In 2012, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Republican convention where Mitt Romney would be nominated for President. Listeners became puzzled as Christie spoke at length about his parents, his wife, his children and even his idol from Asbury Park — Bruce Springsteen. He then shifted to explaining how he had worked with Democrats in the legislature to save New Jersey workers’ pensions. He described this feat as a bi-partisan effort of “politicians who led instead of politicians who pandered.” Eventually, he did segue to Mitt Romney but the lasting image was of Christie extolling himself.
It is now March, 2015 and New Jersey’s pension system for public employees is in shambles, affecting teachers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and state employees. States, nation wide, have similar fiscal dilemmas when their yearly budgets must be balanced. Christie had boasted that as a Republican Governor in a blue state with a Democratically controlled legislature, he had solved the problem. That has not turned out to be true. On Monday, February 23, Judge Mary C. Jacobson of New Jersey State Superior Court ruled that Christie had violated state law when he declined to make the full payment into the state’s pension system for public employees last year. She ordered him to find a way to fund it now. In addition, she ordered the Christie administration to pay the legal fees of the public sector unions that had sued to force the payments. Christie has vowed to appeal her decision.
Judge Jacobson, who had been appointed by Christine Whitman, a Republican governor, had ruled in June, 2014 that since Christie was faced with an unbalanced budget, he could skip the payments for that year since the state was facing financial ruin. The Legislature then proposed a three year tax increase on incomes exceeding $1million and a one-year corporation tax surcharge. However, Christie used his line-item veto to strike those proposals and issued only a partial payment to the unions. It is worth noting that when he first ran for governor, he sent an Open Letter to the teachers of New Jersey , refuting rumors that he might “attempt to demolish or take away teachers’ pensions and benefits.” He emphasized, “Let me be clear — nothing could be farther from the truth.” When he later “borrowed” liberally from their pension fund, he bluntly told the teachers‘ unions, “Get over it!”
On Tuesday, February 24, the day after Judge Jacobson’s ruling, Christie gave his yearly budget address in the State Assembly chamber in Trenton to the legislators and other dignitaries. He devoted his entire 25 minute speech to New Jersey’s pension system. However, he offered few specifics. He said, “I’m here today to speak the truth. I did not come here today just to identify the problem, shrug my shoulders and return to business as usual. This is the type of leadership our state requires. Coming together. Thinking differently. Fighting for all the people. Addressing the long term. This is how we get things done. I will never stop working to fix the problems we have previously ignored. I will never give up on New Jersey.” His only reference to Judge Jacobson’s ruling was, “We don’t need a judge to tell us we have a problem.”
The governor called for freezing the existing pension plan and released a commission report with recommendations for the pension system. He proposed a new “cash-balance pension plan” and said he had an “unprecedented accord” with the teachers’ union which included a signed “roadmap” of broad agreement. However, Wendell Steinhauer, the union president said after the budget speech, there was “no deal” , calling it “an agreement on guidelines, and that we will continue talking.” He also focused on the governor identifying the revenue source for state payments. “If you don’t have a revenue source, it doesn’t matter if you have a plan.”
After his speech, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, the Democratic majority leader commented skeptically, “We need a governor who is in the state long enough to try to understand the problem.” Christie has spent much of 2014, traveling across the country in his role as head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) He has tried to distance himself from the Bridgegate scandal that has brought two federal prosecutors’ investigations, New Jersey and New York, that are still not completed. He also has been actively building his image as a potential Republican candidate for President in 2016. It is ironic that he has trumpeted his ability to work across the aisle with Democrats on pensions as his signal achievement.
Since Christie was elected to a second term in November, his approval rating has been steadily sinking in New Jersey as well as on the national scene. His brief trip to London ended badly when he was blunt and abrasive with British reporters who ventured to ask him several questions. He did not go so far as he has gone with members of the American press, whom he has told to “Sit down and shut up!” But, to draw on Queen Victoria’s famous comment, they were not “amused” when he brushed them aside rather than answer their queries. In the U.S. political polls of possible Republican candidates in 2016 for President, Christie was at one time in the lead. Now, the front runners are Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Christie is in single digits with Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry. At the Conservative Political Action Conference outside D.C. on February 26, Christie declined the chance to deliver a prepared speech. He took part in an interview with Laura Ingraham, a far- right talk show host in a ballroom with many empty seats. Her questions were very tough and he responded in typical Christie fashion. She asked, “Why are you performing so poorly with Republican voters?” His response, “Is the election next week?” It would appear that Chris Christie may be on the ropes, but he is not down yet.