TRENTON, N.J. (AP/CBSNewYork) — It was the kind of dilemma that could make a new governor wring his hands.
The state Senate was considering a bill to restore higher taxes on millionaires. Sign it, and Chris Christie would break his no-new-taxes campaign promise; veto it, and he’d break another promise to protect tax rebates in the state with the nation’s highest average property tax bill.
Christie knew the bill was on its way, and so he ordered his staff to prepare. They unfolded the white spectator chairs and lined them in rows in his mahogany-lined ceremonial office. A single pen was placed on a long, bare table.
Then, he waited.
Finally, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, burst into the office to deliver the bill personally, a swarm of reporters in tow.
Christie may have been cornered, but you wouldn’t know it from what he did next.
He stepped out of his private office, picked up his pen–and gleefully vetoed the bill.
No hemming and hawing, no apologies. It’s the Christie Way, and New Jerseyans have grown accustomed to it.
Happy to wield a veto pen, seemingly eager to lambast anyone and anything that stands in his way and apt to use sarcasm to make his points, Christie is a phenomenon–and not just in New Jersey. He’s become a talk show regular, a star on YouTube and Twitter, a headliner at campaign events for conservative candidates, the favorite of some Republicans looking to the 2012 presidential race.
All on the basis of his first year in office–a year defined by the fights he’d picked.
He’s sparred with the federal government, the Legislature, the public workers’ unions, the state Supreme Court, and the authorities and commissions that oversee components of daily life like sewer fees and bridge tolls.
No one seems off limits, including citizens who dare question him in his series of town hall meetings or those who question his policies on Twitter.
What most call fighting, he calls having a conversation–Jersey style. Which is to say, brash, loud and direct.
“Sometimes you can’t get to a compromise unless there’s a battle first,” he said.
New Jersey is, to put it mildly, a contentious state.
It is the nation’s most densely populated with 8.8 million people crammed together. It’s one of the most expensive places to live. Its average income is among the highest, but it also includes some of the nation’s poorest cities.
It’s the bombastic home of “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore,” but its also home to Princeton University and the people who make a lot of Wall Street’s money.
Aside from his undergraduate years at University of Delaware, this is where Chris Christie has spent all his life.
He was born in hardscrabble Newark and raised in nearby Livingston, a comfortable suburb. He pledges allegiance to the Mets, the Jets and Bruce Springsteen. He and his wife Mary Pat, an investment banker, are raising their four children in affluent Mendham Township.
After graduating Seton Hall law school in Newark, he worked as a corporate attorney. He entered politics in the mid-1990s, serving one term on the Morris County Board of Freeholders.
Christie resurfaced politically as a key campaigner in New Jersey for George W. Bush’s first presidential run and emerged from that as Bush’s pick to be U.S. Attorney.
For seven years, he burnished a reputation as a corruption buster, convicting more than 130 public officials. And then he ran for governor, offering lots of criticism but few specifics on how he would do things like balance the budget.
His strength was explaining to a frustrated public just how simple the state’s problems were. That worked well against Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine, a liberal former investment banker whose chief oratorical skill was explaining why everything was so complicated.
New Jersey’s governor may be the nation’s most powerful. He is the only statewide elected official, aside from his lieutenant and the two U.S. senators. It’s up to him to appoint most other key players.
He’s been in a standoff with the state Senate since May, when he made a rare step of not re-nominating a sitting justice on the state Supreme Court, his first action in an effort to rein in an activist court that has forced the state to spend billions on education in poor districts and dictated that towns make room for homes for low-income people.
New Jersey’s governor also has veto power that can be used to shape the actions of scores of lesser-known but vital public agencies.
Christie has made the most of that power.
“He’s not afraid to use it. He’s swinging for the fences,” said Sweeney.
In July, he seized on a scandal at the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates four toll bridges in the Philadelphia area. The public was upset to learn that port authority employees were getting free toll passage.
Christie demanded that the DRPA board eliminate the perk.
