2011: The Year in Review in Politics

Pension and benefits reform, legislative power struggles, and the Big Guy himself -- Irene wasn't the only hurricane to hit New Jersey this year

While NJ Spotlight is on winter hiatus, we’ve asked some of the state’s thought leaders to share their opinions and expertise with our community. We’ll be back soon, rested and ready.

michael Aron
2011 was the year the Big Guy talked about taking on “Big Things,” the Democrats in Trenton tried to serve as his foil without ripping themselves apart, and the politically minded in New Jersey continued to be entertained by the fights, the foibles, the substance, and the personalities.

In January, New Jersey got a new congressman, Jon Runyan. It wasn’t the first time a giant ex-professional athlete went down to Washington, D.C., to represent us in Congress. I’m thinking of Bill Bradley, who went straight to the U.S. Senate in the election of 1978 and spent eighteen years there. One wonders whether Runyan will have that kind of staying power. Or that level of impact.

Three months later, John Adler, who lost his seat to Runyan, died of a heart infection acquired during emergency heart surgery. He was 51, and it was one of the saddest early passings the state’s political community had seen in many years. The funeral, in Cherry Hill, was a somber affair. Two qualities threaded through the many tributes and remembrances: John’s wit and his smarts. You couldn’t help but wonder whether the loss of the seat he appeared to love had taken a toll beyond the usual.

January was also the month that Gov. Chris Christie declared in his first State of the State Address that “the New Jersey comeback has begun.” He might as well have added, “Well, of course it has, now that I’m here.” What can be said of our high-octane governor that hasn’t been said already?

I’ve covered nine New Jersey governors, not counting John Bennett. This one is nimble, quick on his feet, quick with a quip, sharp-edged, and well-versed. He seems to devour material whether it comes from a briefing book, a discussion, or the many newspapers and broadcasts he appears to include in his daily fare. He is a showman and an agile politician. He can be eloquent, charming, funny. He can also be nasty, vindictive, stubborn.

2011 was the year that the rest of the United States discovered what those of us who cover him in New Jersey have gradually learned between 2001 and 2010: this guy is a piece of work!

The pension and benefits reform bill he pushed through and signed in June was the crowning New Jersey political achievement of the year. I say that because of its scope, the degree of difficulty, and the continuing fallout. Christie couldn’t have done it without Steve Sweeney and Sheila Oliver, the Senate president and Assembly speaker, both Democrats.

Sweeney was philosophically on board from the start. In fact, Sweeney could argue (and did) that he was the progenitor of pension reform going back to 2006. Oliver was a different story. She played footsie with the bill. Her members seemed to have deeper ties to the public employee unions than the senators do, and so she proceeded cautiously. She said she had real problems with the idea of ending collective bargaining over the terms of employee health benefits, so the governor and Sweeney agreed to let that sunset after four years –essentially giving the unions back that power in 2014 — and that roped her in.

What we don’t know is the degree to which the legislative leaders’ patrons — George Norcross in the case of Sweeney and the combo of Joe DiVincenzo and Steve Adubato Sr. in the case of Oliver — were influencing the process. An eleventh hour attempt to slip into the bill an in-state hospital provision that would have required public employees who live in New Jersey to seek their hospital treatment in state if they wanted maximum reimbursement appeared designed to bolster Cooper Medical Center in Camden even more than it’s been bolstered already by Norcross’s taking over as chairman of the board. But it died as soon as people grasped that getting to Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania or Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York might be a lot harder for New Jersey cops, firemen, teachers, and the rest.

2011 was the year that we openly started questioning whether the troika of Christie-Norcross-DiVincenzo was really running the state. And if so, whether that’s healthy. When it came out that Joe D was collecting a pension on top his salary for, in part, doing the same job, Christie’s tepid criticism underscored a penchant for selective outrage he has exhibited before.

Jay Webber stepped down as Republican state chairman in mid-winter. He was replaced by Sam Raia, who has yet to give an interview, as far as I can tell. Webber said he stepped down to focus on his law practice and the legislative reapportionment battle coming up in the spring. You had to wonder if someone in the governor’s camp successfully argued that Webber was getting too much attention as a mouthpiece for Christie or said something that displeased the governor. But in the absence of evidence, the rule of thumb is to take what a man says at face value.

At budget time, the governor shocked us all by red-lining out of the budget $139 million in municipal aid plus state aid to about twenty do-good programs, like New Jersey After 3, AIDS drug distribution, general assistance welfare, tuition grants for low-income college kids, and the Wynona Lipman Child Advocacy Center. As we were absorbing the news of the cuts, Christie left on a two-week Western swing that took him to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, among other places. It was part vacation, part political trip. The Sunday after he left, the Star-Ledger ran the infamous interview with Sweeney in which the Senate President fumed at the Governor and called him a “prick”. I’d never seen that word in 30 years of covering New Jersey politics. I’ve heard it in the Statehouse probably hundreds of times but had never seen it in print. And yet, the two men work together. That was a head-scratcher for a few weeks. Was Sweeney’s anger genuine? Was it fake, to appease the unions he had just alienated in the pension fight? It seemed real to me.

