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Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Personal Reflections ... Politics ...

I’ve been following the rise and fall of New Jersey Governor Christopher Christie with particular interest. Chris Christie wouldn’t know me from Adam, but “big Chris” has been a part of my life for the past 4 or 5 years now.

It all goes back to 2008, when Christie was still the US Attorney for New Jersey. Big Chris had made a name for himself through a series of political corruption prosecutions, nailing a variety of local officials in Northern NJ for putting their hands out (often for a petty thousand or two). He started making noises about getting back into politics (he had previously been a Freeholder in Morris County under the Republican brand), by running against incumbent Governor John Corzine in the 2009 election. The State GOP eventually went along with him, and he made a spirited campaign against Corzine, who by then seemed bored and unenthusiastic about bare-knuckled New Jersey politics.

The well-off Corzine hoped that he could walk to a re-election by outspending Christie, but the local urban machines decided to hedge their bets and keep the turnout low in the urban counties, which Democrats rely on at election time. Christie by contrast had inspired high turnouts in the suburban and ex-urban counties where Republicans often do well, and so he became the fourth non-Democratic New Jersey governor over the past 50 years.

At first Christie looked similar to his Republican predecessors, running a tighter ship fiscally and programatically with few new initiatives, but otherwise making peace with the generally liberal tendencies of most New Jersey politicians. But after a while, he decided to break-out and start getting assertive. One of his big initiatives was to control local taxes by cutting back on pension and health care benefits for government employees. He got the Democratic Legislature to pass a fairly easy pension reform bill affecting mostly newly hired and future employees and leaving all existing employees’ pension rights intact. But his blustery style was playing well in the suburbs, and so the Governor decided to push the Dems into a second round of pension cutting and health care contribution increases, this time giving existing government employees a haircut. The unions and Democrats put up some nominal resistance, but they knew that Christie had a lot of momentum with the home-owning public, who were getting tired of accelerating increases to their property taxes.

And so, all government employees, State and local, were forced to pay more for health care and for their pensions, while getting less (the biggest cut was the cost-of-living adjustment, which reduced the present fiscal value of an average pension by 20 to 25%). Since I was (and still am) a vested local government employee at the time, I was not particularly happy about this.

Yes, I know that there is a long-term fiscal crisis in New Jersey and that we would have to make some sacrifices in order to keep the ship afloat; but it seemed to me that hardly any other major stakeholder was making similar sacrifices. Christie vetoed any tax increase to the wealthy, and he totally ignored what I believe to be the biggest government employee rip-off of the public, i.e. the “automatic step increases” that are built into most unionized government employee contracts. This arrangement gives government employees guaranteed annual “merit” increases ON TOP OF the inflation adjustment that the union would bargain for (and would still get, despite the on-going recession and financial crisis of 2008 – 2013). No performance evaluation needed, good and lousy government workers equally get their steps.

Disclosure, I am NOT a unionized employee, so I only get the inflation adjustment, not the “step increases”. My best guess on why Christie and his GOP friends ignored “steps” is that eliminating them would have caused too much backlash from the police and fire unions, whose members make out quite well under these arrangements. When you get 4 or 5% annual pay increases in a time of 2% inflation, a cut-back in your long-term pension value doesn’t seem all that bad. When you at best get 2%, it hurts a bit more (and yes, I know that a lot of people out in private industry have been getting ZERO percent in recent years, along with pension cuts and health cost increases; my heart goes out to you).

So, when I see videos of Chris Christie shouting at teachers or other taxpayers who question his policies, I say “yep, that’s Big Chris, the bully who grabbed me by the collar and forced a financial haircut on me, because as a lazy government employee I had to do more than my fair share to save the State”. But that’s not my only connection with the guy. He tapped my then-big boss to play an important roll in his administration. One day at the office, just before the big boss swapped a modest desk in the County seat for a bigger one in Trenton, I actually saw Chris Christie walking through my work area, coming out of a meeting in the bosses’ office. He passed about 6 feet away from me. Some of the other minions greeted him, but I looked up for a second then peered back down at the stuff on my desk. Didn’t want to get involved.

