Governor Christie's Ultimate Test
This story on the war between Gov. Christie and Barbara Keshishian, president of the NJ state teachers union, is on the front page of today's WSJ:
After the Republican's victory, Ms. Keshishian sent a letter congratulating Mr. Christie and requested a meeting to "work together on our commonly shared goals." He didn't respond.
At his January inauguration, Mr. Christie called New Jersey schools "broken" and said they "have failed despite massive spending." The next month, he called for pension and benefits changes.
In his budget address March 16, Gov. Christie proposed $820 million in education budget cuts after $1 billion in federal stimulus money dried up. He then took direct aim at NJEA.
"The leaders of the union who represent teachers have used their political muscle to set up two classes of citizens in New Jersey: those who enjoy rich public benefits and those who pay for them." He said it was "unfair" for teachers to receive "4% to 5% salary increases every year, even when inflation is zero, paid for by citizens struggling to survive."
The union website disagrees, saying "the average salary increase over the past year has been approximately 2%."
Ms. Keshishian ordered up a series of counter-punches to the governor's charges. The NJEA shifted money from "Pride in Public Education" spots to 30-second ads critical of Mr. Christie. New Jersey's teacher of the year appeared in one. "Stop attacking teachers and education, and start funding our schools," she said.
On March 23, Gov. Christie, under pressure to make up an $11 billion budget shortfall, called on teachers to accept a pay freeze, and urged taxpayers to "vote down" school budgets that didn't include one. More than half did. He proposed teachers help pay for their lifetime health benefits by contributing 1.5% of their salary in premiums, and pushed through a law mandating that for all new teachers.
NJEA led its members and other community and labor groups in a rally, dubbed "Standing Up, Standing Together." About 35,000 members gathered at the state capitol in Trenton.
Gov. Christie spent the day at the Monmouth Park racetrack for a bill-signing. When asked about the gathering, he told reporters: "I'm here. They're there. Have a nice day."
New Jersey Senate president Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who heads the state ironworkers' unions, said the rally backfired for the teachers union. "It may have made them feel better about themselves, but many of my constituents saw it as a message that the NJEA isn't going to change even if taxpayers have to suffer."
In April, Joe Coppola, president of the Bergen County Education Association, a county union chapter, emailed a memo to members with a closing prayer: "Dear Lord, this year you have taken away my favorite actor Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer Michael Jackson and my favorite salesman Billy Mays." He concluded: "I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor." The private memo became public.
Mr. Coppola didn't return a call for comment for this story.
Ms. Keshishian went to the Governor's office across the street April 13 to apologize in their first face-to-face meeting, she and the governor recall.
He demanded she fire Mr. Coppola. Ms. Keshishian said she couldn't, because he was elected locally, adding, "It's just a joke, albeit in poor taste, but not meant seriously."
Gov. Christie threw her out of the office. "But we have important issues to discuss," she countered.
"Not with you, I don't," he replied.
- OCTOBER 22, 2010