The split personality that is Gov. Chris Christie was in full flower in his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature this week.
On the one hand, he was the compassionate humanitarian, proposing an extensive program of treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery, rather than jail time, for people suffering from drug addiction or related mental illness. On the other hand, he was the ferocious practitioner of blowtorch politics, accusing Democrats of selling their offices and their votes to public-employee unions and starting the state down the path to fiscal ruin.
In a rant midway through his speech over a proposed amendment to the constitution to declare public-pension benefits a right and to establish a payment schedule for the state to follow, Christie warned of apocalyptic consequences if the amendment won approval: Children would starve in the streets … the elderly would die lonely and untended … criminals would rampage through the cities … bridges would collapse … the environment would be poisoned … illiteracy would take over because education wouldn’t be affordable.
As an alternative, he said, the state faced a sales tax increase to 10 percent or an income tax increase of more than 20 percent.
These would be the results, he thundered, because the New Jersey Education Association had contributed more than $30 million to Democratic candidates in the past two years and the recipients were repaying the association’s generosity by attempting to enshrine public pensions and benefits in the constitution.
Democrats shrugged off Christie’s predictions of a dystopian future, arguing that the amendment would have been unnecessary if only he had lived up to the promise he made four years ago to contribute the state’s adequate share to the pension fund.
Demonstrating his flair for the theatric, Christie dared the legislative audience to engage in a show of hands if they favored the budget cuts or the tax increases he said would be necessary if the state was tied to a constitutional mandate to fund the pension system at specific levels.
For Christie, who’s called public employees pigs for insisting on their pension benefits, his verbal assault was a return to familiar and comfortable ground. He’s been involved in hand-to-hand combat with public employees — most notably the NJEA — almost since the day he assumed office in 2010.
He is on firm policy ground by arguing that a constitutional requirement committing the state to a specific funding level forecloses any flexibility or ability to respond quickly to shifting economic conditions. But his performance and his rhetoric — massive, devastating spending cuts or equally devastating tax increases — seemed directed more toward capturing it all on video record for later use in his presidential campaign commercials to impress primary election voters with his fiscally conservative credentials and his willingness to stand steadfast against entrenched private interests.
He also inserted the obligatory gratuitous shot at President Barack Obama, another moment that will most certainly make its way into a television buy.
The caring and concerned Christie shone through in his call for treating drug addiction as a disease rather than primarily as a law enforcement and incarceration issue.
His sincerity in marshalling state resources to provide treatment and rehabilitation for those suffering from an addiction is genuine. It’s been a theme in his previous State of the State and budget messages, as well as in his public appearances and speeches.
His empathy for the individuals and their families whose lives have been devastated by drug addiction is unmistakable, as is his commitment to helping restore them to health and a clean and productive life.
He clearly believes that rounding up addicts, running them through the criminal justice system, and locking them in cells only to see them return to the same streets, neighborhoods, and lifestyles which led to their arrest in the first place simply hasn’t worked.
The same energy and resources would be far better expended, Christie feels, on treatment and rehabilitation programs.
His recommendation that the former Mid-State correctional facility in Burlington County be renovated and reopened as the state’s first treatment center for addiction and mental-health patients is evidence of the strength of his belief that — as he put it — “every life is precious.”
If there is to be a significant and successful legacy effort for Christie, his dedication to rescuing individuals from the horrors of drug addiction is it.
The two sides of Christie on display in his speech were notable for the passion inherent in each — one hyper-political and one humane to his core.
At the end of the day, though, when he departed the Assembly chamber, he left behind a Transportation Trust Fund still due to fall into bankruptcy in five months; a public pension fund with an $80 billion and growing unfunded liability; the highest average property taxes in the nation, and an economy and job creation rate that continues to lag behind other states in the region.
And as he continues in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, questions remain as to how involved he’ll be in dealing with a Democratic Legislature in addressing them. His tirade against the pension payment amendment indicates that compromise is out of reach and his failure to even mention the Transportation Trust Fund and the need to replenish it suggests he continues to view it more as an annoyance than a crisis.
His public standing in New Jersey is nothing short of dismal and his continued and prolonged absences from the state have rubbed nerves raw.
When and under what circumstances he’ll return to the state is unclear, but the two personalities seen earlier this week will surely emerge again at some point.