As Governor Chris Christie laid out his view for 2012 and the current state of the state Tuesday afternoon, it warrants mentioning and reflecting on his first two years as well as an outlook for the state as the year begins to slowly take shape.
2011 was fairly uneventful around the country. Jockeying and positioning for the 2012 presidential race and predictable debates in the nation’s capital were taking place, but in some states like New Jersey heated battles for the future of the state were occurring. First, there was legislative redistricting from January through April; which produced a fairly similar state map that minus one race left the state fairly the same it was before the November 2011 State Legislature elections. The summer was a reprieve from redistricting until September when congressional redistricting began. After nearly four months, a new congressional map was drawn that changed the state largely on the premise that it was losing one seat. It forced Congressman Steve Rothman to choose between running against a Republican incumbent in Congressman Scott Garrett (R-NJ5) in CD-5 or against a Democratic incumbent in Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ8) in CD-8. He ultimately chose the latter and that is beginning to develop into one of the early story lines in 2012.
The Pascrell-Rothman primary will one of many elections in the Garden State this year. Republican candidates will travel to the state in anticipation of June’s primary. At this point, the remaining five candidates could be down to two or potentially solely former Governor Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney simply picking up the necessary delegates to lock up the nomination. It is too early to tell if the GOP will produce a then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Senator Hillary Clinton marathon primary cycle. Romney has won the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and a win in South Carolina this Saturday could force both the remaining candidates and Republican primary voters to reevaluate the race. Governor Christie has already been on the stump for Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire in the lead up to those contests. He will likely continue to travel for Romney and balance his duties as governor throughout the year. Some even speculate that he could be drafted by Romney as a vice presidential choice creating a northeast ticket that is somewhat unconventional, but not out of the question.
Beyond the race between the GOP presidential candidates will be the presidential election itself. President Barack Obama won fairly comfortably in 2008 over Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Based on history; despite some fairly mixed poll numbers and opinions; he would be favored to defeat Romney or any of the remaining choices. Romney likely would present the best case for the Republican Party to win the state for the first time since 1988 based on his ability to appeal to moderate Republicans and undecided Independents.
Christie, likely, will also be called upon to travel the Garden State to lobby for the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate opposite Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and the twelve Republican nominees in the U.S. House of Representative races. There is a strong chance that he could go 0-3 when it comes to all those races if you group House races into one collective category. The biggest win will likely come with either Congressman Pascrell or Congressman Rothman being washed out of Congress. Menendez in his race is yet to garner a true challenger and similarly to 2006 seems positioned to win by default even though his popularity only hovers around 40% on average. Furthermore, the twelve House races look to produce status quo results based on the safety that was created for incumbents as a whole. Primary contests will likely be more competitive than general election contests.
Those races will dominate the calendar for 2012, but Christie’s impact on any or all of those contests will be taken into consideration with his work in Trenton alongside the State Legislature. For the state’s top official; this next twelve months will set the table for him and his future as governor. 2013 is another election year in the state as Christie will 1) have to decide if he wants to run for reelection and 2) if he does run, he will need assess whom the Democrats will line up to defeat him. Some politicking occurred in 2011 and will likely only increase in 2012. State Senators Stephen Sweeney (D-3) and Richard Codey (D-27) are often viewed near the top of the likely Democratic candidate pool. The two have been building their respective Democratic bases in anticipation for the power grabbing the two will likely attempt throughout the year. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ6), Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18), and Newark Mayor Cory Booker are also considered strong candidates for the Democrats opposite Chris Christie. All of these officials will likely up their impact in the state if they are more inclined to challenge Christie because accomplishments equal recognition and recognition leads to good press, which will impact poll numbers and shape an electoral contest in your favor.
All of those elections are often influenced by results occurring in the state. Governor Christie has taken steps over the last two years to leave his impact on the state and for all intent and purposes, position himself for 2013. Christie laid out a slate of goals for 2011 last January. One that will likely carry over to the greatest extent will be education. He took public employees head on in 2010 and after negotiating smartly with Senate President Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) on a more balanced reform for public employees, he achieved a landmark accomplishment in June 2011 with the benefits and pensions package that will save the state money over the next decade. With that battle for the most part on the back burner; Christie will continue to push for tenure reform and merit pay for teachers, exploring charter schools, and adjusting some features of public schools; largely studying the impact of vouchers. Property taxes has continued to appear on Christie’s goals’ sheet as well and starting last January there were small changes for cities and Christie will continue to push in that area for more outlets that will hopefully result in New Jerseyans paying less taxes in multiple ways at the same time as not negatively impacting the state’s revenue that is partially influenced by the taxes New Jerseyans pay.
