, in fact, open in the immediate aftermath of Christie’s Christmas week veto, but when Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. drafted and introduced legislation which accommodated elements of the bill the governor rejected along with recommendations of a study commission, the window slammed shut --- right on Senate President Steve Sweeney’s fingers.

Kean outmaneuvered the Democrats and provided a credible fallback position for his Republican colleagues to oppose the override, support the governor, and make a case that they, too, understood the need to instill greater transparency and accountability in the Authority and were prepared – via Kean’s legislation --- to carry out their plan.

Democrats, though, insisted on a “my-way-or-the-highway” gamble and they lost. Bad strategy leads to bad outcomes.

Not only did the Democrats lose the override vote, their blunt refusal to consider Kean’s legislation portrayed them as petty, sore losers whose primary goal was to inflict political damage on the governor rather than address the genuine problems and issues plaguing the Authority.

A good deal of the rhetoric leading up to the vote fed the perception that political payback was the Democrats’ priority. Supporters of the override spoke of Republican hostility to the governor, a simmering anger, they hinted, that would manifest itself in defections from party discipline.

Republican were said to be annoyed at Christie for placing his national ambitions ahead of their concerns, grumbling that his demands for party unity to sustain his vetoes had worn thin and posed political risks for them. They were embarrassed by publicly reversing themselves to support vetoes of legislation most of them had supported initially.

Kean’s bill changed all that. It was a pressure-relief valve, an opportunity for Republicans to embrace a solution, characterize it as bipartisan, and place them squarely on the side of reform.

Democrats criticized Kean’s legislation as a weak and watered-down version of what is needed, arguing that it fails in several important respects to bring about significant and long lasting changes in Authority operations.

To be sure, the bill is a compromise --- Kean, in fact, never suggested otherwise --- but, he contends, it is a good faith effort to develop a plan which could be approved by legislatures here and in New York and be signed by the governors of both states.

He has conceded it excludes some of the provisions of the vetoed legislation, but at the same time incorporates a number of the recommendations offered by the study commission which deserve serious consideration.

Forging ahead with the override attempt knowing it would fail was ill-conceived, and the subsequent refusal to consider Kean’s legislation reinforced the argument that it was the politics not the issue that drove the Democrats’ decision.

Kean and the Republicans could stand for reasonable compromise while portraying Democrats as ferociously seeking partisan advantage. In effect, he invited Democrats to come to the table, negotiate their differences, and reach common ground, only to see his overtures tossed back at him in the interest of petty politics.

Democrats are in something of a box --- one which they constructed --- losing the override vote while denying the Senate an opportunity to discuss an alternative proposal.

Sen. Bob Gordon, who led the override attempt, laid out the Democratic position with his remark that he would continue the effort on behalf of the original legislation, adding that he would do so even if it took a new governor in office to achieve success.

Gordon, in other words, suggested he is willing to wait three years and allow the problems at the Authority to go unchallenged because he didn’t get his own way.

Democrats’ frustration is understandable --- they’ve now lost 50 override attempts and all efforts to crack Republican solidarity have been futile. Even more frustrating is that their hoped for political backlash against Republicans hasn’t developed in any meaningful way.

Certainly, the Port Authority issue is considerably higher profile than most of the previous Christie vetoes, made even more so by the ongoing federal investigation into the role played by Authority staffers in the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge and whether administration staff was complicit.

The failed override and the flat refusal to turn toward a compromise alternative potentially delay any action for the foreseeable future and will go down as a blunder which could have been avoided.

Having diagnosed the illness, it is not particularly helpful to prescribe death as the cure. Yet, that’s what the Democrats have done.

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

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