Barely 400 days into a tenure that began with his squeaking into office with 49 percent of the vote, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is emboldening other Republican chief executives to challenge the compact between governments and their workers.
The 48-year-old former U.S. attorney once was a singular voice of pugnacity. Now the Christie style is gaining disciples. Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio have seen protests as Republican governors take on public-sector unions for cutbacks or restrictions on collective bargaining. They chose the same target at which Christie took aim last year.
“I’ve never been a wallflower,” Christie told reporters Feb. 26 at the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington. “I talk about the things I want to talk about.”
Christie is a provocative presence on YouTube, where he has his own channel, often seen attacking teacher unions in public forums. He has visited Washington three times in the past month. In a Feb. 16 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, he threatened to campaign against House Republicans who he said need to “put up or shut up” on fighting the cost of government entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.
Christie filled the cover of this week’s New York Times Magazine. At the weekend governors’ meeting he was a magnet for reporters seeking his opinion on the Wisconsin labor battle. His high profile among the governors has fed speculation he will run for president in 2012, though he has denied such ambitions.
No Romance Here
He mixes it up with other governors, such as Maryland Democrat Martin O’Malley, who said Christie is “abusive toward public employees” and that he is a budget hypocrite for skipping the state’s $3 billion pension bill payment.
“If he doesn’t like my style then we don’t have to date,” Christie said in Washington. “It’s OK by me.”
After taking office Christie identified government unions - - especially the New Jersey Education Association -- as an element driving up taxes. When a teacher complained to Christie about her salary at a public event last May, Christie told her, “Well, you know what? You don’t have to do it.”
The exchange drew national attention.
“I think this represents the heightened political rhetoric that is spilling out of Washington, and I also would warn you that there are a number of politicians, some of whom are governors, who may be running for president,” Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Dan Malloy said in an interview in Washington.
Partisan gridlock hasn’t been good for Congress, “so I can’t imagine that it’s good anywhere else,” Malloy said.
Christie dismisses such talk. States are under financial stress and need tough measures fast, he said. Confronting unions on pension and health-care costs is part of that strategy, Christie said.
New Jersey had the highest state and local tax burden for fiscal 2009, according to the Tax Foundation. On Feb. 22, he proposed a $29.4 billion budget that would give residents property-tax credits if lawmakers pass his plan for all public workers to pay 30 percent of the cost of their health benefits.
“We’ve been taking on the unions in New Jersey for the last year and that’s gotten a lot of attention, too. So everybody is doing it their own way,” Christie said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has gone further than Christie by pushing the elimination of most collective- bargaining rights for public sector workers, an idea that caused protesters to occupy the Capitol in Madison. Walker, who didn’t attend the governors’ meeting because of the standoff, said he has consulted with Christie on budget issues. And like Christie, Walker talks bluntly.
“It’s about time somebody stood up and told the truth in this state and said ‘Here’s our problem, here’s the solution,’ and act about it,” Walker, 43, said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I need to do what no other governor is doing across this country,” Walker said.
The Christie approach appears to draw from the anti- government, anti-union line of conservative talk radio, said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, which covers the industry.
Amid budget deficits, the appeal of that message has grown, Harrison said in a telephone interview from Springfield, Massachusetts.
“These governors have found out that it resonates with their constituencies,” Harrison said.
Newly elected Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich, 58, served 18 years in Congress. After he left in 2001 he became a talk-show host for six years on Fox News with a program called “The Heartland with John Kasich.”
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio, said in a telephone interview the aggressiveness of some Republican governors reminds him of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats after the 2008 election. They, too, believed they had a mandate, he said.
Fights with unions “did start with the defiant tone of Governor Christie,” Green said. “He made a real point of standing up to people on one side and it resonated with people on the other side.”
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