TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — One is a tough-talking, union-bashing former federal prosecutor. The other is a tough-talking union leader and former ironworker.
Much like Felix and Oscar of “Odd Couple” fame, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic state Senate President Stephen Sweeney are learning to live together and breaking some china in the process.
In many ways, Christie’s national reputation for fighting runaway spending and taking on unions, which has conservatives begging him for run for president in 2012, is tied to his relationship to Sweeney – an unknown outside New Jersey, a union guy who can control which legislation gets a vote and stop the supposedly unstoppable Christie.
And though most wouldn’t believe it by reading their scathing news releases and biting comments, the burly, brash men do in fact have a close relationship despite their political positions in a populous state that often influences policy elsewhere – most notably the duo’s push to curtail pension and health benefits for public workers.
“They are a little like Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan,” said Brian McGovern, a conservative New Jersey blogger, referring to the longtime House speaker and president who were close personally but constant thorns in the other’s political side. “Every time there is a compromise, both sides seem to have something to take home to their constituencies.”
For Christie and Sweeney, the formula appears to be equal parts criticism and compromise – their criticism of each other comes through the media and the compromise happens privately.
“I like him as a person,” said Sweeney, 52. “That doesn’t mean I like what he does all the time.”
Christie, 48, echoes that.
“Partnership doesn’t mean agreeing all the time,” he said. “Partnership means treating each other with respect, treating each other with kindness, and admiring those things about each other that are the very best of our character.”
Recently, Christie has taken to calling Sweeney the leader of the “do-nothing Legislature” at town hall events, while Sweeney, dripping with sarcasm, has nicknamed the governor “King Christie” in news releases and during interviews.
“I’d like to challenge him to a wrestling match. He can be King Kong Bundy and I’ll be some other big dude,” Sweeney said recently. “It’ll be like the WWF. Because that’s as real as his town hall meetings are.”
Despite their obvious differences in terms of educational and career backgrounds, Monmouth University political science professor Patrick Murray said the leaders are “cut from the same cloth.”
While Sweeney, a high-school educated Democrat from South Jersey, was working to become a top labor official in the New Jersey ironworkers union, Christie was working as a GOP fundraiser for George W. Bush, who later appointed him as U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 2001.
But at the core, both are born and bred in New Jersey and made their entry into politics at the local level _ each getting elected to county freeholder boards in their 30s.
Both came into power at the Statehouse in the start of 2010 by overthrowing established Democrats; Christie beat former Gov. Jon Corzine, Sweeney overthrew then-Senate President (and former governor) Richard Codey.
As part of the deal South Jersey Democratic power brokers made with North Jersey party bosses to get Codey out, Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, who was relatively unknown at the time, came in as Assembly, or house, speaker – in most states the No. 2 position of power. But this is New Jersey.
“It’s an interesting dynamic with the Assembly speaker being seen as a supporting player,” Murray said. “It’s the personal connection that Sweeney and Christie have that forces her to the side in all this.”
While there are key differences in their philosophies in many areas, Christie and Sweeney have also found a lot of common ground.
Both believe that the state can no longer afford to pay public workers the same level of benefits that have been awarded to unions over the years, that state workers shouldn’t be able to cash out unlimited amounts of sick time and that towns shouldn’t be able to raise property taxes by an unlimited amount each year.
That philosophy and Sweeney’s willingness to push through legislation to curtail pension and health care reforms has many union officials calling him a traitor.
“We hope he finds his footing again as a Democrat,” said Bill Lavin, president of the state Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, who has also accused Sweeney of rolling over for the governor “in every instance.”
That, even though Sweeney has been pushing for pension reform since 2006. The difference back then is that under Corzine, whom Sweeney liked to call Norma Rae – Sally Field’s labor activist of film – for Corzine’s more cozy relationship with the union, he couldn’t get traction.
But for their all their compromise, there have been just as many standoffs between the Christie and Sweeney.
Months after Christie took office, Sweeney tried to reinstate a higher income tax on millionaires. Christie vetoed the bill literally within seconds of the paper hitting his desk as reporters and Sweeney, who hand-delivered it to him, looked on.
Christie doesn’t always get his way.
Round 2 followed the passage of the state budget in July – done days early – when the governor ordered lawmakers back to the Statehouse over the Fourth of July weekend to begin work on his proposals to stem the state’s highest-in-the nation property taxes.
Sweeney showed up but refused to order the rest of the Senate to appear. Days later the men agreed on a property tax limit that was lower than what Christie had proposed, in exchange for more exceptions.
The rest of Christie’s tax proposals – deemed by Sweeney as “garbage” that would do nothing to help stem property taxes – are languishing, fueling the impatient governor’s ire as Christie takes his criticism of Sweeney to weekly town hall events around the state.
“Now, all the sudden it’s garbage?” Christie said at a recent town hall event in Evesham. “Why? The special interests have gotten to him.”
A week before that, Christie budged on a yearlong impasse with Sweeney over the appointment of a Supreme Court justice.
The health of the court, said the governor with the unyielding reputation, was “more important than any one of us getting our way on this issue.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)