Analyzing and Appraising Gov. Chris Christie’s Career

Colleen O'Dea | March 16, 2015 | Politics
NJ Spotlight releases a collection of editorial coverage, data and documents, and tools that let you explore every phase of the governor’s career

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie
Like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and so many others, it’s not a question of if Gov. Chris Christie will declare his presidential intentions but when.

There’s no need to wait on the governor, however. NJ Spotlight has developed a new resource to keep you informed about everything Christie: The Christie Page collects the best of our coverage, along with interactive maps of campaign contributions and spending; Background Check: The Christie Docs pulls together more than 1,000 documents about his life and career; and the Timeline highlights some of the most memorable moments in the governor’s history.

Christie has been on the campaign trail since winning his second term in November 2013. In some ways, he has been running for president since he took office in Trenton five years ago. His political aspirations go back much further, to his presidency of the student council at Livingston High School and later University of Delaware student government.

While mostly a climb, Christie’s rise has had some rollercoaster drops, as well. In his first post-school political foray, Christie was knocked off the ballot in 1993 by the incumbent Republican state senator when he didn’t have enough signatures on his nominating petition. The following year, he and his running mate unseated incumbents and won seats on the Morris County freeholder board. The year after than, he tried to move up to the Assembly, but finished fourth out of a field of six, with most of the party faithful resenting him for not having paid his dues. In 1997, having alienated a number of GOP stalwarts, he lost his seat on the freeholder board in a primary — in fact, finishing last.

Christie continued his work as a lawyer and did some lobbying as well. He went on to raise money for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, and Bush named him U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Christie held that position from 2002 through 2008 and, at the end of his tenure, issued a glowing report of all the political corruption he uncovered and public officials he brought to justice.

“On January 17, 2002, a new era began at the United States Attorney’s Office in New Jersey,” began the report, written by Michael Drewniak, who was Christie’s press officer there and, until recently, in the governor’s office. In outlining his priorities fighting terrorism, political corruption, gang violence, and human trafficking, the report states, “U.S. Attorney Christie decided to do something that had never been done before in this office — to consider a wholesale reorganization of the office’s operations in an attempt to increase efficiency, effectiveness, communication, and productivity.”

Soon after leaving the U.S. Attorney’s office, Christie launched his 2009 gubernatorial campaign. Jon Corzine was the Democratic incumbent, and New Jersey was in the midst of the recession. Running as the anti-Corzine, Christie got less than half the votes in a field that included a dozen candidates, but he still bested the incumbent by about 87,000 votes.

“In gubernatorial elections, the state is decidedly more purple than blue,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Christie clearly tried to make the election a referendum on Jon Corzine and that was very successful.”

After his election, Christie gained popularity in the state for his straight talking, “Jersey” attitude. He won early victories with Democratic majorities in both houses, enacting major changes in public-employee pensions and health benefits that included a loss of cost-of-living increases and higher worker payments. His media team posted videos of his “Town Hall” meetings, which are run like campaign events, on YouTube and he got even greater exposure when he called out members of the audience; he criticized a teacher for acting disrespectfully and described an ex-Navy Seal law student as an idiot.

On October 29, 2012, superstorm Sandy punched New Jersey, killing 10, leaving millions without power, and causing around $30 billion in damage. Sporting a Navy fleece, Christie seemed to be everywhere, including an appearance with President Barack Obama on the eve of the election that annoyed some Republicans. His approval ratings soared, peaking at 70 percent in early 2013.

That year, he won reelection with a comfortable 60 percent of the vote and assumed the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. As head of the RGA, he would spend a third of the next year out of state, raising money and campaigning for other Republicans, as well as raising his own profile.

But as he was riding high, word came that governor’s office staff was involved in what appeared to be a politically motivated closure of the George Washington Bridge approach lanes, snarling traffic in Fort Lee for days.

The past year has been a difficult one at home, with Christie’s approval ratings plummeting to 35 percent, with just more than half of registered voters disapproving, according to an early March Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll. Taken shortly after his most recent budget address, it’s the lowest rating he has received in that poll. A January poll found only one in five New Jerseyans feel Christie’s tenure has helped the state and three-quarters think the governor has accomplished little or nothing over the past five years.

“Many in the state don’t believe the economic conditions have improved while Governor Christie has been in office,” said Krista Jenkins, an FDU political science professor and director of the PublicMind poll. “As Governor Christie has worked to establish himself as a leader on fiscal restraint, tax reform, and economic growth, as well as creating a political environment that’s open and honest, these numbers might sting … clearly his administration has been ineffective in marketing his accomplishments to the public.”

That has not stopped his presumptive presidential campaigning. So far this year, Christie has spent even more time out of state than he did as head of the RGA — 32 out of 72 days, or 44 percent of the time.

Probably his greatest accomplishment in New Jersey, the pension and health-benefit reform he enacted four years ago, has lost its luster; Christie has gone back on the deal he made with the unions and is not making the full pension payments he promised. The administration argued, and lost, in court that it could not be held to that payment schedule. Christie now says the system is unsustainable and wants further cuts: freeze the current system, create a new and less generous 401(k)-style plan for new workers, and reduce health-benefit coverage.

He has had a number of other major accomplishments, including changing the bail system; reforming teacher-tenure rules; tightening and lowering the cap on property-tax increases; capping school superintendent pay; increasing business subsidies; granting lower in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants; expanding drug courts in lieu of incarceration; and increasing the use of Narcan by first responders for heroin overdoses.

Christie is probably the most conservative governor in New Jersey in at least the past 50 years and many high-profile actions reflect that. He vetoed bills that would have had the state run its own health exchange under the Affordable Care Act, put further limits on guns and automatic magazines, and declined to ban fracking. He also vetoed a minimum-wage increase and the legalization of gay marriage, both of which New Jersey now has for other reasons — voters approved an annual minimum wage inflationary adjustment and the courts gave the green light to gay marriage.

As Christie’s presidential aspirations continue to draw attention, Democrats in the Legislature have thrown him some bills seemingly intended to highlight some of his views in light of his national aspirations. For instance, they sent Christie — and he vetoed — a bill that would have banned the use of confining pig-gestation crates, which the governor said are not in use in New Jersey, but which pig farmers do use in Iowa, the state with the first presidential caucus. He also vetoed a package of bills that would have required the state and its contractors to use products made in the U.S.A whenever they are available, which Christie said would “drive up the price of doing business and threaten job creation.”

New Jersey’s recovery from the recession has lagged that of its neighbors and the rest of the nation. As of December 2014, the unemployment rate in the state was 6.2 percent, compared with a national average of 5.5 percent. Some have criticized the administration’s generous tax-subsidies program for spending a lot of money without creating many new jobs — in some cases, companies have received as much as $100 million to move from one New Jersey municipality to another, and Revel Casino got $261 million, only to close three years later.