Christie’s Old Retread Brown Savoring Boom as N.J. Slides

Political events playing out on opposite sides of the continent show how an economic rebound and a scandal can reshape prospects and perspectives.

Chris Christie, escaping the chill of a raw March day, ducks into a YMCA in Mount Laurel, a leafy New Jersey suburb near Philadelphia. The occasion: a town hall meeting, his 113th since taking office in January 2010. About 500 people crowd a gym floor, settling in on steel folding chairs as Christie, tossing his charcoal suit jacket to an aide, solicits questions about pet topics: his $34.4 billion proposed budget and efforts to rein in the highest property taxes in the U.S.

It’s vintage Christie until you sort out what’s changed. For one: no cheesy introduction video. For another, the largely friendly crowd holds a half-dozen hecklers, unheard of a few months ago. They take turns interrupting the governor over his handling of Hurricane Sandy relief and the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal involving Christie aides that’s thrown the voluble governor off stride and knocked 18 percentage points from his approval ratings.

Christie, who remains a possible Republican presidential candidate and who showed relish mocking his detractors in public forums, doesn’t engage the disruptors. “Either sit down and keep quiet or get out,” he said to one of the people interrupting him, turning to a woman in the audience who had posed a polite question. Cops eject the hecklers.

California Growth

A few days earlier on the other side of the country, California Governor Jerry Brown was having a better time. In a speech to 1,000 of the state’s Democratic Party delegates, he drew cheers as he bullet-pointed his case for a fourth term. California job growth has outpaced the nation -- and is triple that of New Jersey’s. With a record budget surplus, the state has had its credit rating boosted and is poised for another.

“The pundits at Fox, the Wall Street Journal and other conservative commentators all said that California is like Greece or some Third World country,” he said, pounding his index finger into the lectern. “Well, the fact is, California is back. We have a million new jobs and this is still the beacon for the whole world.”

Brown closes to thunderous applause. His approval ratings have shot to a record 60 percent as Christie’s languish -- and at 75 years old, Brown has fans urging him to run for president.

“People had low expectations that things would go well for Brown as a governor who came back,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter based in Washington. “But things have gone well. He shares the successes that a lot of governors elected in 2010 do.”

‘Stratospheric’ Support

Christie barged into national prominence initially by getting things done while faced with a hostile Democratic-controlled legislature. “But his numbers were stratospheric and unrealistic for a Republican in New Jersey,” Duffy said. “Something was going to make him fall to Earth.”

Brown and Christie, who declined to be interviewed for this article, have a history. During the 2012 Republican National Convention, Christie called Brown “an old retread” who was on his way to leaving a “failed record” of governance. Brown, in reply, challenged New Jersey’s top executive to a footrace, a dig at the extra pounds Christie carried before undergoing lap-band surgery in February 2013.

Back then, Christie was his party’s Great Moderate Hope, a tough-talking former federal prosecutor and blue state Republican reformer who’d won election as a can-do pragmatist by appealing to independents and moderate Democrats. His star was rising.

Bridgegate Scandal

Brown, early into his term, was beset by the state’s debt woes, a public pension crisis, rising unemployment and a pervasive sense that California’s better days were behind it. The state’s defects were said to be so intractable that the “retread” label was in danger of sticking. Brown, who had served as governor from 1975 and 1983, was seen by his critics as an architect of California’s dysfunction -- he had, after all, given public employees the power to unionize. He had come into office this time wanting to raise taxes.

Then in January came the scandal known as Bridgegate fed by e-mail revelations that Christie confidantes had engineered lane closures on the bridge connecting New Jersey to Manhattan to punish a Democratic mayor who had declined to support the governor’s re-election campaign. Federal prosecutors and state lawmakers are looking into the matter. Christie says his aides acted without his knowledge, and no evidence has surfaced to prove otherwise. Still, the pettiness of the act sloughed off on Christie, already considered a bully by critics. Approval ratings plunged for a man who just two months earlier had won a landslide re-election.

Rating Review

Worse for the 51-year-old governor, the scandal has unfolded against a tableau of poor economic news. New Jersey revenue is behind projections by as much as $400 million and the state’s credit rating is under review for a cut by Moody’s Investors Service. The state’s credit outlook was revised to negative on March 21 by Fitch Ratings, which cited budget strains and ballooning retirement costs. Since Christie took office in 2010 promising to spur a rebound of the state’s manufacturing sector, such employment has actually fallen by 5.4 percent.

