Chris Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, owes much of his record popularity to Democrats.
They’ve backed him even as the state has lagged behind the U.S. economic rebound and the 49-year-old governor has battled teachers, pressed for tax cuts and blocked a commuter-rail tunnel to New York.
Christie has peeled away enough Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by a ratio of about 3-2, to gain an all-time high approval rating of 59 percent, polls show. Almost a third of those registered with the opposing party support him as he campaigns through dozens of town-hall meetings, Twitter posts and YouTube videos to “turn Trenton upside down” by cutting taxes and controlling spending.
“I hear often that people don’t always agree with me,” Christie said at a Plainsboro school on April 30. “But they think I’m telling the truth as I see it. I think they find that unusual in recent New Jersey political history.”
Christie, who has forged alliances across the state with Democratic leaders such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, has seen approval from opposition voters almost double to 30 percent in April from 17 percent a year earlier, according to polls by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. At about the same point in former Governor Jon Corzine’s term, the Democrat had support from 23 percent of Republicans and 37 percent overall.
Christie has garnered Democratic favor even after losing $400 million in federal education aid in 2010 because of an application error. Last year, he urged reporters to “take the bat out” on Loretta Weinberg, a 76-year-old Democratic senator, and called teachers’ union leaders “political thugs.”
The governor, who vetoed a Democratic bill to legalize gay marriage and wants to put the issue to a vote, told its supporters in January that blacks would have been pleased to have their civil rights decided that way. That remark was denounced by John Lewis, the Democratic congressman and civil- rights leader, and won an apology from Christie.
In April, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that Christie inflated cost estimates in October 2010 when he stopped construction of the Hudson River rail tunnel backed by Democratic U.S. Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez.
The public meetings, YouTube and Twitter have given Christie an opportunity to connect with voters in a way his predecessors didn’t. He has more than 110,000 Twitter followers and his YouTube videos have been viewed 4.4 million times.
“Some people find they can respect him despite the fact that they disagree with him, because he doesn’t mince his words and he stakes out his position,” said Peter Woolley, professor of political science and director of the PublicMind polling institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison.
‘Man of Action’
Mitch Slater, a Democrat on the school board in Westfield, where a majority of voters backed Christie in the November 2009 election, said he comes across as a “man of action and that he actually does what he says he’s going to do.”
“I’ve been very fed up with politicians in this state for the past 20 years, and I’ve voted for most of them,” Slater said. “He’s the first Republican I ever voted for in my life.”
Christie, a former U.S. prosecutor who won corruption convictions or guilty pleas against 130 public officials, ousted Corzine in 2009 as voters rejected the one-term Democrat’s handling of a recession that left New Jersey with a 9.8 percent unemployment rate, the highest in three decades.
Corzine, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS:US), tried to use town-hall meetings to win support for his plan to reduce debt and fund roadwork by raising tolls as much as 800 percent. That effort backfired, in part because Corzine didn’t display a sense of humor and “did not seem as direct or engaging,” Woolley said.
“What you see is what you get,” Christie said during a June 2011 town-hall meeting at a Fair Lawn community center. “You didn’t elect me for my charm and good looks.”
Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary, said the governor is a “naturally gregarious” person who has been able to engage people and win them over during the public forums.
“The media coverage he gets from town halls or our use of new media extends his brand of honesty, bluntness and effectiveness as a governor,” Drewniak said in an e-mail.
Since Christie took office on Jan. 19, 2010, New Jersey’s economic recovery has continued to lag behind the nation, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The state’s unemployment rate stood at 9 percent for a third straight month in March, above the U.S. average of 8.2 percent.
New Jersey taxpayers pay a penalty on state and local debt over top-rated municipal securities that has risen 37 percent since Christie took office, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, even as tax-free bond yields have fallen close to their lowest levels since the 1960s.
The three main credit evaluators downgraded the state’s general-obligation rating last year by one step to their fourth- highest grades, partly because of growing pension and health- care obligations.
Christie first began holding town-hall meetings in September 2010 to pitch his case for overhauling education and pensions and tightening ethics rules. He has accelerated the pace to nearly one forum a week as he tries to win support for his 10 percent across-the-board income-tax cut.
“He puts on a good show,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac polling institute. “People like them and they think he talks straight from the shoulder.”
Each town-hall meeting starts up with a video clip of Christie taking on critics, followed by a 45-minute speech and then a question-and-answer session of about the same length. They have been held in churches and senior centers, an airplane hangar and on a military base. Salem County, in southern New Jersey, is the only one of 21 counties where he hasn’t held one.
Christie has made a name for himself by lighting into Democratic lawmakers, calling some “jerk,” “idiot” and “numbnuts.” He has refused to consider Democratic proposals to raise taxes on millionaires.
At the same time, Christie has allied with prominent Democrats including Booker on public education changes, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo for his pension overhaul and southern New Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross for plans to reshape the state university system.
Christie’s tax cut, which Democratic lawmakers say favors the wealthy, is part of a $32.1 billion budget for next fiscal year that counts on revenue increasing 7.3 percent, the most since before the recession that began in December 2007. Standard & Poor’s and the Legislature’s chief budget forecaster say Christie’s revenue estimates are too optimistic.
Christie was in Wisconsin on May 1 to stump for Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who is fighting a recall after he and the Republican-dominated Legislature imposed collective- bargaining restrictions on most public employees.
Christie became a national political figure last year after campaigning for fellow Republicans. Party leaders and donors urged him to run for the White House. Christie said in October that he wouldn’t seek his party’s nomination.
The governor has scoffed at suggestions he might be a vice presidential candidate, though he has refused to rule it out. He told students on April 30 that Republican candidate Mitt Romney is “a convincing guy,” less than a week after Christie told a resident at a Springfield town-hall meeting that he loves his job and is “not going anywhere.”
At the Springfield forum on April 26, Christie told a crowd of 400 people that 115 tax and fee increases by Democrats had left his state unaffordable and driven people out.
“Personality-wise, he seems to pick his path and stay on it,” said Richard Novak, 69, a Democrat from Union who attended the meeting, Christie’s 75th since becoming governor 27 months ago.
The governor’s growing popularity has drawn more jokes from late-night television comics about being overweight. At the White House Correspondents’ Assocation’s dinner April 28, Jimmy Kimmel made three cracks about Christie’s girth, including telling the governor the state’s nickname is “not the Olive Garden State.” Christie, who has acknowledged weighing more than is healthy, told reporters afterward he wasn’t upset by the jokes.
Christie’s level of support will wane as the 2013 election draws closer, said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the Democratic State Committee.
The governor has been able to woo independent and Democratic voters through the “Christie Show” rather than his policies, Wisniewski said.
“People are not viewing this dynamic in the context of who they’ll vote for, for governor,” Wisniewski said in a May 1 telephone interview. “They’re viewing it in the context of what they’re hearing in the street without regard to what direction the state will take in the future.”
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