New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who toppled Democrat Jon Corzine in 2009 as voters grew weary of the state’s economic slump, may be on the wrong end of the same issue as he seeks a second term in November.
Jobs have emerged as a potential weakness for Christie, who is enjoying record popularity for his handling of Hurricane Sandy and is a possible 2016 presidential candidate. While 87 percent of New Jersey voters approved of his storm-recovery efforts in an April 10 Rutgers-Eagleton poll, only 42 percent were positive about his handling of employment and the economy.
New Jersey has added 127,800 nongovernment positions since Christie took office, 51 percent of those lost in the recession that began in December 2007. In Pennsylvania, 69 percent of the jobs have been recovered, while New York has regained more than it shed. New Jersey’s failure to keep up with its neighbors has Christie defending his job-creation policies, which include tax cuts and less business regulation.
“In 2009, reality was still very raw from the economic disaster and any incumbent who was up for election was at risk and Chris Christie very successfully exploited that,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton poll. “The irony is that there is still a general sense that the economy is weak and taxes continue to be too high. If there’s any place that at the moment he appears vulnerable, it would be there.”
When Christie took office in January 2010, the jobless rate was 9.7 percent, more than double the 4.6 percent level at the start of the 18-month recession. At the time, New Jersey unemployment was 0.1 percentage point below the national level.
Since then, the U.S. rate has fallen by 2.2 percentage points, to 7.6 percent in March, while New Jersey’s has fallen 0.7 percentage point to 9 percent. New York has 8.4 percent unemployment and Pennsylvania, 8.1 percent. New Jersey’s rate dropped by 0.3 percentage point last month, to its lowest since May 2009.
The biggest growth under Christie has occurred in professional and business services, education and health services, trade, transportation and utilities and leisure and hospitality, according to state data. Manufacturing jobs declined, along with information and financial activities.
“The broad pattern or net change suggests that we do have a problem with the quality of jobs or mix that is added,” said James Hughes, dean of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “We’ve added a lot of jobs in health services, retail and leisure and hospitality, which tend to be below-average paying.”
Data from the U.S. Labor Department show employment dropping or stagnating for some of New Jersey’s highest-paying occupations, and rising for some positions that pay much less.
In May 2010, 130,650 New Jersey residents were employed in the area that includes computer programmers, systems analysts and software engineers, for an annual mean pay of $85,570, according to the data. In May 2012, the figure was down 4.5 percent as median pay rose to $88,020.
Management jobs, such as chief executives, are New Jersey’s highest-paid, with $132,420 mean compensation in 2012. Their ranks grew just 0.2 percent from 2010, to 196,140.
During the same period, employment grew and pay dropped in retail food service, the statistical area with the lowest compensation. In 2010, mean pay was $23,540 for the 265,890 employed. In 2012, the mean was $200 less as employment swelled 3 percent, to 273,710.
“The highest-paying jobs are the ones you really need the economy running on all cylinders to add,” said Neil Klein, who helps oversee $1.2 billion of fixed income at Carret Asset Management in New York. “It’s going to take some time to recover.”
State Senator Barbara Buono, Christie’s challenger, says the recovery isn’t happening quickly enough. She has accused Christie of using Sandy to detract from New Jersey’s economic problems. The governor has called Buono a “Corzine Democrat’ who has supported raising taxes that he said kill jobs.
‘‘This is the primary issue the people of New Jersey care about, and the governor has to be held accountable,’’ said Buono, 59, a lawyer from Metuchen. ‘‘If I had his record on the economy and the recovery, I’d want to always talk about Sandy.’’
Christie, 50, was on the defensive this month for backing Rutgers President Robert Barchi after disclosures that the state school’s former men’s basketball coach abused his players. This week, he renewed calls for a 10 percent tax cut that Democrats have blocked, saying it will ‘‘pour gasoline on the fire’” of the recovery.
Buono voted for 154 tax increases during more than two decades in the legislature that cost the state $9 billion and drove away businesses, said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie’s campaign. New Jersey was the second-lowest rated in the Washington-based Tax Foundation’s 2013 business tax-climate index, which ranks the 50 U.S. states based on how welcoming their tax law is to businesses.
In an April 17 Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll, Christie had a 63 percent approval rating. While that’s down from 70 percent in February, he has support from a majority of Democratic and independent voters, as well as Republicans.
“The fact of the matter is that New Jersey is making progress and everyone but Senator Buono feels that,” the governor said yesterday after meeting with business owners in Long Branch, a shore town hit hard by Sandy.
Unemployed New Jersey resident John R. Fugazzie, 57, of River Edge, said Christie is “spinning a positive blip” about his jobs record that he isn’t buying. Unemployment is a “big issue” for Christie, he said.
Fugazzie was jobless in 2011 when he founded Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors USA Inc., a volunteer jobs-search group. Three months later, he was hired as national director of dairy and frozen food for The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., the Montvale, New Jersey-based grocery-store operator. His $125,000-a-year position, though, was eliminated in October 2012, and now, beyond his own job search, he’s coaching fellow unemployed to consider taking multiple part-time positions.
New Jersey was one of seven states whose economy shrank in 2011. It ranked 47th in terms of growth in its gross domestic product, according to U.S. Commerce Department statistics.
“I do question how someone who is leading a state with the 47th worst economic growth can be considered to take a national office,” Fugazzie said. “To do what? To fix the national story?”
The jobs market is a bit less bleak for Bill Kline, 59, of Lyndhurst, who found what he called enjoyable work managing wine and spirits for Fairway Market in Woodland Park, New Jersey. The job came after four years of mostly volunteer tasks for non-profit groups, during which he couldn’t find a paid position that required his master of business administration’s qualification. Kline’s income, less than $40,000 for a 40-hour week, is a third of what he was earning at technology companies, he said.
“When the governor talks about growing jobs, he’s talking about green industries and construction jobs,” Kline said. “I don’t really see him trying to attract business to New Jersey that would be something to employ me. I applaud his efforts but it seems like the places I would work, the Mercks and the Pfizers, are leaving.”