Brown, meanwhile, is riding a different arc. He curbed spending, overhauled public pensions, rejected accounting budget gimmicks and refused to raise taxes without approval of voters. The turnaround has even managed to amaze his most ardent supporters.

‘Stark Terms’

“Most people find Jerry Brown interesting but I don’t think they thought of him as the great hope for saving American politics, which pundits came to think Chris Christie was,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. The institute is named for Brown’s late father, a former two-term California governor. “On one hand, you have this well-known persona, warts and all. And with Christie, it was more like romantic love that wasn’t carefully checked.”

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said some of the Republican governor’s agenda is stymied by a Democratic-controlled legislature whose members “are more keenly interested in serving their public union-backed base.” One example, he said, was Christie’s proposal during his annual address in January for further pension changes.

“He laid out very stark terms in State of the State -- budget problems that lay ahead and the urgency by which they must be addressed,” Drewniak said in a telephone interview on March 21.

Rorschach Test

Attitudes toward Brown and Christie tend to be a Rorschach test of political sensibilities and Brown’s California performance isn’t without its blemishes and critics. The jobless rate remains stubbornly high at 8 percent in February, down from 9.4 percent a year earlier, but compared with 6.7 percent nationwide.

Brown’s much ballyhooed $4.2 billion budget surplus is propped up by temporary tax increases, union pressure pared back his effort to shave public employee pensions costs and the state still faces an out migration of population.

Brown has also hitched his star to two controversial projects, a troubled, underfunded $68 billion high-speed railway plan that opponents are trying to kill with a ballot initiative and a $15 billion water diversion project panned by many of the state’s environmentalists.

Economic Winds

“If you look at the evidence, California has not been saved,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant who worked for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The fiscal remedies could very well be temporary. Long-term we are continuing to lose our manufacturing base. And our tax structure, which he ultimately supported, makes us ridiculously dependent on high net earners.”

Brown has also had the economic winds at his back. “The economy worked in Jerry Brown’s favor -- it allowed him to be more concerned about issues like fiscal conservatism than you would have expected from a relatively liberal Democrat,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It’s still a sluggish economy in New Jersey. Christie is constrained in terms of what he can do.”

What Brown and Christie supporters might agree on is that neither fits the mold of the carefully buffed, meticulously on-message politician common on the American national stage. In an era of blog- and YouTube-driven politics, Christie first ran for governor as an overweight, doughnut-chomping, blunt-speaking underdog who downplayed the social policies of his own party while heaping blame for New Jersey’s problems on Republicans as well as Democrats.

‘Governor Moonbeam’

Yet he has no difficulty mixing it up publicly with high-placed progressives preaching income redistribution. During an appearance on CNN two years ago, he told Warren Buffett to “just write a check and shut up” after the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. called on the nation’s wealthiest people to pay more taxes.

Brown, who ran for president three times, joined a seminary to become a Jesuit priest when he was 18, studied Buddhism in Japan, worked with Mother Teresa in India and dated rock star Linda Ronstadt. He’s held three statewide elected offices and served as the mayor of Oakland.

He earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” for his support of programs such as a state-sponsored space program in the 1970s. His first two terms were immortalized in the song “California Uber Alles” by the punk-rock band Dead Kennedys, which included the lyrics “Mellow out or you will pay!” Like Christie, Brown refused to be put into a neat political box.

Tax Pledge

Given that legacy, Brown’s political comeback was unlikely. Yet in November 2010 he trounced former EBay Inc. Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman, now chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. with a 54 percent to 41 percent victory.

Brown campaigned on a promise to not raise taxes unless voters agreed and he’s stuck to it. California had suffered through $100 billion of combined budget shortfalls since 2007, at one point paying its debts with IOUs. In 2012, Brown gave voters a choice: temporarily raise income and sales taxes or cut funding for schools by $5.5 billion, enough money for three weeks of classes. He said he wasn’t going to whitewash the deficits anymore.

“Jerry Brown talked to people as adults,” said James J. Florio, the Democrat who served as New Jersey’s governor in the early 1990s. “Christie had the same problems and he’s locked himself in concrete on no tax increases, which is insane.”

Retirement Plans

Brown returned to the governor’s office at a time when the pay and benefits of government workers had become a flashpoint in political battles between Republicans and Democrats in statehouses across the U.S. and helped give rise to the Tea Party movement for limited government.

Less than a year into office, he introduced policies aimed at lowering state and local government pension costs, including a measure that would have shunted new state employees into retirement accounts that blend a traditional pension with a 401(k)-style plan in which the worker assumes investment risks.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System has said the policies Brown signed into law in September 2012 may save the state $55 billion over 30 years by raising the retirement age for most workers, capping annual payments and requiring employees to pay more out of their paychecks each month.

