Zzzzzz. As the Christie Campaign Heats Up, the Christie Statehouse Sleeps

Matt Katz | June 23, 2015 | Katz on Christie

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was reelected with an overwhelming majority in 2013, he stood before an adoring crowd at Asbury Park Convention Hall to declare victory.

“Tonight I know that my mom is looking down on New Jersey and saying to me — I can feel it – she’s saying to me, ‘Chris, the job’s not done yet. Get back to work and finish the job for the people of New Jersey,'” Christie told the crowd. “That’s exactly what I’ll do! I love you, New Jersey!”

So has Christie done that?

A year-and-a-half into his second term, as he prepares to announce his desire to get another job — president of the United States — I took a look at whether Christie has gotten back to work in New Jersey, as promised. What I found is that there’s a whole lot less going on than there was in his first four years.

No more “Big Things”:

In his first term, Christie set an ambitious agenda, which he dubbed “the big things.”

“Every day that goes by that we don’t do the big things is a day we’ve given away,” he said. 

At the beginning of his second term last year Christie signed a significant, bipartisan bail reform measure into law. Since that time, major policy proposals have not come anywhere close to fruition.

His top priority this year was fixing the public worker pension system, which is so broke that it is tanking New Jersey’s credit ratings, but initial talks with Democrats and public worker unions broke down in February. There are currently no discussions underway and there is little expectation of compromise any time soon. His adversaries say his proposal is a non-starter.

The solvency of the roadway repair budget, known as the Transportation Trust Fund, was likewise expected to be addressed this year. Christie’s Transportation Commissioner had even highlighted the lack of money by closing bridges on the verge of collapse. And yet Democrats say there are no conversations with the Republican governor about how to find more revenue for this fund.

Also on the transportation front, there is apparently no movement to construct a badly-needed tunnel into New York City after the governor canceled the ARC tunnel project in his first term.

Christie’s biggest announcement this year — pulling New Jersey out of the national Common Core education standards — has no immediate effect. The move won’t end the controversial standardized tests tied to the standards, and curriculum changes won’t happen until after a commission makes recommendations at the end of the year. This is the second commission Christie has convened to study the issue. 

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts says the perception of a slowdown in governance is just the way things go in a second term.

“A lot of the way you change the tide of government and the initiatives you’re putting out there really come from the first term,” he said. “So as somebody who has been in office for 5 ½ years, you’re really talking about initiatives that are years old. And at this point in time for governing what you really want to be doing is making sure that those are successful initiatives and see them through to fruition.”

Bipartisanship dies:

In his first term, Christie had long steak dinners and texted regularly with Steve Sweeney, the Democratic president of the state Senate. That led to several compromises on major issues, like a property tax cap, teacher tenure reform and funding for college construction. “It is in stark contrast to what we’re seeing right in the nation’s capital where not only won’t people work together, they won’t even talk to each other,” Christie said in October 2013. “And ya know, that doesn’t happen here.”

Well, now it does.

“It’s become more difficult because we really don’t sit down like we did in the first couple of years, multiple times in a week, look each other in the eye to try to sit down and get things done,” said Sweeney.

How often do they talk?

“It’s rare,” Sweeney said.

When was the last time they sat down face-to-face?

“I can’t tell you the last time I met with him. We’ve spoken a few times, not often, this year,” he said.

Christie said last month on his call-in radio show that even when he is out of state, he’s doing his job. “It’s not like the old days where you had to get the Pony Express to get a note to this governor to know what’s going on,” he said. “I carry this cell phone around with me like we all do now. I’m never out of touch. I’m never off duty.”

This may be a two-way street. Sweeney is considering a run for the Democratic nomination for governor, and so he has less of an incentive to cozy up to the Republican governor than he once did. But Sweeney said he wants to reach compromises on pressing issues — and to do that, they need to see each other more than they do.

“Look, we’re in a modern age, there’s telephones, there’s FaceTime,” Sweeney said. “There’s all kinds of things you can do, but nothing beats sitting down and having a lengthy discussion, especially when you disagree on issues, to try to find an agreement.”

Historically high government vacancies:

The lack of contact between the state’s top Republican and Democrat may be partially to blame for vacancies throughout state government in positions that require gubernatorial nomination and Senate confirmation. Acting Attorney General John Hoffman has been there two years without being officially nominated by Christie — the longest temporary appointee for the top law enforcement job in state history.

There are about 50 judgeships that have yet to be filled, compared to the typical vacancy rate of 30, which has created massive case back-logs. Most significantly, there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court that might not be filled until Christie leaves office. Christie acknowledged that having an unappointed appellate court judge temporarily in that seat is a problem.

“You have someone serving there, on the Supreme Court, who has no business serving there,” he said last month.

218 days out of town in his second term: 

Christie has been out of state for all or part of 218 days since he was sworn in to a second term 518 days ago. Almost all of that travel has helped him lay the groundwork to run for president.

Relocated town hall meetings: 

In March, Christie promised to do a town hall meeting in New Jersey every week until the budget passed. But in the last five weeks, Christie has held zero town halls in New Jersey and six elsewhere around the country — all in states that go to the polls early in the Republican presidential primaries. Back in New Jersey, the budget has yet to pass.

“Shadow government” back in the shadows:

Exercising veto power over the minutes of local agencies and authorities was a hallmark of Christie’s term. He said he was tackling the costs associated with New Jersey’s “shadow government.”

But those vetoes have largely stopped, which Christie officials attribute to the fact that the governor successfully fixed these agencies in his first term. Yet there are signs that the job isn’t done. Despite cleaning house at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission in 2011 — he forced out six of seven commissioners — the leadership was not replaced. Only two of seven commissioner seats are currently filled. (Christie finally made four nominations last week.)

Likewise, Christie went to the Delaware River Port Authority’s headquarters in 2010 to decry the failure of that agency’s fiscal stewardship. And yet even as the agency continues to be beset by controversy, he has not replaced the DRPA’s commissioners. All of their terms are expired, and they are all Democratic holdovers from the Corzine Administration. 

Bridgegate changed little at Port Authority: 

Christie, along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, announced during Christmas week last year that they were vetoing post-Bridgegate reforms for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — despite the fact that the reform measures had unanimously passed both states’ legislatures. At the time, they said they wanted more reform than the bill offered. A watered-down reform measure is now moving through the New York Legislature but appears unlikely to get the necessary approval in New Jersey any time soon. It has been 17 months since Bridgegate broke, and although there have been some improvements in transparency at the agency its problematic governmental structure has remained the same. 

Fewer and fewer press conferences:

Christie’s press conferences in the state have fallen off considerably, as have the volume of press releases put out by his office. He’s only held two press conferences in New Jersey this year to answer questions about local issues. He had held eight at this point in the year in 2011.