Among the many things we have to say goodbye to -- Charlie Sheen, Regis, a gallon of gas rounded down to $3 -- add the nose-to-the-grindstone governor who’s above engaging in national political battle. The last demilitarized zone in politics has been overrun.
At past winter meetings of the National Governors Association, the workhorses of democracy would come to Washington, remove their red and blue ties and share best practices with their fellow executives. They left the histrionics to members of Congress, who can afford to run their mouths because they don’t have to run a state.
Suddenly, governors have gone rogue.
Most are Republicans. Most are out of money and gimmicks and, it would seem, curiosity: Hardly any showed up on the conference’s final day to hear Bill Gates, who’s spent billions figuring out how to fix education, tell them how to improve their schools. They’re busy pushing intra-class warfare to solve their fiscal emergencies, pitting a toll collector who still has a pension against an auto worker who doesn’t have a job.
Their pace-setter is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who was the center of attention at the conference even though he wasn’t in attendance. He was back home escalating his war with public-employee unions, trying to turn the workers who clean his office into the squeegee men of Budget Crisis 2011.
The unions had quickly given in, recognizing that their members had enjoyed outsized benefits and escaped the brutal cuts endured by their private-company counterparts. Still Walker persisted, attempting to strip collective-bargaining rights, end automatic payment of dues and force workers to vote every year on whether to have a union at all.
As the weekend wore on, Walker lost his winner’s glow. Stalling by outnumbered Democrats in the state legislature had given people a chance to learn the fine print of the bill. Protesters in Madison swelled to an estimated 100,000 from 70,000, in a snowstorm. Walker backed off evicting them from the Capitol when the police, whose union he isn’t at odds with, seemed reluctant to carry out the dirty work.
And Walker seemed sneaky when he said, in a taped phone call with an imposter posing as conservative financier David Koch, that he’d thought of planting troublemakers among the protesters, presumably to make them look bad. Polls showed Walker’s support sinking.
As Walker was falling to earth, another governor continued his rise to stardom.
At each annual conference, there’s one governor trailing clouds of reporters. One year it was the young leader of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. Another year it was Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Then came Alaska’s Sarah Palin.
This year it was Chris Christie of New Jersey. While other governors hovered near the television cameras, reporters and a table offering free root-beer floats -- courtesy of Utah’s travel bureau -- Christie didn’t have to work the room. The room worked him.
Settled in a comfortable red chair in the lobby, he listed for me his well-known bill of particulars against workers whose benefits are bankrupting his state. He marveled at how premiums for the very best health insurance costs state employees, him included, the same as the bad ones. Did I know that the state’s pension fund is almost empty, thanks to years of politicians not paying into it? Or that teachers paid nothing at all toward their benefits?
Yes, even Miss Witherspoon, your third-grade teacher with her multiplication tables, is now vulnerable. We love teachers individually, but their largest union is stuck in an era before charter schools and “Waiting for Superman.” Johnny isn’t learning as well as students elsewhere: a respected international test released in December showed American teenagers scoring 31st in math and 17th in reading. Yet the union stubbornly clings to the principle of lifetime tenure.
At the Table
As much as critics try to lump Christie in with Walker, the New Jersey governor is no union buster. Collective bargaining is a good thing, he says, but only when somebody truly representing the taxpayer is sitting across from the union leaders. Don’t be surprised, he tells me, if he shows up personally when 14 contracts come up for renegotiation in June.
Christie is the governor more likely to come out of his budget battle with his popularity intact.
Walker, when he draws blood, seems to thirst for more to sate his conservative ideology, to please the Kochs of the world. Christie may relish rolling over critics at his town hall meetings, in encounters his staff is happy to post on YouTube, but he remains popular because he makes such a good everyman.
No Laughing Matter
When asked about first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy food campaign, he resisted making fun of it, noting his own girth and struggles since childhood controlling his eating.
He seems driven less by ideology than by nostalgia for a day gone by when the Garden State was in clover, without a $1 billion hole in the treasury or residents so tapped out by taxes they have to move elsewhere. Fairness, he keeps saying, is what he seeks.
Whether Christie really does spread the pain evenly, from the hamlets along the Palisades to the mean streets of Newark, he comes across as a regular guy who wants to. In these days of militant governors, that’s enough.
Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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