Avoiding Gridlock

Brown also owes some of his success at avoiding budget gridlock to a 2010 Democratic ballot initiative that lowered the voter threshold to approve budgets to a simple majority from two-thirds supermajority. Democrats control both chambers, so they have been able to pass budgets on time without the need for Republican votes.

Christie, too, overhauled public pensions, passed a cap on property taxes and was widely lauded for his handling of Hurricane Sandy. He brags that he balanced all of his budgets without the need for higher taxes.

Riding high during the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, Christie couldn’t resist a poke at Brown and the voters who had elected “an old retread.”

“Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown? I mean, he won the New Jersey presidential primary over Jimmy Carter when I was 14 years old,” Christie said.

Three-Mile Race

Brown was quick to respond. Speaking to a labor union gathering in Los Angeles four days later, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with being a little retread. Not as much hair, I’ve slowed down a little bit. But I have to tell you, I ran three miles in 29 minutes two nights ago. And I hereby challenge Governor Christie to a three-mile race, a push-up contest and a chin-up contest. Whatever he wants to bet, I have no doubt of the outcome.”

Christie declined.

The New Jersey governor’s political difficulties stem in part from criticism that he has backtracked from two pledges in his inaugural speech: to oversee “a new era of accountability and transparency” and to “tear up the state’s credit card.”

Revenue reports, required by his executive order to be released by the 10th business day of each month, are routinely several days overdue, without explanation. To force him to comply with his own order, the Democratic-controlled legislature approved a bill to make timely releases the law. Christie vetoed the measure, and returned it to lawmakers with the suggestion of a $10,000 fine for anyone who leaks financial reports before official distribution by his treasurer, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff.

‘Jersey Comeback’

The “Jersey Comeback,” the post-recession theme Christie touted as reality at dozens of town-hall meetings, never materialized. Unemployment, at 7.1 percent in January, remains higher than in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, and economic growth is expected to trail the national rate by 15 percent through 2033, according to an analysis by Rutgers University.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, the state’s largest-circulation newspaper, endorsed Christie over Democrat Barbara Buono for a second term in November, even as it faulted him as “hostile” to low-income New Jerseyans and a “catastrophe” for the environment.

The bridge scandal reinforced Christie’s reputation as a bully, editorial page editor Tom Moran wrote in a Feb. 9 column. The paper now regrets its support. “We regard Christie as the most overrated politician in the country,” Moran wrote.

Fourth Term

While Brown has told the Los Angeles Times that he won’t run again for president, some pundits who follow him predict he will as his approval ratings rocket upwards. “There is a great outsider hunger here,” David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, said during a Jan. 24 edition of PBS NewsHour. “And I’m looking for an outsider. Mark my words, he’s going to run.”

Brown, having declared he’ll run for a fourth term, faces a blanket primary in June where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election in November. One of his challengers is Republican Neel Kashkari, the 40-year-old former federal official who managed the $700 billion rescue of the U.S. banking system in 2008.

Kashkari has made helping the poor a theme in his campaign, saying the state hasn’t done enough to reduce poverty levels that sit at 15 percent. According to U.S. census data, 9.9 percent of New Jerseyans live below the poverty line.

‘A Diplomat’

“It’s an astonishing thing, but the prickly Jerry Brown has, at long last, become something of a diplomat,” Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times yesterday.

The columnist’s praise for Brown contrasts with critiques of President Barack Obama, his predecessor George W. Bush and New Jersey’s governor. Reflecting last month on the bridge scandal, Dowd wrote: “Bush was the Decider who engaged in thoughtless action. So America veered toward Obama, who engaged in thoughtful inaction. Then they careered toward Christie, another practitioner of thoughtless action.”

Given the fickle nature of politics, Christie’s presidential ambitions aren’t necessarily over, though pundits even in good times have doubted his ability to win primaries in conservative states with strong Tea Party elements. Still, the betting is that his stock will rebound -- assuming he’s not directly linked to Bridgegate.

Christie’s popularity across the U.S. has fallen to 32 percent, according to a Bloomberg poll conducted March 7-10. It was 50 percent in June.

Having said his mea culpas, Christie has moderated his tone since the scandal broke. At a February town hall meeting in Middletown, New Jersey, audience members goaded him to answer an irate citizen’s question on delays in Sandy aid.

“My job here is to tell you the truth whether it’s happy or unhappy,” he said. “I’m not the king of New Jersey. I’m just the governor.”

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