WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Things are about to get real in Trenton. The Kabuki-theater phase of Chris Christie's short time as New Jersey governor is over. After months of riding a national tidal wave of media attention for his battle with organized labor and wasteful government spending, Christie now has to get down to the task at hand when his team meets tomorrow with representatives of the state's public worker unions.
A newly energized labor movement, Wiser for Wisconsin, has produced rally after rally on State Street in downtown Trenton, where several thousand public workers and their supporters have booed Christie and carried unflattering drawings of his physical frame. Firefighters in uniform carrying giant American flags have denounced the governor, calling him a friend to the uber-wealthy and the enemy of the unionized working class. They say he is trying to use the legislature to kill collective bargaining, something Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker achieved this week.
"They are wrong, they are absolutely wrong," Christie said during a phone interview. He says the unions have themselves used the legislative process to avoid having to make concessions on rich benefits such as healthcare.
"They want to negotiate and get everything they can at the bargaining table," he said, "and then when they get it - they want to lock it in by statute so that you can never negotiate it again."
Christie says he is simply using the same tactics established by organized labor.
"I am not going to play with one hand tied behind my back. If it was not a violation of collective bargaining to lock this stuff in by statute when it was helping them, it certainly is not a violation when it is reducing benefits and helping the taxpayers."
But representatives of organized labor accuse the current administration of being disingenuous. Bob Master, political director with the Communications Workers of America, says Christie fails to note past concessions made by unions during the Corzine Administration, including agreeing to pay one and half percent of their salary towards health care premiums. He says Christie either doesn't know what the actual process is, or is choosing to misrepresent how negotiations are conducted just to score political points.
"Any changes, improvements or reductions are negotiated at the bargaining table," he said. "That's by law. And once and agreement is reached, both parties must seek legislation implementing the agreement."
At a February Trenton labor rally, AFL-CIO President Rick Trumka said there was no difference between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Governor Christie.
"We are being scapegoated," he said. "That's why we say to these governors, 'You ought to treat your employees like assets to be invested in, not costs to be cut. Work with your employees to create solutions,' that's what we want to do."
Fairleigh Dickinson Political Scientists Peter Wooley, who runs the Public Mind Poll, said the public unions are perceptive enough to grasp to how recession-weary voters might feel.
"There are a lot of public employees at the local level who have taken no raise or very small raises this year, and I think at the state level - while they may be looking forward to the legislative elections in 2011 or getting rid of Christie in 2013 - they recognize in the short run that the tide is running against them."
Wooley also points out that Chrsitie's secret electoral weapon is the so-called Reagan Democrats from union households in places like Middlesex and Union Counties. They are taxpayers also feeling the squeeze of declining property values along with ever-escalating property taxes. These are counties that President Obama carried in 2008 presidential election, but just a year later went for Christie. And come 2013, the governor could be vulnerable if he starts to be perceived not just as an anti-labor union leader but also anti middle class.
There are signs he is re-calibrating. In February, Christie delivered a national valedictory for the conservative American Enterprise Institute that skillfully mocked the lack of leadership from the Obama White House and the Republicans on their inability "to do the big things" like raising the retirement age and bending the cost curve on Medicare and Medicaid.
"Oh I just said that, and I am still standing here. I didn't vaporize," taunted Christie to a gushing audience.
Asked last night to once again critique the performance of the Obama White House and House Republicans on doing “the big things” related to cutting the federal deficit and debt it was a much more circumspect Christie. He wouldn’t take the bait to go ballistic.
"I don't have any first-hand knowledge, but I understand that Congressman Paul Ryan is going to come up wit a budget in April that is going to deal with those issues," said Christie. "So let's wait and see what Congressman Ryan comes out with from the House Republican budget perspective and than we can make a fresh judgement about whether they are making the test or not."
What a difference a month can make.
New Jersey is not Wisconsin. The state's finances have been a bipartisan exercise in malfeasance for decades. Last summer, New Jersey became the only state ever charged by the Securities Exchange Commission with peddling "fraudulent Municipal Bond offerings" by misrepresenting information when it marketed $26 billion dollars in bonds in 79 offerings from 2002 to 2007. The state has been a kind of ongoing criminal enterprise, and the unions had nothing to do with that.
As for Chrsitie, he concedes his hands are full between hundreds of independent local and state authorities spending billions without even basic transparency, and a Medicaid program with exploding costs. And that's not even touching education reform. If he were to run for President in 2012 - which many have speculated he may do - he'd have at best a big old "I for incomplete" on his legacy report card, and he knows it.
"That's one of the big reasons why I said I wouldn't want to run," he conceded. "I made the commitment to the people of New Jersey to do the work that needs to be done here. And I am here to make New Jersey a more affordable and prosperous place. That's what I am focusing on."
For now, being a successful governor would surely be enough.