In addition, my brother has a friend who worked as an investigator under Christie when he was the federal Attorney. The friend did not have anything good to say about Big Chris, saying that he saw a lot of instances where Christie focused investigatory and prosecutorial resources on cases that were sure to get big headlines in the press, while starving equally if not more important cases (from the perspective of deterring crime and maintaining law and order) that were not as interesting to the media. Christie may have been grandstanding all along, planning an eventual move into high-stakes politics even as early as 2004 (he became NJ’s US Attorney in 2002 under President George W Bush).

That’s actually one thing about Christie that endears him to me, in an odd fashion. We do a lot of political speculating in my office, and I took Christie seriously as soon as I first heard that he was interested in running for Governor. The other political guru’s there wrote both me and Big Chris off, saying that he didn’t have any relevant political experience (they weren’t impressed by his one term as a Morris County Freeholder from 1994, and his subsequent loss in a state primary for a State Assembly seat), and citing some allegations of contracting favoritism and cronyism on Christie’s part while US Attorney. And even if the Republicans let him run, he was still an unknown through much of the State, and would not be able to overcome Corzine’s advantage as a wealthy incumbent.

I took the contrarian view, after seeing a few Christie speeches and reading some other punditry about Christie’s promise as a full-bore political figure (and being increasingly dis-impressed with Corzine’s political will and skill, as his first term as Governor progressed). And this time I was right! So even though I voted against Christie, it was nice to see on the morning of Nov 6, 2009 that I had made a good political call, I saw a wave coming from far out.

Over Christie’s first term, his star as a national figure started to rise, and there was even talk about his running for President (or at least for Vice President) on the 2012 GOP ticket. Chris decided to play it smart, saying that he wasn’t ready, but would not rule out anything in the future. In other words, he was already dreaming about 2016; his speech at the GOP Convention in August was mostly about himself, with a passing reference here and there to Mitt Romney. And after Romney’s resounding defeat in November, Chris Christie became the GOP’s great white hope, the guy who the Establishment would favor while having just enough big-mouthed appeal to keep the wacko grass-roots people happy enough (even though he was not really a Tea Partier, and many conservative activists chided Christie for being “too liberal”).

But once again, the furies have arrived on stage to attack those who ride the wave of hubris and glory. Big Chris seems to have gone a little too far in his bare-knuckled political tactics, and now we have the George Washington Bridge lane closure investigation at the center of public attention, followed on by a sideshow in Hoboken regarding alleged hold-back of Superstorm Sandy federal relief money until the mayor supported a real estate development project tied to Christie supporters. After the e-mails showing that Christie’s chief of staff had intentionally ordered the Port Authority to close the local approach lanes because of the local mayor’s unwillingness to endorse Christie in the upcoming governors election, Governor Christie decided to do some damage control and open up to the press.

At a long press conference on January 9, 2014, Christie denied even knowing that the lane closures were happening in real time, and also denied ever being friends with the fellow from the Port Authority who carried out the closures, David Wildstein, despite the fact that the two both graduated from the same high school class. Despite remembrances of their long-term association, Christie decided to slight Mr. Wildstein before the national press, saying that he (Christie) was an athlete and class president, and that he didn’t know what Mr. Wildstein was back then; definitely not his friend. Obviously, the implication was that Mr. Wildstein was in a lower high school caste, not as cool as Big Chris, and so why would the big guy have given any attention to a nerd?

In situations like this, where a powerful public official tries to deny any knowledge of an improper action that his staff obviously did carry out, the power faction usually does something to buy the loyalties and closed-mouthedness of the staff, despite needing to publicly blame and dismiss them from office. Usually some sort of quiet arrangements are made to give the scapegoats a “soft landing”, e.g. a well-paying position in a law firm that is politically affiliated with the threatened official. I’m sure (but I have not actual information on this) that Mr. Christie and his people were making some back-door efforts to take care of those being blamed, including former Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein. Often this works, and the public figure rides out the bad publicity when the official investigation fails to verify the allegations. The press and the public have very short memories.

