Facing low voter approval in New Jersey and still struggling to pick up steam as a presidential candidate, Gov. Chris Christie was dealt a new blow yesterday by the state Senate, which became the first legislative chamber to successfully vote to override a Christie veto since he took office in early 2010.
It remains to be seen whether the late-afternoon vote on a bill to change rules for those who’ve been committed to a mental-health institution but now want to buy a gun is a sign of new weakness at home for Christie, a second-term Republican and 2016 GOP presidential hopeful.
More than 50 prior attempts to override the governor had failed before yesterday, and to be successful this one will still have to prevail in the state Assembly.
But the shattering of Christie’s perfect record comes just weeks after he bragged on a cable TV show that he knows “how to keep my Republican caucus together.” And a key vote to override Christie yesterday came from a one-time close ally, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth).
The override also comes after only 35 percent of New Jersey voters said they have a positive opinion of Christie in a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released last week. That survey also found just 32 percent believe the state is headed in the right direction.
And Christie garnered just 1 percent support nationally among Republican voters, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this week.
‘It wasn’t about politics’
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) brushed aside political questions in the wake of the override vote yesterday, one that came after Sweeney took the rare step of putting the Senate “under call,” a procedural move that requires all of those present to cast votes.
“This bill was important to protect people. It wasn’t about politics,” Sweeney said.
Democrats control both houses of the New Jersey Legislature, but they do not hold veto-proof majorities, so the vote yesterday required three Republicans to buck their governor. Those votes were cast by Kyrillos, and Sens. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset) and Christopher Connors (R-Ocean).
“To my Republican colleagues, I give them a lot of credit,” Sweeney said.
The legislation that Christie originally rejected seeks to update a New Jersey law enacted in 2013 that requires the state to provide mental-health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The background-check system is used by firearms dealers to verify whether someone is eligible to buy a gun.
A previous commitment to a mental-health institution can be grounds to find someone ineligible to purchase a gun. But New Jersey’s judges can also remove or “expunge” the record of a mental-health commitment from the background-check system if a person is later deemed to be “unlikely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.”
The measure came out of a state Judiciary recommendation to link judges with police departments, who typically know more about a person’s more recent criminal history and whether they have any pending charges.
Sponsored by Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester), the bill would trigger automatic notification of law enforcement when someone is seeking to have their mental-health commitment record amended for the purposes of buying a gun. It passed both houses of the Legislature in unanimous votes earlier this year, but Christie issued a conditional veto in August saying he favors more comprehensive mental-health reforms.
He also gave his blessing to a compromise measure introduced earlier this week by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) that incorporated both the original bill and the recommendations made by Christie in the conditional veto. That bill was not put up for a vote yesterday.
Surprising vote by Kyrillos
Bateman is a sponsor of the expungement bill and Connors in a previous override vote had signaled he was going against the governor. But Kyrillos’ vote took many in the chamber by surprise, although the former U.S. Senate candidate and Christie are no longer as close as they once were. Kyrillos this year is also supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush instead of Christie as a presidential candidate.
Kyrillos left the Senate chambers yesterday before the voting session ended, but he issued a statement later on Twitter explaining his vote.
“My vote today to have prospective gun owners notify police if they are seeking expungement of their mental health record speaks for itself,” Kyrillos said.
“Don’t read any politics into it, just the right thing to do as I see it,” he said.
Bateman had a similar take, telling reporters on the floor after the voting session that he simply didn’t think Christie was right this time.
“I’m sure he’s disappointed,” Bateman said.
Christie wasn’t in New Jersey yesterday, according to his official schedule, but a statement issued by spokesman Kevin Roberts after the override vote again pushed for a more comprehensive approach to the issue.
“The comprehensive reforms needed to truly address the gaps in our mental-health system which directly affect public safety have sat untouched in the Legislature for years,” said Kevin Roberts, Christie’s communications director. “This remains true today as the Legislature acts on a half measure.”
“Gov. Christie is committed to a comprehensive approach and he will continue to work with legislators of both parties to pass real mental health reforms which truly improve public safety,” Roberts said.
Kean Jr. also issued a similar call while speaking to reporters on the floor of the Senate after the voting session.
“Absolutely. I think this is an issue that requires comprehensive reform,” he said.
Assembly approval still needed
The override next needs 2/3 approval in the 80-member state Assembly, where Democrats hold a 47-32 majority and one seat remains vacant. This year is an election year for the Assembly, with all 80 seats on the ballot next month, and the Assembly isn’t expected to hold a voting session until several weeks after the election.
But Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) said in a statement yesterday that he’ll be talking to the bill sponsors in the wake of the Senate’s override vote, adding further plans will be announced “in the coming weeks.”
“It’s always a good day for New Jersey when elected officials put aside politics and do the right thing for the people,” Prieto said. “That’s what happened in the Senate, and I look forward to it happening soon in the Assembly.”
Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) is a cosponsor of the Assembly version of the expungement bill, but during a phone interview yesterday he challenged Prieto and other Democrats to not get caught up in the politics of the first successful vote to override Christie.
The override vote in the Assembly shouldn’t come before a host of other important bills sponsored by Republicans are put up for consideration, Bramnick said. Bills that would make New Jersey more affordable by addressing public-employee pension debt and school funding should also be priorities, he said.
“You want to have a discussion about a political football? Let’s have another discussion about some important reform bills,” Bramnick said. “Don’t play politics with one bill. Let’s play policy in the state of New Jersey.”
“Let’s talk about it, but let’s talk about everything,” he said.
Pressure from Christie?
Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, said he thinks there’s a good chance the override will die in the Assembly, especially if Christie ramps up the pressure on GOP members to oppose it.
“He’s going to double down on this,” Murray predicted.
He also said he doesn’t see this as a sign that Christie is now weaker in New Jersey and overrides would occur more regularly, citing the specifics of the expungement bill and the overall dynamics of the gun issue.
“For most New Jerseyans, this was a no-brainer,” Murray said. “I don’t see this opening the floodgates per se.”
And Murray said for Christie politically the override is really a mixed bag. On one hand, Christie can no longer say he’s never had a chamber of the Legislature override him. But that’s unlikely to be a deciding issue for most presidential-election voters.
On the other hand, the override vote reinforces and highlights Christie’s staunch opposition to a gun bill – which is a key issue for GOP primary voters.
“That’s why I think it’s a wash for him,” Murray said. “The only constituency that matters to him is gun-owning Republican primary voters.”