Thursday, March 03, 2011

How Chris Christie Did His Homework

A long article about Chris Christie on the cover of today's NYT Magazine:

There is, in fact, something astonishing about the ascent of Chris Christie, who is about as slick as sandpaper and who now admits that even he didn't think he would beat Jon Corzine, the Democrat he unseated in 2009. Some critics have posited that Christie's success in office represents merely the triumph of self-certainty over complexity, the yearning among voters for leaders who talk bluntly and with conviction. Yet it's hard to see Christie getting so much traction if he were out there castigating, say, immigrants or Wall Street bankers. What makes Christie compelling to so many people isn't simply plain talk or swagger, but also the fact that he has found the ideal adversary for this moment of economic vertigo. Ronald Reagan had his "welfare queens," Rudy Giuliani had his criminals and "squeegee men," and now Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions — teachers, cops and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost.

It may just be that Christie has stumbled onto the public-policy issue of our time, which is how to bring the exploding costs of the public workforce in line with reality. (According to a report issued last year by the Pew Center on the States, as of 2008 there was a $1 trillion gap, conservatively speaking, between what the states have promised in pensions and benefits for their retirees and what they have on hand to pay for them.) Then again, he may simply be the latest in a long line of politicians to give an uneasy public the scapegoat it demands. Depending on your vantage point, Chris Christie is a truth-teller or a demagogue, or maybe even a little of both.

There's one more piece of political narrative that Christie seems to grasp, which is that every story has both a protagonist and an antagonist, someone who stands for change and someone who plays the foil. Christie never had to look far to cast his ideal antagonists. They sit just across the street and one block down from the State House, in the building occupied by New Jersey's major teachers' union.

WITH 200,000 MEMBERS and more than $100 million in dues, the New Jersey Education Association is easily the most powerful union in New Jersey and one of the more powerful local unions in the country. In Trenton, the union's organizing might — and its willingness to use that might to intimidate candidates and lawmakers — has sunk a small shipyard of promising careers. So it's not hard to see why the twilight struggle between Chris Christie and "the bully of State Street," as he likes to refer to the teachers' union, has transfixed New Jersey's political observers for the last year. It's as mesmerizing as an episode of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," only harder to watch, mostly because Christie can be so unrelentingly brutal.

 "We have similar personalities," Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic president of the state Senate, told me recently, when ruminating on Christie's style. "The difference between he and I is, I have an off switch and he doesn't. You know, if I knock you down, I'll pick you up, brush the dirt off your back, try to build a relationship and go forward. He knocks you down, like with the teachers, and he'll stomp on you, kick on you until he can kill you."

 The war between Christie and the union has two fronts, so closely interrelated that it's hard to separate them. First there's the fight over budgeting issues like pensions and benefits. And then there's the "year of education reform," as Christie has proclaimed 2011, in which he intends to push his case for merit pay, charter schools and the abolition of teacher tenure — all of which are, of course, anathema to the union.

Perhaps the most consequential episode between Christie and the union, at least as far as public perception was concerned, had to do with the pay freeze. Almost as soon as the scope of the budget problem became clear, the governor called on teachers, who received scheduled raises during the recession, to accept a one-year freeze. He reminded the teachers that a lot of private-sector workers felt lucky if they could keep their current salaries, and he said a voluntary freeze would enable the union to avoid widespread teacher layoffs in cash-poor school districts. Most local chapters of the union ignored him. Ultimately some 10,000 union members — teachers and support staff — saw their jobs eliminated. Christie hasn't stopped talking about it since.

 The union maintains that Christie's plea was mere gimmickry, because the layoffs would have happened even if its local chapters acceded to the demand for a freeze. But even if this is true, it would seem to reflect a staggering lack of political calculation. Had the teachers agreed to take the short-term hit by acquiescing to a temporary freeze, it would have been worlds harder for Christie to then run around the state demanding longer-term concessions on pensions and benefits. And when the layoffs did materialize, the governor would most likely have shouldered most of the blame. Instead, the whole affair seemed to prove Christie's point about the union's self-involvement, and it enabled him to blame the teachers themselves for the layoffs.

 During our conversation at the Hay-Adams, I suggested to Christie that the teachers had given him a valuable political gift by refusing to compromise. "I don't look at it as a gift to me," he replied. "I look at it as a huge mistake by them, and also a window into who they are.

 All of this seems to add up to a reasonable counterargument to Christie's main indictments against the teachers' union, and so I asked Keshishian and Giordano why they thought they were having such a problem making their case to the public. After all, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month, most voters in New Jersey still admire teachers themselves, but only 27 percent have a favorable view of the union, while 44 percent say their view is unfavorable. By contrast, Christie's job approval has been consistently hovering above the 50 percent mark.

 And so, when the union draws a hard line against changes to its pay and benefit structure, you can see why it might strike some sizable segment of voters as being a little anachronistic, like mimeographing homework assignments or sharpening a pencil by hand. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 47 percent of respondents said their states should cut pension plans for government employees, which made it the most popular option on the table.

 Some unions are more attuned than others to this gradual changing of the climate. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, which is by far the smaller of the two major teachers' unions nationally, has consciously tried to position itself as a more pragmatic union and has proposed a lot of its own classroom reforms in a campaign to get out in front of public opinion. In Newark, New Jersey's largest city, A.F.T. organizers have signaled that they will work with Christie on changes to the pension and health care system, in addition to negotiating on issues like merit pay. "Better to be seated at the table than to be on the menu" is how Joseph Del Grosso, the union's leader in Newark, explained the strategy to me.

 But the larger and mightier N.J.E.A. has made the decision to hunker down and fight all comers. And because of that, its leaders run the risk of confirming the public's darkest suspicions about them, whether they have salient points to make or not. "They may have dug themselves a hole that will be very difficult to dig themselves out of," Del Grosso says of his competitor. "They are on the menu."

 And so this is why Christie has gone out of his way to anoint the teachers' union as the most sinister force in the galaxy — not because he has some long-buried torment with a teacher to work through, but because the union does a very capable job of representing for him everything about the public sector that voters don't like. He knows there is a risk in using this strategy: he has to make sure his war on the union doesn't ultimately come to seem like a war on individual teachers, which is why he tries constantly to draw a distinction between the union and its members. ("I love teachers — I just can't stand your union," is one of Christie's signature lines.) For now, though, even some of labor's strongest advocates will tell you that Christie has the teachers and other public-sector unions backed up against a hard wall of political reality.

 "My politics are union politics," Sweeney, the Senate president, assured me when I visited him in his State House office. He reminded me that he is not only the state's top elected Democrat, but also a union ironworker. And yet, he said, "what I think that public-sector employees have to do is look at what's going on around them, look at all the pain around them, and understand that no one hates them, but they want them to sacrifice like everyone else. It's that simple."


How Chris Christie Did His Homework

Published: February 24, 2011

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