But the Governor may have made a mistake at that press conference by including a gratuitous personal dig at Mr. Wildstein. A few days ago, Mr. Wildstein’s attorney wrote a letter to the Port Authority that was nominally about who was going to pay him for defending Mr. Wildstein (Wildstein and his attorney claim that the Port Authority was responsible to defend high-level managers who get in trouble). Way down in this long letter, mostly as an aside, the attorney drops a bombshell — he asserts that there is evidence that Mr. Christie knew about the lane closures as they were happening, directly contradicting what the Governor told the press at his “heart-to heart” conference with them.

Now we wait for the next shoe to drop — what is this evidence? When will it be disclosed? How real and relevant is it? The pundits all seem to agree that if such evidence does surface, Mr. Christie will not only forfeit any shot at the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, but will also have to voluntarily end his governorship or face impeachment charges.

Why am I so fascinated with this? Because, another personal connection has arisen — I was in law school with Wildstein’s attorney! We weren’t close friends, but I was in a few classes with him and did talk to him a bit. He became a high-profile defense lawyer in New Jersey, probably the most famous member of any of the classes that graduated when I was there. And now he is in the national spotlight!!

From what I remember of him, I would make two comments. First, I don’t believe that he sympathizes very much with Republican causes; so by retaining him, Mr. Wildstein may have crossed to the enemy camp, as far as Christie is concerned. Second, this fellow is probably an extremely bright, shrewd, quick-witted, gifted lawyer; he clearly seemed like the perfect lawyer in the making back when I knew him. I can’t see Wildstein’s attorney including such an allegation in a letter that he knew would go viral unless he was really sure that it was real. There would have too much at stake, given his reputation as one of the State’s top attorneys, to make an off-handed assertion that might not hold up.

And so, I believe this is real. Either the current US Attorney or the State Legislative Committee will eventually get to this evidence, and Mr. Christie’s meteoric rise in politics will turn into another meteoric flame-out. Interestingly, a well-connected behind-the-scenes political guy who I once worked for at another job told me a few months after Christie’s 2009 election that Chris Christie was a “bull in a china shop”, and predicted that he would have a big downfall sooner or later. He said that Christie had gone the same route in Morris County during his short tenure as Freeholder in the 90’s, he had rubbed too many politicos the wrong way, and was thus edged out by the local party leaders. He would go the same route as Governor, my former boss predicted.

Well, it took four years, but the [former] boss may soon be right! So, perhaps Mr. Christie will not get a chance to grab me and other government workers by the neck once again and cut some more from our promised and vested job benefits. At his recent State of the State speech, a few days after the e-mails from his chief of staff were made public and the “Bridgegate” crisis began, Governor Christie proposed further pension cut-backs for government workers. And hey, why not? Pension reform was probably Christie’s biggest accomplishment (and really, only major accomplishment) as Governor, the thing which helped power him to national attention. So why not push the same button again, to divert attention from his own sins? When an airplane is crashing, pilots reportedly try to push any and every button or control lever to get the plane out of its nosedive.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. I’ll obviously be watching with much interest as this drama unfolds, considering that I have some financial “skin” in the game, along with a bit of personal history too. I want what is best for the State of NJ, given that I was born and raised here and hope to live here for the remainder of my life; given that I have some funds invested in New Jersey municipal bonds and would like to see them retain their value; and given that a financially insolvent State would have to cut my pension way back even after I started receiving it, as is happening to the retired employees of Detroit.

So I don’t want to see Chris Christie go merely because MSNBC hates him. If his previous employee benefit cut-backs help to stabilize the State’s long term financial prospects, despite how unfairly the burden was distributed, I may eventually owe Mr. Christie a thank you note (as he himself modestly suggested when his reforms were passed). But I think that his luck ran out, that his “true colors” are finally showing, and thus his time as an effective political leader is over.

