Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Both rock stars in their own right, both trying to right their states' ships, and both building serious momentum for a potential presidential run. Who's week will look better on a résumé come 2016?
The most effective politicians are able to establish and control narratives. It’s no coincidence that the two governors who top the list for future presidential ambitions devote so much energy to telling and tending their story.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spent their respective weeks trying to get people back to work. For Cuomo, this meant brokering a deal between Con Ed and the 8,000 employees that had been locked out since July 1. For Christie, it meant a trip to the beach.
Cuomo met with Con Ed and the union on Thursday morning, the 26th day of the stalemate; by noon, the lockout was suspended. At first it appeared that about 3,000 employees would return to work immediately while negotiations continued, but by mid-afternoon the two sides had reached a full contract agreement, and the lockout ended for all 8,000 employees.
It’s safe to assume this would not have happened at lightning-fast speed if it weren’t for, well, lightning. The threat of a pummeling thunderstorm wreaking havoc on New York’s energy grid Thursday added an even greater sense of urgency to the negotiations.
“Governor Cuomo used that as an opportunity to get both sides, the union and the utility, to recognize that they could have some very bad press if a storm came in,” said WNYC’s Bob Hennelly. “Both parties could find themselves in a situation where tens of thousands of New Yorkers would be in the dark, businesses shut down, and major dysfunction being laid at the feet of both the union and the company.”
Cuomo had already got concessions from public employee unions on long-term pension and health care costs, with an eye toward a state budget gap that desperately needed closing. Now with his successful intervention in a dispute at a private company, Cuomo’s bolstered his case for being considered the adult in whatever room he finds himself. This is how he wants to be seen, and how he managed to turn a potentially catastrophic storm into a political blessing.
“It at least looks like he has managed to champion a resolution that, at least so far – remember this still has to be ratified by the rank and file of the union – it looks like something they’re pleased with,” Hennelly said.
While Cuomo was getting energy-sector employees back to work, Governor Chris Christie was wishing he could do the same with state legislators.
Christie has spent the last few weeks on his Endless Summer Tax Relief Tour, a series of trips to Jersey Shore boardwalks from which Christie hammers Democrats in the state legislature for failing to pass a tax cut.
Everywhere he goes, he tells New Jerseyans to approach or call Democrats and vent their (or rather his) frustrations.
“I need you to go up to that Democratic legislator and I need you to say to him or her, ‘Listen, we’re glad you’re here, want you to spend more of your money. Just go back to Trenton for one day. Vote for the governor’s 10 percent bipartisan tax cut. Then come back here. You can stay on the beach after that. I can get my money back and everyone will be happy,’” he told a crowd.
But Christie’s tax cut narrative is at least part fantasy. WNYC’s Nancy Solomon said that Christie already signed a budget bill the Democrats sent to him, and that it included the tax cut he wanted.
“The rub is that the democrats put in a trigger: The revenues have to come in by December to show that the state has the money to pay for the tax cut,” Solomon said. “Christie has projected revenues will be there, they just want to see that those projections are right, is what they say.”
It’s not as simple as Democrats not passing a tax cut. But that caveat doesn’t serve Christie’s narrative, so it doesn’t make it into the speeches.
As Christie makes his case, a new poll out this week shows most New Jersey voters believe they should wait to see revenues before the tax cut goes into effect. But the message reaches ears far beyond the Garden State.
“He continues to say this and it continues to get a lot of press and he’s getting a lot of mileage out of it.” Solomon said.
Cuomo put a new chapter in the book this week. Christie may have just added more words. Their tactics on these particular fronts are a microcosm of each governor’s larger strategy regarding narrative and positioning on the national stage—something most observers expect both could try for in 2016.
Chris Christie has the YouTube market cornered. Republicans were begging him to run for president this year. The conservative governor is extremely liberal with his national television appearance.
That’s not true for Andrew Cuomo, who’s avoided the spotlight outside of New York. He doesn’t yet have the celebrity status of Christie, but that might work to his favor in the long run.
“Cuomo is taking a much more disciplined approach to how he projects himself nationally,” Bob Hennelly said. “I think he’s looking at this like, ‘Let me get the job right of running the state of New York, rather than trying to project myself nationally.’ So he’s being very disciplined.”