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Can ‘Absentee’ Governor Deliver State of State Speech Targeted at NJ?

Christie camp says governor has been ‘home’ enough to stave off tax-hike efforts. Foes predict address pitched at national audience

christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Mykwain Berry
Gov. Chris Christie

The annual State of the State address has traditionally been a time for New Jersey policymakers to step back and take stock, and for the governor to lay out goals for the coming year, including any new major policy initiatives.

But this year’s speech, scheduled for 3 p.m. tomorrow, comes amid circumstances that are anything but traditional. Gov. Chris Christie’s top priority for months has been capturing the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination. By his office’s own count Christie spent more than half of the past year campaigning out-of-state, while also billing New Jersey taxpayers for his security details.

That’s left many back in the State House to question just how in tune he still is with the state of affairs in New Jersey, and just how much residents here want to hear from a governor whose approval rating has now sunk to a record low.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said she always looks forward to the annual address, with its pomp and circumstance, no matter which political party holds the governor’s office at the time. But not this year, Weinberg said.

“It is deeply disturbing. I think that is the best phrase I can use, that we’re going to be subjected to whatever he thinks will appeal to the national audience,” she said.

But to the governor’s many defenders, the speech comes at a good time to remind New Jersey residents that the second-term Republican, though now hoping to be a candidate for national office, has been in the state frequently enough over the past year to veto efforts by Democrats to increase taxes.

“Thank God for Chris Christie,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union). “Fortunately, we have balanced government.”

Last year, Christie delivered a State of the State address that recapped the perceived accomplishments of his tenure, which began in early 2010. They included putting a cap on local property-tax increases, instituting a series of business-tax cuts, and taking on a state budget that was crippled by the last recession.

But the speech came across as an address largely written for a national audience. That impression was reinforced by Christie’s decision to hold an off-the-record meeting beforehand with only reporters from national news outlets, meaning most State House press were locked out.

So is this year’s address, coming only weeks before presidential primary voters will go to the polls for the first time in Iowa and New Hampshire, lining up to be another pitch to a national audience?

For hints, Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, pointed to a keynote address Christie gave last month at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association’s annual policy conference. The speech had a strong partisan tone, with Christie directly admonishing business leaders who play “kissy face” with Democrats.

“I think we’re going to hear the same thing, which is a rabidly partisan attack on the Democrats,” Murray said. “This guy is running for president and he’s not worried about the state of New Jersey.”

But at the same time, Murray said, Christie will also likely try to portray New Jersey as being in a better place now thanks to his efforts as governor.

“Because he’s been able to keep these Democratic wrongdoers at bay,” Murray added.

Such a message would sync well with a narrative that Christie has been trying to stress as a presidential candidate, said Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. Christie has been portraying himself as a conservative “bulwark,” fighting the good fight against “the crazy Democrats” that control both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.

Hale said he also expects Christie will try to put the best face possible on the current conditions in New Jersey. For example, the state’s unemployment rate still trails the national average, but Christie is likely to focus on the addition of more than 50,000 jobs in New Jersey last year.

“Gov. Christie is quite skilled at looking at a glass that’s half empty and saying he’s got more than he can drink,” Hale said.

But Weinberg, the longtime state senator, said there are simply too many unresolved problems -- from a state transportation fund that’s going broke to the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system to high property taxes -- for Christie to come back into New Jersey and try to tell lawmakers and residents that everything looks great.

In fact, it’s been the Democrats who have largely tried to take on the leadership role in the State House over the past several months, attempting to set an agenda focused on reinvestment, transportation, and improving the state economy.

“I think there are a lot of places where we have attempted to focus on issues that might not be important to the residents of New Hampshire and Iowa, but are definitely important to the residents of New Jersey,” Weinberg said. “But the bottom line is there are a lot of things we can’t do without a governor who is in New Jersey.”

For its part, Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the upcoming address or how things look in general in New Jersey right now. Offered the same opportunity, John Currie, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, didn’t hold back.

“We are vulnerable, and our prospects are weaker than ever before,” Currie said. “That is the direct consequence of our failed, absentee governor's policies."

“He has degraded the economy, allowed our transportation infrastructure to crumble, and used taxpayer resources like his personal, political toys, not tools to advance the public good,” Currie said. “It is quite telling that so many New Jerseyans want him to resign, and I sincerely hope that next month he suffers the humiliating electoral defeats that someone with such a shameful record of neglect so clearly deserves."

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