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Opinion: Delay Cost Assembly Democrats Chance to Override Christie Veto

Failed override gave Christie another opportunity to tout his leadership. A second attempt will only yield more of same

carl golden
Carl Golden

Timing, as any successful comedian will attest, is everything. Had Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto paid heed to that truism, the first override of a Gov. Chris Christie veto may well have succeeded.

With 54 votes necessary to follow the Senate’s lead and end Christie’s shutout streak of veto-sustaining votes, Assembly Democrats could muster only 51, including four Republicans who broke ranks and supported the override attempt.

At issue was legislation approved unanimously in June to require law enforcement agencies to be notified if an individual with a history of mental-health issues or hospitalization sought to expunge that record in order to qualify for a firearms-purchase permit. While its reach was limited, the legislation was widely seen as a straightforward, uncontroversial effort to help keep weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable people.

In what was quickly panned as the governor’s pandering to gun-rights groups whose support he is actively seeking in his campaign for the presidential nomination, Christie conditionally vetoed the bill and called instead for an extensive overhaul of the system used to identify and treat individuals suffering from mental-health difficulties.

The Senate overrode the veto in October, but Prieto, rather than seizing the moment, taking advantage of the intense media focus and building on the momentum produced by the Senate vote, chose to delay Assembly action until December 3.

Not only did the delay rob the momentum, but also it gave the administration and Republican legislative leaders more than a month to marshal their forces and exert pressure on their colleagues to stand with Christie.

The math was clear to all: Democrats needed six Republicans to desert the governor (a number which later rose to seven when a Democratic Assemblyman resigned on the day before the vote).

Put another way, Republican leaders could withstand as many as six defections -- 18 percent of their total membership -- and still emerge as winners. They were, in effect, playing with house money, willing to lose most of it but walking away from the table ahead of the game.

Minority Leader Jon Bramnick rationalized his membership’s change of heart by reading Christie’s conditional veto message and urging Democrats to consider it rather than persist in what he characterized as an attempt to embarrass the governor politically by overriding it.

It’s a tactic the minority has utilized in the past, offering what appears to be a credible and viable alternative to the vetoed legislation while making the case that Democrats were more interested in scoring cheap political points than in resolving the issue.

In this instance, it provided a fig leaf broad enough to cover the 26 Republicans who either switched positions on the bill or abstained on the override vote.

Prieto, explaining his rationale for putting off an Assembly vote, expressed a belief that Democrats would be in a stronger position after the November 3 election because Republican losses (there were four) would be attributed to rising voter discontent with Christie.

The losses, Prieto believed, would be a sufficient warning to Assembly Republicans that continuing to blindly follow Christie would hurt them with voters.

The strategy was intrinsically flawed, based as it was on an assumption that the broader potential for longer-term damage to Republicans would offset the pressure a governor -- particularly this governor -- could bring to bear on wavering members of his party who were seriously considering supporting the override attempt.

Party loyalty is an exceptionally strong instinct and appeals to it more often than not succeed. With Christie touting his credentials as a solid supporter of gun-ownership rights and blaming Democrats for attempting to undermine those rights, a direct pitch to Republican legislators to stand with him was bound to be effective.

Prieto has pledged to bring the override to the floor again on December 17, but it is doubtful that the outcome will be any different. Expecting at least seven Republicans to change their votes for a second time is foolish. Bad strategy always produces bad results.

The current legislative session is drawing to a close and, with another failed override attempt, the governor’s veto will survive an override for the fifty-third time in his six years in office. He’ll continue to boast of his prowess in maintaining party discipline and fighting Democrats to a standstill despite their numerical advantage.

While overturning the governor’s veto may have been a heavy lift in the first place for Assembly Democrats, the possibility clearly existed. The defection of three Republican senators who supported the override drew outsized attention because it was the first time Christie suffered such a defeat and speculation grew that some Republicans at least were willing to distance themselves from him.

The long delay in Assembly action, though, dissipated the momentum and afforded the administration and its legislative allies more than enough breathing room to mount a successful counterattack.

A second override attempt in another 10 days or so will be anticlimactic, the outcome not really in doubt and one which will give Christie a second opportunity to tout his leadership qualities.

Timing is, indeed, everything. Democrats had a shot at dealing Christie a high-profile defeat, but Prieto misfired. Two lousy puns, perhaps, given the substance of the matter, but on point nonetheless.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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