New Jersey Environmental Federation Opts to Back Buono

It's a far cry from 2009, when NJEF endorsed Christie, a decision that shocked and dismayed green community

The New Jersey Environmental Federation yesterday had yet another Emily Littela moment, recalling the character on Saturday Night Live played by the late Gilda Radner, with her signature line: “Never mind.’’

Jumping into another gubernatorial election — this time without their former favorite, Republican incumbent Gov. Chris Christie — the state’s largest environmental organization endorsed the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) for election this fall.

The endorsement wasn’t a big surprise, but it marked a reversal of a decision on the federation’s part to back Christie when he first ran for governor, a move that surprised and angered various environmental organizations. Some argue that endorsing Christie has provided cover for the administration to roll back several of the state’s most stringent environmental regulations.

The federation has made some dramatic course corrections before. In 1997, it endorsed Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1st-NJ) in the Democratic gubernatorial primary over former Gov. Jim McGreevey, castigating the latter as a lobbyist for Ciba-Geigy, which created a federal Superfund toxic waste site in Toms River.

When McGreevey topped Andrews in the primary, the organization ignored its former accusations and endorsed the Democrat in his unsuccessful bid to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Christie Whitman. McGreevey won four years later.

Fast forward to 2009. Some of the biggest environmental organizations were deeply unhappy with incumbent Democrat Gov. Jon Corzine, believing he had failed to follow through on commitments to implement various policies, including developing a stable source of funding for open space preservation.

While the value of environmental endorsements appeared to be a lot less vital in an economy that is slumping, the issue divided many of the state’s green groups.

The New Jersey Sierra Club’s endorsement of independent Chris Daggett seemed to validate that conclusion, not helping Daggett much (although there were a lot of other issues with an independent candidacy) since he finished a distant third. (Full disclosure: this reporter was press secretary for the Daggett campaign).

Meanwhile, in a surprise move, the federation endorsed the Republican Christie, a decision that dismayed some of their colleagues in the environmental movement, even to this day. In explaining the endorsement, David Pringle said Christie had committed to adopting six key issues identified by the organization with the Republican nominee. The incumbent governor declined to be interviewed by the group for a possible endorsement, Pringle said,

Certainly the most vocal critic of the federation’s endorsement has been Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club, and the most outspoken foe of the Christie administration’s environmental policies. In a press release, he welcomed the federation’s repudiation of the Republican governor.

“The Sierra Club has not made an endorsement yet and we think it good to see NJEF trying to atone for their endorsement of Gov. Christie in 2009 and for the support they provided his administration in his first year and a half in office. When they endorsed Christie in 2009,we thought it was a leap of faith off the cliff,’’ he said.

In its endorsement of Buono, the federation argued that the legislator is without any doubt the environmental candidate in this race for governor.

Citing the cuts in clean energy programs — another $10 million in the past week by the administration — Pringle said the “sad truth is the governor cannot be trusted on the environment or to bring on an economic recovery.’’

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor has a strong and undeniable record of taking action to protect New Jersey’s environment.