Then Christie came home from the West and undid many of the cuts that looked so callous and, in some cases, vindictive, leaving us to wonder whether his inner circle was telling him to get back here and put a little salve on a few wounds. Or maybe instinctively he knew to do that, and part of why it got so bad while he was away was that the front office couldn’t function fully without him.

Then Hurricane Irene came along, and we forgot all about budget cuts. Christie assumed the role of commander-in-chief. While we in the press corps tended to look at it cynically, as an opportunity for Christie to thump his chest and make people forget the December 2010 blizzard that found him at Disneyworld, the Governor just took command un-self-consciously and appeared to be totally in charge. He used the local media the way they should be used in an emergency. He erred on the side of safety. And he got it right tonally. I remember Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana during Katrina going on and on during a press conference in a way that appeared totally self-referential. Christie just said, “Get the hell off the beach.” You can’t quite call it a dress-rehearsal for being President, but there are parallels.

As his national profile kept rising in 2011, Christie did a few things that appeared designed to keep himself viable with the right wing of the Republican party, like pulling New Jersey out of RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and declining to join other states in a clean-air lawsuit. He heaped scorn on New Jersey judges, another popular posture for a Republican with national ambitions. And yet — after he took himself out of the presidential running — he sided with moderates and liberals on not honoring other states’ right-to-carry gun permits. That seemed like Christie channeling a core conviction.

I was travelling in China in September-October when the Christie for President boomlet exploded. I was in the airport in Xi’an, a little town of about twelve million, and it was surreal to see Chris Christie on a monitor there tuned to CNN. I couldn’t hear a thing but could tell from his body language what the English words at the bottom of the screen were blaring: “NOT RUNNING,” and I thought, good, I don’t have to rush home. I missed his speech at the Reagan Library, which sounded very presidential from the text on my Blackberry. I got home in time for the Romney endorsement and have been watching the Christie-Romney dance ever since. Christie makes a better case for Romney than Romney himself does. I think he wouldn’t mind being on the ticket.

November produced the legislative election. The Democrats spent $32 million, the Republicans spent $13 million, and one seat changed hands. It was a sleeper of an election, although the Whelan-Polistina and Gordon-Driscoll races provided some drama. Everyone blamed the new legislative map for robbing the electorate of choices and the press of races. Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers, who presided over the reapportionment and called it the most difficult task of his professional life, deserves a mention in any roundup of the year.

Far more interesting than the election was the Democratic leadership fight that broke out 10 days or so before the balloting. Majority Leader Joe Cryan tried to take out Speaker Oliver in the Assembly, and Majority Leader Barbara Buono got demoted in the Senate. It was yet another deal that seemed to have to the handprints of George Norcross and Adubato-DiVincenzo on it, as well as in this instance Sen. Nick Sacco.

When Sweeney and Oliver held a joint press conference to introduce their new leadership teams two days after the election, they promised a more combative approach toward Christie going forward. That prompted Jarrett Renshaw, a fairly new reporter at the Star-Ledger, to ask a very insightful question: “There are two people not in the room who helped put this new leadership team together. Given that those two people are sympathetic to the governor and often work well with him, how can the public believe that you’re gonna get tougher with him?” To which Sweeney gave the de rigeur answer, “Those people have less influence than you think.”

The year ends with us anticipating a good Congressional race next year in the newly combined 5th and 9th districts, a good U.S. Senate race if Joe Kyrillos decides to take on Bob Menendez, and still trying to sort out what happened between Christie and former Governor Dick Codey this month. I can’t remember a governor openly exacting revenge on a rival by taking away his state police driver and firing his buddies from key positions. But that’s what Christie did. The guy played hardball in high school literally and has been playing the political version for awhile.

On a Friday night Codey is on “NJ Today” saying Christie lied twice in two minutes: first, when he said Codey was holding up the nomination of acting education commissioner Chris Cerf; second, when he said he’d spoken to Codey about it. “I haven’t spoken to the man in a year,” Codey said of Christie. “Two lies in two minutes.” Monday morning Codey loses his driver , his cousin gets fired at the Port Authority, and a former top Codey aide loses his job at the Division of Consumer Affairs. This is cold politics. This is New Jersey. Bring on 2012!

Finally, 2011 was the year the TV news organization that took all this most seriously passed into memory. NJN, where I spent 29 years, is no more, replaced by NJTV, which is supporting itself without the direct support of the taxpaying public. I’m proud to have learned my craft and worked with so many good journalists at NJN. And I’m equally proud to be a part of the new operation and its smaller team of equally committed professionals. They’re finding New Jersey politics as compelling as we used to at the old shop, and I’m lucky to be still in the game.