New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican at odds with his own party over delays in federal aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, said storm recovery will dominate the year and determine whether he wins a second term in November.
The governor, who hasn’t ruled out a 2016 presidential run, said the economic “Jersey Comeback” he’s been touting for a year hasn’t petered out, though Sandy slowed it. The superstorm will be the focus of his Jan. 8 State of the State speech, Christie said Jan. 4 in an interview at his office in Trenton, three days after attacking fellow Republicans in Congress for canceling a House vote on disaster assistance.
“Whatever it was going to be, it’s now all going to be about the storm -- the aftermath of that and the rebuilding and recovery from that,” said Christie, 50. “I don’t think there’s really anything that I could discuss with the people of the state that’s more relevant than that.”
Christie’s first term, marked by partisan disagreements over tax cuts, revenue projections and payouts for state workers’ accumulated leave, was recast when Sandy hit New Jersey’s coastline on Oct. 29. The storm left 2.7 million residents without power, crippled mass transit and flattened some seaside communities.
The governor’s reaction to the storm helped him win the backing of Democratic and independent voters, polls showed. Christie praised Democratic President Barack Obama’s response to Sandy, angering some Republicans, and scolded U.S. House Republicans who didn’t take up a disaster-aid vote on Jan. 1.
“He’s selling himself to be a Republican who is unlike the Republicans who are unpopular and who have low approval ratings,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “If he wants to run in 2016, the more he can separate himself from this part of the Republican caucus, the better he is.”
Christie, who became a national Republican figure with his calls for smaller government, turned down calls to run for president in October 2011, saying he couldn’t abandon his commitment to help New Jersey voters recover from the recession. He used his 2012 State of the State to proclaim that a comeback had begun, and to call for an income-tax cut.
The governor projected 7.2 percent annual revenue growth in the fiscal year that began July 1, second only to a 7.7 percent jump projected by California Governor Jerry Brown, according to an analysis by the New Jersey treasurer’s office.
Christie’s forecasts were challenged by Democrats and by Standard & Poor’s, the credit-rating company that in September changed its outlook on state debt to negative from stable. Democrats, who control the Legislature, have refused to approve Christie’s tax cut until revenue meets his targets.
Revenue growth through November was 0.2 percent, and that shortfall was only partly because of Sandy. Collections for the rest of the fiscal year will need to climb 12 percent to meet Christie’s $31.7 billion budget, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
Prior to the storm, income-tax collections were keeping pace with Christie’s targets and the national economy was the prime reason that sales levies were 9 percent below targets, the governor said during the 35-minute interview. He said he anticipates growth in the fiscal fourth quarter based on Louisiana’s experience after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I feel pretty good about where we are in the comeback,” Christie said.
David Rosen, the legislature’s chief fiscal analyst, said on Jan. 3 that Christie’s budget is $700 million short, and that figure could grow to as much as $2 billion if revenue remains little changed through June 30.
“He needs to lay out how he’s going to reverse this trend we’re in and start to get some economic growth,” Senator Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Wood-Ridge who is chairman of the budget committee, said of Christie’s speech. “He needs to lay out how he’s going to get this thing back into balance.”
After taking office in 2010, Christie declared a fiscal emergency and froze aid to schools and cities to close a $2.2 billion deficit inherited from his predecessor, one-term Democrat Jon Corzine. Christie said last month that mid-year spending cuts may be needed.
The state’s unemployment rate rose in November to 9.6 percent -- the nation’s fourth-highest -- from 9 percent in January, as the U.S. level fell to 7.7 percent from 8.3 percent. Though the state has added about 75,000 private jobs since Christie took office, the number of positions declined for five consecutive months through November, and is still down more than 173,000 from the start of 2008 when the recession began, state Labor Department data show.
November revenue missed Christie’s targets by 11 percent after Sandy kept shoppers and Atlantic City gamblers at home. In Congress, Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to delay a vote on a $60 billion aid package set New Jersey’s recovery back months, Christie said in the interview. He declined to be more specific. The state can still afford a tax cut, he said.
Sandy may provide Christie with political cover for moves that were previously frowned upon, such as higher spending or borrowing, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
“There’s an expectation that he needs to do whatever he must to rebuild and that’s going to cost money,” Murray said. “It just made it easier for him to argue for what in essence would be deficit spending. The question is, because it’s an election year, what will Democrats let him get away with?”
Christie had a 72 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll on Nov. 27, a jump of 16 percentage points from October and its highest ever for a New Jersey governor. He said on Nov. 26 that he will seek a second term to help oversee rebuilding from Sandy, which by the administration’s estimate cost New Jersey $36.9 billion.
Christie called his fellow Republicans in Congress “know- nothings” after Boehner pulled the aid vote off the House agenda Jan. 1.
“What I watched last night was disappointing and disgusting,” Christie told reporters Jan. 2. “We have been waiting six times longer than the victims of Katrina, and there’s no end in sight. New Jersey and New Yorkers are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. We deserve better.”
Within 10 days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, causing the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, Congress passed $51.8 billion in relief.
After Christie’s rebuke, Boehner allowed a vote on a first installment of the aid, for $9.7 billion, on Jan. 4. The measure passed the House 354-67 and cleared the Senate. Christie said he didn’t know whether his criticism influenced Boehner’s decision to schedule that vote, and another on Jan. 15 for the remainder of the aid.
“In terms of my influence on the party going forward, I think that’s going to be solely determined by my performance in office,” Christie said. “If you are performing well and doing things that people believe are successful and admirable, then you’re more likely to have an influence on your party and its direction.”
The governor attributed the delay to infighting within the Republican House caucus, and said he didn’t criticize party members for his own political gain.
“These are the type of arguments and soul-searching that every party goes through when they have two consecutive national elections that they lose,” Christie said. “Politics is about winning and losing. When you’re losing you’re unhappy. And when you’re winning, you’re thrilled. I think we’ve lost two in a row, and when you’ve lost two in a row everyone is looking to figure out why.”
“Less-productive” politicians, whom he didn’t name, are looking to cast blame for the losses and that leads to internal divisions, he said.
Christie, known for a blunt and caustic style, has called union leaders “political thugs” and other critics a “joke,” a “jerk,” “numbnuts,” an “idiot” and an “arrogant S.O.B.”
If Christie wants to become an authoritative unifier of his party, he must act more statesmanlike, said Paul Light, a professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, whose research areas include Congress.
“He’s just too candid,” Light said. “He can say what’s on his mind any old time, but if he wants to consider a run in 2016 he’s got to start crafting a strategy for reaching out to at least some number of the right wingers of this party.”
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