Washington got a stern lecture on “tough love” budgeting and leadership from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Wednesday as part of his bid to burnish his national reputation for closing New Jersey’s nearly $11 billion budget hole. But the 48-year-old Christie once again quelled speculation that he is considering the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012. “I won’t run . . . I can’t imagine it,” he said in his most Shermanesque manner during a televised speech at The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “What do I have to do outside of threatening to commit suicide to convince people I’m not running?”
Earlier in the day, the Republican Governor’s Association named him as its new policy vice chairman, working alongside Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a GOP stalwart who is contemplating a run for president.
Even if a presidential bid isn’t in the cards, Christie is gaining clout within his party and the media. He is the darling of cable TV and radio shows, and his straight talk and take-no-prisoners style has generated considerable interest within the GOP base. In last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll of the 10,000 attendees, Christie drew six percent of the vote—higher than the votes for either Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. And Christie is getting attention and words of admiration from other more experienced and more prominent Republicans. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a GOP Presidential hopeful, attended a recent large dinner at the New Jersey governor’s mansion.
“He’s viewed as a very effective legislator, and nationally, Republicans are amazed at his success,” said GOP strategist and former Senate Republican Conference Chief of Staff Ron Bonjean. “He’s an attractive potential candidate down the road, and Republicans who are looking for allies would probably be smart to seek a friend in Chris Christie,” he said.
In less than a year in the governor’s mansion, the brash former prosecutor has cut ten percent, or $820 million, of the state’s education budget, suspended property tax rebates, denied a $3 billion payment to the state’s pension system, and scrapped a more than $9 billion mass transit project to construct a tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan. He also took on the teachers’ union, and pushed to cut salaries and roll back benefits,
He did all of that in the name of restoring fiscal order to a state facing record deficits and a 10 percent unemployment rate after ousting former governor Jon Corzine in the fall of 2009. Yesterday, Christie encouraged both Republicans and Democrats to emulate his deficit-reducing tactics. He called on them to immediately begin revamping entitlement and education programs to control long-term costs, and slash spending across the board. He declared that “the public wants shared sacrifice,” and would rather weather the challenges now than pass down more detrimental ones to their children.
“You’re going to have to raise the retirement age,” he said in discussing the politically sensitive Social Security program. “Uh-oh. I said it. And I’m still standing here—I did not vaporize into the carpet.”
Christie chastised Obama for failing to address “the big things” in his budget while directing the nation’s focus and cash into high-speed rail and electric cars. Obama and White House budget director Jack Lew came under withering criticism from congressional Republicans and some Democrats on Monday and Tuesday for not including entitlement reform in the president’s 2012 budget plan.
“There’s not enough low-hanging fruit to make a dent,” in the projected $1.6 trillion deficit, Christie said. “If you don’t deal with Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, you’re participating in a failed proposition.”
Despite enacting serious cuts to programs that previous governors viewed as untouchable, and in a state that has voted Democratic the last five Presidential elections, his approval rating in the Garden State has risen from 49 percent in November to 53 percent last month, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll.
As Christie prepares to release his own fiscal 2012 budget next week, New Jersey faces another almost $11 billion deficit. Christie says he will confront the budget challenge with zeal, by pushing to further his September proposal to undo a 9 percent pension benefit increase the state approved in 2009, raising the retirement age for state employees and freezing annual cost - of - living adjustments for retirees.
But his fiscal crusade is not endearing him to everyone—especially the New Jersey teachers’ unions whose leaders view Christie’s moves to cut the education budget and shift costs some costs of pensions and health benefits packages to teachers as a death knell to their profession and harmful to students.
“If we’re not going to pay for the educational needs of our communities, especially in inner cities, well then, there’s going to be more murders, carjacking, and the taxpayers are going to pay for it another way,” said Joseph Del Grosso, President of the Newark Teachers’ Union, the largest city teachers’ union in New Jersey.
Del Grosso warned that if Christie’s formula takes hold in other parts of the country, soon no one will want to become a public employee or teacher. “When it comes to education, he can stand up at the microphone and tell us all the evils that are wrong with education, but does he have any of the solutions?” he said. “We’re not going to be kicked by his iron boot without kicking back.”
Christie’s adamant commitment to his school budget cuts made him a YouTube sensation when this past fall the governor verbally shot down a New Jersey art teacher for calling his proposed education budget cuts an assault on her profession. "New Jersey has some of the best schools in the country, and this administration has done nothing but lambaste us and tell us what horrible schools we have," said teacher Marie Corfield.
Christie responded that that cuts were a response to the loss of $1 billion in federal aid from the stimulus package that was ending, and that school districts could have avoided the nearly 3,000 layoffs that occurred if local unions agreed to the pay freezes he had proposed.
“I had a $1 billion budget hole to fill in the state education budget, with declining state revenues,” he explained. “Despite that, I only cut $820 million from the budget, which means we spent an additional $280 million dollars in state tax funds on K-12 education…So this idea that I cut the state’s support of K-12 education is wrong.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, appearing Wednesday on MSNBC, also criticized Christie’s budget cuts as “totally misdirected” and said he is allowing pensions to “atrophy.” “These draconian cuts will end up costing more jobs and lower the standard of living in that state,” Trumka said.
Christie Scores RGA Policy Gig (Politico)
Christie: Obama Lost Chance to ‘Cement’ Reelection by Not Heeding Deficit Commission (Los Angeles Times)
Chris Christie’s Get Tough Approach: The Prescription for a Post-Bush Era GOP Comeback? (Huffington Post)