For two weeks after Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York and New Jersey, Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie traded business attire for crisis-mode casual as they held briefings, toured the destruction in helicopters and pushed power companies to get the lights on.
Cuomo, a 54-year-old Democrat, is now focusing on rebuilding New York, with damages estimated at $33 billion, and probing the failings of the state’s Long Island Power Authority, which incurred residents’ wrath for its performance after the storm. As he casts himself as a champion for constituents, he already has a 70 percent approval rating.
The road is rockier for Christie, a 50-year-old Republican whose first term ends in a year. The governor, often mentioned as a 2016 presidential candidate, has come under fire from his party for praising President Barack Obama’s handling of Sandy. The small-government proponent finds himself rethinking an income-tax cut central to his strategy, and even warning of property-tax increases to pay for cleanup beyond the 2 percent annual cap he signed into law. While the storm allowed Cuomo to burnish his reputation, it has Christie improvising.
“As people work to rebuild, I think there are real challenges for Christie and his administration,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and political science at Montclair State University. “Add to that the backing down on two of his key policy priorities.”
Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm in history, leveled beach towns and boardwalks that Christie calls “the Jersey shore of my youth.” It killed 37 people in his state, upended transportation and cut electricity to 2.7 million customers, more than two-thirds of homes and businesses.
The state may release a preliminary tally of the damage as soon as today, Christie said Nov. 14.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released less than two weeks before the storm, Christie had an approval rating of 56 percent, three percentage points below an all-time high. The governor spent much of the year holding town-hall meetings, where he would say New Jersey was “in a comeback” and could afford an income-tax cut for every resident.
Christie’s revenue forecasts have been challenged by Democrats, who control the legislature, and by Standard & Poor’s, which revised its outlook on the state’s debt in September to negative from stable. Collections for the first three months of the fiscal year that began July 1 missed his forecast by 4 percent, putting revenue about $175 million short of targets in the $31.7 billion budget Christie signed in June.
The governor said Nov. 12 he’s not sure he’ll pursue a tax cut because Sandy may have hurt revenue. The next day, he said homeowners in areas damaged by the storm may face higher tax bills for rebuilding costs.
Though Christie won’t say yet whether he’ll seek a second term, Sandy may force him to if he wants to leave the office on a high note, said Steve Schmidt, senior strategist on Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential run.
“The building effort and the recovery effort will take years,” Schmidt said in a telephone interview. “The state’s going to need a steady hand on the wheel for years to come.”
Christie appeared on television almost daily from Oct. 28, the day before Sandy made landfall, wearing a blue fleece pullover embroidered with his name and title. The garment became such a trademark that the actor who lampooned him on the NBC show “Saturday Night Live” wore one just like it.
In New York, Cuomo also held daily briefings, often wearing a blazer and no tie. Both governors resumed wearing suits this week. “Now it’s time to get back to normal and back to work; that’s why I don’t have the fleece on,” Christie joked on Twitter.
Normal times have been good to Cuomo. In his first term, he has pushed through a divided legislature a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and a property-tax cap. He persuaded public-worker unions to agree to furloughs and pay freezes as he cut more than $12 billion in budget deficits over two years. A pension overhaul approved in March, he says, will save state and local governments $80 billion over the next 30 years.
Cuomo also is seen as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, though he’s not so well-known beyond his state. Sandy, which ravaged New York City, introduced him to a national television audience during rounds with NBC’s Brian Williams, ABC’s Diane Sawyer, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and CNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
The governor, however, must deal with the fallout from the performance of the power authority, which drew demonstrations as its crews failed to bring power back to Long Island long after other areas were relit. Cuomo has said the agency is “beyond repair” and ordered an investigation.
A 15-member board of trustees, nine of whom are appointed by the governor, oversees the authority. Four of those nine seats are vacant and two members are serving even though their terms have expired. In almost two years in office, Cuomo has appointed only one trustee.
Cuomo also had to vie for attention with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political-science professor. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“The nature of the geography and the population of the state required Cuomo, in part, to compete and work with Mayor Bloomberg in spearheading the recovery,” Shapiro said. Christie, he said, “was more of a singular figure.”
The New Jersey governor, known for a blunt and caustic style, begged barrier-island residents to leave as the storm approached after they ignored his orders. He soothed victims who cried in his arms, and promised to get them help. He spoke during briefings about homes ripped from foundations, and the boardwalk rides on which he recently took his children cast into the Atlantic Ocean.
“The tone softened and was tempered by the magnitude of the crisis and its aftermath,” Schmidt said. “You’ve seen his full range now play out. I think that’s politically good.”
Ten days before the storm, Christie was on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign trail in Richmond, Virginia, where he spoke about Obama’s “arrogance” and told a crowd: “He doesn’t know anything about leading. He’s never led anything in his life.”
Since the night before the storm, when Obama promised federal relief, Christie has had only praise for the Democratic president. Obama called daily, said Christie, who also had kind words for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s attention to New Jersey’s needs.
Fish to Fry
As the storm approached, Christie said he told Romney he wouldn’t be able to campaign for him if Sandy was as severe as forecast. Christie has said he stopped caring about the presidential election once Sandy hit.
“I don’t give a damn about Election Day,” he said on Oct. 30. “At the moment I have much bigger fish to fry than that and so do the people of the state of New Jersey.”
Christie’s next challenge will be to make sure relief money is spent wisely, said Peter Woolley, professor of comparative politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park, New Jersey. If he is successful, Christie may find that voters reward him for his handling of the disaster rather than punish him on taxes, Woolley said.
“The stronger of those two is he’s perceived as running an efficient state that responded swiftly and efficiently to these dire needs, and I think that’s easier said than done,” Woolley said. “There’s plenty of opportunity to stumble here.”