Since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's win over Democrat Jon Corzine last November, he has emerged as one of the most popular figures of the Republican party, largely for being unafraid to say what's on his mind.
Christie has girth (he'll tell you himself) and commands attention in a room with his straight-talk, humor and a fiery nature that has led him to tell off a heckler or two at rallies and town hall meetings. He also seems to take his politics and his position as New Jersey's governor very seriously. He even has an online shop. Check out the merch.
The Governor's bold commentary and interaction with his public audience have garnered viral interest as well; he's become a YouTube star. At one of his town hall meetings last month, he responded curtly to a teacher's angry question about cuts to education saying, "if what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question." The video has over 760,000 hits.
Many have questioned his tone, but he calls it "honest and refreshing." On Meet the Press, Christie responded, "I don't send smoke signals. They know who I am. They know how I feel about issues." On Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on November 24, Christie told viewers, "We inherited a mess and we're trying to fix it. But I'm having fun along the way."
Here's a look at the different dimensions of Christie's straight talk and his brass tacks brand of Republican politics.
Christie's general philosophy can be summed up with this statement:
“We do not spend money we do not have.”
He said this while stumping for conservative candidates before the midterm elections, and he's said it over and over again. Despite criticism from the left for cutting bread and butter services, he's largely followed through.
Christie started out the year by freezing $1.6 billion in state aid and soon after, he outlined a budget proposal for 2011 with severe spending cuts: decreasing municipal aid by $446, slashing 1,300 state jobs and eliminating $819 million to education.
The cutting continued as Christie cancelled the ARC rail tunnel project between New Jersey and Manhattan, the biggest federal stimulus project in the country.
Recently, in line with his mission to cut, cut, cut, the Governor laid off all state employees who work at New Jersey Network and the state's Public Broadcasting Authority, effective January 1, 2011. The Governor had pledged to end the state's annual $11 million annual subsidy of the state-owned TV and radio broadcaster. Supporters say he's trimming the fat, but opponents say he's targeting meat and bone.
What's impressive is how Christie has managed to hold on to public support while making these cuts. A Quinnipiac University Poll released in early November found that 53 percent of New Jersey voters support the governor's decision to make these severe budget cuts, compared to 37 percent who disagree.
Christie's ability to barrel his policies through a Democrat-controlled state legislature has made him a swashbuckling national hero for Republicans. He isn't afraid to do the politically unpopular thing, and that makes him very very popular in the eyes of voters who are jaded with entrenched political inertia and corruption. On the Brian Lehrer Show, Tom Moran, political columnist for New Jersey's Star Ledger said, "Christie does have the public's support as he makes these cuts... He's a very persuasive guy and the idea of hey, we can't afford it right now is a very popular idea."
Christie has waged many battles in New Jersey as he's sliced into the budget, particulary with education officials. When the governor attempted to persuade the teachers union to accept a pay freeze and to contribute just over one percent of their salary to their health care benefits, the union angrily refused and the two have been unable to come to an agreement since.
At the annual Republican Governor's Association meeting last week, Christie shared his union war story and urged the governors not to be discouraged when taking on powerful groups, like teachers. He said, “Most people love their public school teachers. I love public school teachers too, but I can’t stand their union.”
Governor Christie has also spoken out on education reform. In May, he expressed his support for a scholarship program that would allow families with students in failing New Jersey schools to pay for private education elsewhere. Christie told the Star Ledger, "A single mother in Newark, working two jobs to keep a roof over her child’s head, should have no less of an ability to make that choice... Her child’s future is no less promising than ours." Some questioned whether the governor had given up entirely on public education in New Jersey. Christie himself chose to send his kids to private Catholic school.
Like John McCain a decade earlier, Chris Christie is not afraid to be a maverick and run the risk of annoying his own party. The governor resisted pressure from his the GOP and the Tea Party to join the lawsuit challenging Obama's health care bill. He also left the door open to federal funds that would run a high-risk insurance pool for people with pre-existing conditions in his state, something many other Republican governors refused.
In another step away from many in his party, Governor Christie said the opponents of the mosque and Muslim cultural center plans in Manhattan were being used as political pawns. He said the sensitivity and concerns of the families affected by the terrorist acts of 9/11 must be taken into account, but told Politico, "We cannot paint all of Islam with that brush." Though his stance landed him in largely Democratic territory, Christie spun it so that he sounded independent, rather than on the same page as the President. "We have to bring people together. And what offends me the most about all this, is that it's being used as a political football by both parties. And what disturbs me about the President's remarks is that he is now using it as a political football as well."
Christie's skill at looking and sounding independent is fundamental to his popularity in New Jersey—where he got the support of 60 percent of independent voters in his 2009 election.
And even though he doesn't uniformly walk the party line, Christie is smart enough to remain in the GOP fold by staying on the age-old Republican message—cutting state government spending and keeping taxes low. While stumping in Pennsylvania with him, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota introduced Christie as "the great rising star of the conservative movement." Though he denies them outright, rumors constantly bubble about a possible Christie presidential bid.
Climate change has been Christie's one area of wishy-washiness. At first, the governor pleased environmentalists by supporting green initiatives and was even backed by some environmental groups, but in a town hall meeting earlier this month, he inched towards conservatives by expressing new doubts about climate change. "I'm skeptical because I can't figure this stuff out, but I would say it has yet to be proven," he said.
The Star Ledger's Tom Moran called this comment a "political shift" for the Governor: "He's sort of all over the map on this. I think he knows he can't really be anti-climate change, can't really blow this issue for New Jersey's green voters but he wants to send a signal, I think to the Republicans nationally that hey, he's with them."
"I don't care if you had a Democrat or a Republican before you," he told his cheering audience at the Republican Governors Association meeting. Christie shared the stage with other Republican leaders including Governors Haley Barbour, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels, but he stole the limelight. With his action-hero persona, he complained about political advisors telling him, "Let's not kick anybody you shouldn't kick and you'll be fine; let's incrementalize, kick them a little and cuddle up to them at other times.'' That's all well and good, he said, if you want your constituents to "fog over."
Pointing to his tough-love one year in, Christie still sounds like a politician. He has a few catch phrases, like "New Jersey can't print money" in reference to the "broke" state he's running, and "put up or shut up" when the Republicans need to hold their place. He often says he's not only talking the talk but "walking the walk" in New Jersey.
One of Christie's greatest strengths is communicating the precise message he wants to convey, whether or not it's entirely true. At a joint legislative session, Christie told lawmakers, "Our priorities are this: to reduce and reform New Jersey's habit of excessive government spending, to reduce taxes, to encourage job creation, to shrink our bloated government, and to fund our responsibilities on a pay-as-you-go basis, and not to leave them for future generations."
Cut he has. But Christie hasn't entirely kept his promise of not leaving things for future generations: he neglected to pay into the state's pension fund this year, which is almost $50 billion in the hole.
But again, these details are for the most part overshadowed by Christie's nation-hopping speaking tour, appearances on television talk shows, versatility with twitter, and endless magazine profiles. This is just the beginning: Americans love charming toughies, and the Christie brand is only one year into office.
So is Chris Christie fluff or is he stuff? Discuss by contributing your comments below.