By now it is clear that Gov. Chris Christie’s unannounced campaign for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination is in serious trouble. Christie’s angry outbursts are no longer winning rave reviews. Rather than showing leadership they suggest immaturity and lack of self-control. His appetite for free travel and five-star hotels paid for by CEOs or a Middle Eastern king is attracting unwanted attention. A federal grand jury continues to probe Bridgegate.
And sooner or later Christie’s track record as governor of New Jersey will receive close scrutiny from fellow candidates and the national media. Which brings us to the subject of this column, an evaluation of the governor’s five-plus years in office:
Rating the Christie years entails a comparison with his predecessors. And for all its bad press, the state has a rich history of modern governors who achieved much, bestowing legacies of lasting benefit on future generations.
What about Christie?
Who remembers Gov. Bill Cahill (1970-1974), the pugnacious Republican from Camden County who in 1972 pushed for an income tax to alleviate the regressive property tax? He also founded the state Department of Environmental Protection to start cleaning up the mess brought about by the myth that pollution is the price of progress.
Cahill was followed by Democrat Brendan Byrne (1974-1982). His achievements are many and varied. He ushered New Jersey into the upper ranks of the nation’s most progressive states. Against all odds, he bequeathed an income tax dedicated to funding public schools, created New Jersey Transit out of the dregs of bankrupt bus and rail systems, and engineered the Pinelands Protection Act, among other notable accomplishments.
Then came eight years of Republican Tom Kean (1982-1990), arguably the most popular governor in history. Faced with a severe budget shortfall, he rejected his party’s supply-side tax fantasies, and increased the income and gas taxes — which helped fuel surging economic growth in the 1980s. He also gave us the Freshwater Wetlands Act, breaking with the common wisdom that “swamps” are wastelands to be filled not preserved.
From there it gets kind of iffy. Democrat Jim Florio (1990-1984) raised taxes to fund “thorough and efficient” education in urban school districts, for which he was tarred and feathered by the media before narrowly losing to Republican Christie Whitman (1994-2001). The governor resigned in 2001 to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in George W. Bush’s first term, where she was promptly marginalized and soon resigned that job as well.
Finally, after a series of short-termer0s and fill-ins — Republican Donald DiFrancesco (2001-2002), Democrat Jim McGreevy (2002-2004), Democrat Richard Codey (2004-2006) — and one unimpressive term by Democrat Jon Corzine (2006 – 2010) we come to the Christie Era. How does it stack up against those who preceded him?
Short answer: Not well. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that his is a failed or failing governorship. Just look at the wreckage that may take decades to clear up.
Let’s start with his signal achievement, pushing through bipartisan legislation to “reform” pensions for public employees. After persuading Democratic leaders reluctantly to go along with cuts in benefits on the promise that future state budgets would make their mandated contributions to the pension fund, he reneged, tarnishing his “bipartisan credentials” as well as his credibility as a leader whose word you could trust.
How about his media savvy personal involvement in the superstorm Sandy aftermath? After all the hugs for victims of the hurricane that shattered the coast, the Christie administration is falling short on promises to funnel aid promptly to homeowners forced to flee and take up lodging in motels and relatives’ spare bedrooms. Low-income residents have fared the worst, with a large percentage of their applications wrongfully rejected.
Meanwhile, in his recent State of the State address, Christie puffed for the national press but did not even mention his Sandy credentials, which took center stage during his crushing defeat of Sen. Barbara Buono.
How about the economy? New Jersey has failed to recover from the Great Recession of 2009, even as neighboring states — New York and Pennsylvania — have bounced back, creating more private-sector jobs than were lost. Not New Jersey. which remain stuck in neutral.
Consider the state budget: Christie takes credit for balancing the budget five straight years, never mind that he is constitutionally obligated to do so. All done without raising any taxes, supposedly. But he has raided every dedicated trust fund under state control, such as the $1 billion taken from the Clean Energy Trust Fund. At the same time the Transportation Trust Fund, which finances road and bridge repairs, has dried up.
Will he veto a modest rise in the gas tax to pay for repairing the state’s decrepit infrastructure? Or will he stick to his “no new taxes” promise, which he invoked while twice vetoing an increase in the state income tax charged to wealthiest residents?
With all this negativity, it is not surprising that Wall Street has taken a decidedly dim view of the state on Christie’s watch. New Jersey used to enjoy AAA bond ratings, now reduced six times in the Christie years to junk-bond status. Only Illinois has a lower bond rating.
How about the governor’s management credentials? No better there. His style is highly centralized in his corner office, where virtually every policy judgment must pass a political litmus test. How then to explain his lack of curiosity when it came to the Port Authority lane shutdown? His defense, that he didn’t know what was going on among some of his closest advisors, at best raises unpleasant questions. Why didn’t he know what his handpicked staff was doing on his behalf?
The environmental track record of the Christie Years has not been good. According to most reviewers, DEP regulation has been gutted. Renewable Energy programs are faltering. One of his first actions in office was to pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and now the DEP is leading the charge against the Obama administration’s proposed controls on carbon dioxide emissions, a key cause of global climate change and sea-level rise.
And then there is Atlantic City, where four of 12 casinos have closed their doors, and the city looks like it is about to follow Detroit into municipal bankruptcy. To be sure, Christie cannot be blamed for everything bad happening on his watch. Also, there are some notable positives. For example: the governor has broken with the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” crowd and is promoting alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. Drug addicts’ lives, he has reminded us, matter.
How does the Christie record compare to his predecessors’? Poorly at best. With the collapse of his “pension reform bargain” — cutting benefits in exchange for fully funding the deficit — he has lost much of his bipartisanship “cred.” And with little to show for his superstorm Sandy performance, he has forgone that laurel as well. In short, Christie supporters will be hard-pressed to point to a single lasting achievement on his watch, as contrasted with such governors as Byrne and Kean.
So why is he failing, despite his obvious political skills? All the evidence points toward one overwhelming factor: The central organizing principle of the Christie administration has been his self-promotion in the Republican Party, fed by his single-minded presidential ambitions. To achieve that goal has meant ignoring the state’s best interests in order to curry favor with GOP decision-makers, dominated by Tea Party activists who don’t care about New Jersey.