While tackling those areas and more, Christie will also need to reanalyze his relationship with Democrats after last November’s elections produced no change. Christie hinted at somewhat of an ability to compromise at times in 2011 and if he is to pass other key areas of his toolkit, he will need to work more with Sweeney, Oliver, and other Democrats. Christie’s governing style has earned him praise from Republicans around the country and kept his name afloat as a presidential contender until early October when he finally said “no”. If you look at much of Chrisitie’s success over his first two years, it has been Democrats making the difference on legislative votes. Christie cannot ignore that factor. He does not have enough Republicans in either body to pass anything alone. South Jersey Democrats lead by Sweeney have been of utmost importance for Christie and the two’s relationship could become fractured based on Sweeney’s political aims for 2013. Until then, the two could build a bipartisan relationship that crafts reforms in areas like education.
Those efforts with initiatives like pension and benefit reform for public employees and similar measures by Christie have not gone unnoticed by New Jersey voters. A newly released Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll shows Christie polling with a 53% approval rating with 37% disapproving of him.
As Peter Woolley, poll director, described;
“That’s the way any office-holder wants to begin the new year. But in this economic climate, many aren’t.”
His numbers are not too much higher than ones seen late in 2011, but they do remain a promising upside for him as he begins the second half of his term. Of the Democratic names mentioned, only Booker posts an approval to disapproval rate that could worry Christie. Booker has a 39% to 8% favorability to unfavorability rating.
With the poll numbers, electoral year ahead, and many items to address; Christie provided a snapshot of where he stands by stating;
“I’m an unscripted person, so there are times when I will say things that after I say them I think to myself, I could have said that better or I shouldn’t have said it that way.”
That is Christie in a nutshell and he is aware of that. His brash bravado is a strength and a weakness and more people tend to lean towards supporting his governing of the state than those who oppose him. He will likely monitor his tongue and his YouTube fame as much as possible for the next year because campaigns each cycle become much more vicious with the use of Internet clips that highlight candidate missteps and flaws.
On the topic of education, Christie voiced optimism for 2012 while using hindsight to reflect on what was transpiring throughout the last year. He expressed,
“Was I hopeful that we’d get some of this stuff (education reforms) done in 2011? Absolutely. But in the end, when we got pension and benefit reform done, I think that that pretty much exhausted the Legislature. I’ve always thought this (education reform) is going to be the toughest thing I’ll have to accomplish in the time I’m here, so as a result you just have to keep at it.”
Now as Christie prepares to continue to improve the Garden State, he must find ways to improve on not only his demeanor; but some legislative objectives that are continuing efforts. With property taxes, the cap at 2% last January was an improvement; but minimal results have been truly reflected since. Part of that has to do with towns and cities making the effort to curb their budgets and part of that is up to Christie and the State Legislature to find ways to assist towns and cities make those budget adjustments without feeling like they are hindering their citizens. Beginning this summer, the initial impact of last June’s pensions and benefits package will begin to shift the cost control needed in the state. Minimal results there too are likely to occur at first and it will take a few years to gauge the success of the reform package on saving the state money. There will be a build up to 2014 when negotiations are slated to open up again and if Christie is still governor; the issue can become as heated or more than it was in 2011. Utilizing that money saved will go a long way in improving the solvency of the public pension system, which Christie has at times high balled actual totals from his reforms.
Next month, Christie will present his third budget and if the past two are any indication; there will be split opinions of it. Christie set out in January 2010 to balance the state’s budget by January 2014. He has issued deep slashes in 2010 and 2011; education being one of the hardest areas hit. He has fought against a millionaire’s tax each time Democrats have brought it up and has additionally skipped payments in certain areas like property tax relief as an avenue to achieve budgetary success. He has fought against federal aid for education and transportation and has often found himself at the center of the firing squad before ultimately getting his way more often than not. Can he continue to cut programs and popular outlets while ignoring other ways to continue to curb spending and fix the state’s budget? That will be determined a lot by his budgetary address next month.
As Christie took to Trenton on Tuesday to deliver his State of the State address and prepares to travel more for Romney as well as address House Republicans this week, he will need to properly balance his duties as governor and his role as GOP national figure. He will continue to target his toolkit and need to focus on working more with Democrats in Trenton. His ability to do all of those things will not only impact his poll numbers in 2012, but also his ability to govern and potentially set up a major year for him next year.