The board rescinded the perk–a common one for workers at transit and transportation authorities across the country–then returned it amid pressure from employees.
So Christie overruled the board.
In the end, an arbitrator ruled that the benefit could not be taken away from union-represented workers of the agency because it was part of their collective bargaining agreements.
But Christie had made his point, and a splash. His push to end the benefit was front-page news. The arbitrators’ decision to reinstate it? Not so much.
Christie does not only attack low-grade functionaries. Twice, he has taken on the federal government.
The biggest blunder of Christie’s governorship so far came in August, when the state barely lost out on a $400 million federal education grant, apparently because the state’s application didn’t include some required information.
Instead of apologizing, he blamed President Barack Obama.
“He’s going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he’s depriving them of $400 million,” said Christie.
Then, in October, Christie canceled a project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and double the capacity for commuter trains to get between New Jersey and New York City. The federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were sharing in the cost, but overruns would be solely New Jersey’s responsibility. And Christie said they could come to more than $5 billion over time.
The U.S. Department of Transportation responded by sending the state a bill for the $271 million it had already spent designing and building the tunnel.
The feds said the state was on the hook for those costs because just six months earlier, Christie had persuaded officials to use a little-used type of fast-track funding that the state would have to repay if it backed out.
The governor has appealed. Washington, he says, is being unfair.
“I’m not going to allow them to say, ‘Hey, New Jersey has a Republican governor, so we’ll get the money back from them, so states where we have Democratic governors, we don’t ask for the money back,”’ Christie said.
Four months after taking office, Christie began holding town hall meetings across the state to press his campaign to cap annual property tax increases. These says, the events push his overall agenda _ as is made plain by the banner that looms overhead, announcing “The Christie Reform Agenda.”
He lays out what he’s done and what he hopes to do. His riffs range from standup comedy to tender tales of what his mother told him before she died.
Almost invariably, someone stands up to defend teachers.
When he cut the budget in his first year in office, he actually added more state aid to schools. But because about $1 billion in one-time federal aid had gone away, it meant that every district got a smaller check from Trenton.
Christie said that if teachers unions agreed to one-year pay freezes and to pay at least 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health insurance costs, layoffs could be avoided. But few local unions agreed and many districts laid off educators.
At a September appearance in Flemington, teacher Marie Corfield complained that Christie has dumped on public schools.
Christie denied it, but Corfield rolled her eyes and swung her head to the side.
The governor was offended. “I stood here and very respectfully listened to you,” he said. “If you want to put on a show and giggle every time I talk, I have no interest in answering your question.”
The crowd–mostly Christie-friendly–cheered.
The scene, like most of his town hall meetings, had only a few hundred witnesses in person. But like his other big moments, it’s lived on YouTube, where it’s been viewed more than 900,000 times.
Christie said on the campaign trail that he didn’t care if he was re-elected, and his governing style reflects that _ to a point. He’s made so many enemies that sometimes it’s hard to remember the folks he hasn’t upset.
Polls show about half the state’s voters approve of what he’s done so far. But many do not _ vehemently.
His town hall tour and must-see YouTube moments make it seem he never left campaign mode. And he clearly has more than just New Jersey on his mind. During his campaign, Christie predicted that New Jersey would get a year’s jump on many states when it came to coping with huge budget crises that came about as tax revenue fell amid a long recession.
And indeed, several governors who took office this year have said that they want to do the same kind of budget slashing that Christie has already done.
“Democratic governors and Republican governors now look to New Jersey as a beacon of hope for what can happen when leaders lead and a people sacrifice as one for the future of our children,” he said last week.
Christie has said repeatedly that he’s not running for president in 2012, sometimes joking that the only way he could get people to stop asking him about it would be suicide. But he’s just 48 years old, and he has plenty of time to run.
“I’m very flattered by the question. What that tells me is that I had a good year,” Christie said. “If people didn’t think you were doing a good job, they wouldn’t be asking you about a promotion.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)