Guest Opinion: Dems’ Response to Christie Olive Branch

Despite his fighting style and "Jersey attitude," the governor's speech was conciliatory on many levels

Nationally, a lot of people are talking about the tone of our political discourse these days. How tough is too tough? How nasty is too nasty? Where is the line between a spirited, partisan debate and one that creates a hostile and dangerous environment where God knows what could happen or who could get hurt.

Closer to home, most political observers are obsessed with Governor Chris Christie’s style or, as he likes to call it, “a little Jersey attitude.” There have been so many adjectives used to describe Christie’s public communication that has made him a YouTube sensation. In his recent State of the State speech, he said; “Some might even say that I have been too ready for a fight — that my approach has been too tough and too combative. That’s for a reason. It is because the fight is important. It is vital. The reality is I’ll fight when it matters.”

Yet, in fact, the governor’s State of the State speech was conciliatory on many levels. He gave lots of credit to the Democrats and both houses of the Legislature, but particularly Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver for their cooperation. He opted not to gush about the GOP.

For the past year, clearly the governor has been at war, not just with the public employee unions, but with certain Democrats in the Legislature who he feels have thwarted or blocked his agenda to turn the Statehouse upside down. But my sense is that while Chris Christie is just as committed to his agenda as the day he took office, he is aware that it is his accomplishments, and not just his YouTube moments, that are going to matter most.

He’s evolving. To that end, finding a way to reach across the aisle and work more effectively with Democrats is something that will be an even higher priority for him in 2011. But I’m not convinced the Democrats are prepared to be so cooperative. According to Steve Sweeney; “But we didn’t run for governor and promise we weren’t cutting rebates. We didn’t run for governor and promise not to raise taxes.”

And as for the governor saying he has not raised taxes, Sweeney offered this; “It’s a bait and switch and that’s what the governor has done all along here.” This was Sweeney and the Democrats way of saying the governor has cut funding to municipalities who have been forced to raise property taxes.

Sweeney was just one of many Democrats who were highly critical of the governor’s State of the State address. Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) said; “The Governor crowed that ‘the state of our state is getting better every day.’ But many working families woke up today to a situation not unlike the one they woke up to one year ago. Their property tax bills are still too high. They fear that they won’t be able to afford their child’s education. And they still don’t know what they’ll do if they lose their job, if they still have one.”

Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) said; “Between the Race to the Top and charter school grant funding debacles, the firing of education commissioner Bret Schundler, the failure to fill the position of secretary of higher education…” You get the idea.

Lots of Dems are on the attack. My sense is that many Democrats in the Legislature are tired of getting their heads handed to them by Governor Chris Christie and have decided they now want to be more combative. They want to punch harder and potentially below and after the belt. I get it. They are frustrated. But there is a catch. It is easy to point out the mistakes that have been made by any governor, be it Chris Christie or Jon Corzine. I still don’t agree with Governor Christie’s position on the so-called “Millionaire’s Tax” and I’m not convinced he was right to scale back the earned income tax credit. But here’s the rub for the Dems. When you make so many tough decisions as a chief executive in an effort to, as the governor says, turn “Trenton upside down”, stuff is going to happen. If the Democrat’s strategy is to vilify Chris Christie, and to say New Jersey is worse off since he took office, they are going to find that most voters aren’t going to be very responsive to such a message.

Something drastic was and is necessary to get state government back on track and our spending somewhat under control. We are still $11 billion in the hole right now, and no finger pointing or blaming is going to close that budget gap. A $3 billion pension payment is due. If I were a Democrat (which I was in the mid 1980s serving in the Statehouse) and I sensed that the governor was willing to be more conciliatory (if no less committed to his agenda) I would seize on that opportunity to try to find a way to make some real progress on long standing problems.

In the end, the vast majority of voters aren’t playing the inside-the-Statehouse, “who’s to blame”, game. They are just hoping and praying that our leaders in Trenton could put their petty, partisan, next-election obsessed, bickering aside and have their lofty rhetoric finally match the reality of their actions. For a variety of reasons, the Governor has extended an olive branch — toned it down just a bit. The Dems could be smart and meet him half way or roll the dice and break the olive branch in two (and bash him in the head with it) because they think he’s vulnerable. That would be a mistake — not just politically but more importantly because it won’t help solve any of New Jersey’s serious and worsening problems when it comes to the budget, education or our economy. We deserve better from our “leaders” in Trenton on both sides of the aisle and in every “branch” of government.

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