And hey, let’s hope that Christie’s current staff doesn’t come across this note — they would surely figure out who I am with a bit of computer forensic work, and might then arrange for me also to become a former local government worker !

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:14 pm      

  1. Jim, With all due respect, your post made me smile. Sounds so very Illinois-an! I don’t know about New Jersey, but too many of our Illinois governors over the years have ended up in Federal prison. We now have one serving 14 years (although I think he got a raw deal as he was not too smart in how he played the political game and made individuals who could do him harm very angry, if for nothing else than to simply get back at him for what he tried to do. I should also say our present governor seems to be one of the “good guys”, a strange phenomenon in politics. But, I digress.) As I read your post, all I could think of was, this could be Illinois, just change the names and places – and only too likely it’s possible the same thing has already happened and gone unnoticed in Illinois as just business as usual.

    I also find myself thinking of so many politicians who have been grossly unwise in things they did – and yet survived to live another day. Clinton comes to mind here. (Nixon not so fortunate; yet he didn’t play the politics right, it seems to me.) When it comes to Christie, I find myself thinking he may yet survive the whole thing as so many other politicians have. Time will tell.

    As to the pension discussion: Seems the same thing is happening in several places. Illinois just did something similar (as you describe in New Jersey) to those who hope to get and are already getting a pension. We’ve seen so much fiddling with money for those retired or who hope to retire in the future before. Wasn’t it in the Reagan era when they needed money, looked around and said, hey, there’s a pile of money in Social Security; let’s use that. And they did and now we are in the fix we are in with Social Security. With pensions it seems it went a little “backwards”: Why put money in something we don’t need to spend right now? seems to have been the question. Being on the receiving end of a pension myself, I’ve been getting reams and reams of information about what all is going on with the pension in Illinois – to the point where I am really tired of reading it all.

    I must say that requiring individuals to invest in the stock market (or any other market) seems to me to be grossly silly. How many ordinary individuals know enough to be able to do well in any of the markets? Few, would be my answer. In addition in people’s lives serious situations arise that cost big money and the savings go out the door – leaving the individual little time to study and fuss with investment markets.

    I wish New Jersey and those who are on a pension and those who hope for a pension well in the future. In Illinois we can’t really say how the fiddling with the pension will turn out as the changes made have just this year come into effect; already I see my sister having to look into insurance matters; and I find myself saying, hmmmmm. Time will tell here too just what kind of job the politicians have done with the pensions.

    As to Christie, time will tell there – how he manages to play this game, if he wins or loses the game. MCS

    Comment by Mary — February 5, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

  2. I read your comments with interest – as I am also closely following the Christie saga. Like Mary, I also live in the Land of Lincoln, but I still was aware of Christie’s efforts to go after the pensions of NJ government workers. I found it most curious that you say you may eventually owe Christie a big thank you note. Really?

    Christie’s career is full of corruption with the lane closures just one instance of many. Your brother’s friend suggests that Christie was politically motivated in who he prosecuted. That charge has been reported elsewhere. It is hard to argue that the Sandy money has been effectively distributed. It is clear that some communities were short changed while others were compensated very well – and it is hard to conclude anything other than politics. The US Senators who approved sending NJ the Sandy money did so under the assumption that the money would not just go to Christie’s supporters. If another economic disaster happens in NJ, it will be a little easier for Congress to say “no” – and how can anyone blame them?

    There is a price that the people of NJ have to pay for corruption – and it is more than just paying extra taxes to support people like Wildstein being on the payroll. And after following the Christie saga, I can’t help but wonder what else don’t we know. Perhaps Christie’s opposition to railroad infrastructure improvements in going into Manhattan was politically motivated? Why should I not be skeptical?

    Comment by Zreebs — February 22, 2014 @ 9:23 am

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