February 25, 2014 by Bob Hennelly
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions, already reeling from revelations about the bizarre Bridgegate scandal, now face a more mundane but possibly even more damaging challenge. The state’s economy, whose recent “comeback” the Governor has unabashedly taken credit for, seems to be stalling.
This past weekend Christie continued to make the national scene at the National Governors Association confab in Washington and at closed-door fundraisers for the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs. The pomp of those circumstances made it easier for the Governor to dodge reporters’ many questions.
But this week’s very different agenda, in New Jersey’s state capital of Trenton, will likely prompt increased scrutiny of Christie’s image as a truth-telling, corruption-busting prosecutor and tough-talking but supremely able state executive.
In politics a year can be an eternity. This time last year, as he was preparing his annual budget address to the New Jersey legislature, Christie’s approval numbers were sky high and his blunt brand was in national ascendancy. Back in the winter of 2013 Christie put forward his bipartisan legislative achievements on public employee pension and teacher tenure reforms as proof that Trenton had something to teach a dysfunctional national government.
Today, we have a Governor increasingly on the defensive about what he knew and when he knew it about the purported plot by Christie loyalists to close crowded entrances to the George Washington Bridge on September 9, 2013. The alleged purpose of these closures: to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee with a four-day traffic stoppage for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
At first, Christie vehemently denied his administration had anything to do with the closures; last month, in a dramatic reversal, he fired a top staffer and a campaign operative who had been directly tied to the Bridgegate scandal by their email traffic. Now the staffers have hired criminal defense lawyers and are invoking the Fifth Amendment to stave off producing emails subpoenaed by the state legislature. Paul Fishman, the US Attorney for the state, is also conducting a probe.
“The two things that have made him stratospherically popular were his perceived sincerity and competency,” says Peter Woolley, who founded Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind Poll. “Bridgegate calls both into question; either he is a liar, or an incompetent who was unaware some knuckleheads were closing traffic lanes” [in order to advance Christie’s political interests].
On Tuesday Governor Christie will have to get back to basics and present a budget address outlining his plans for the upcoming fiscal year. Christie has been in office nearly four-and-a-half years, and like President Obama, can no longer deflect criticism by referring back to the “failed economic policies” of his predecessor.
Throughout his re-election campaign Christie touted the creation of 130,000 new private sector jobs during his first term—New Jersey’s best job creation record in a dozen years, his ads claimed. But Christie’s formal budget speech this week comes on the heels of a downbeat report out last month from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics: in December New Jersey lost 36,300 jobs, a disheartening change from the 16,900 jobs added in November.
And there are other indications that Christie’s “Jersey comeback,” hyped in his multi-million campaign, is hitting neutral and perhaps headed into reverse. Last week the state Treasurer reported the state’s long-term debt hit a record $78.4 billion, while the state’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services estimated the current budget for fiscal year 2014 would produce as much as a half billion dollar revenue shortfall.
It was that spiraling debt load and sagging revenues which prompted Moody’s to lower its outlook for the state in December, just a month after Christie trounced his underfunded Democratic opponent, former State Senator Barbara Buono, in the 2013 gubernatorial election,
Dr. Charles Steindel, the state’s chief economist, wrote, “Ordinarily, a monthly job loss of December’s magnitude would appear during a very deep recession—a period in which virtually all indicators of activity at the state and national level are plunging.” Steindel cited an uptick in housing permits and single-family homes sales year over year as reason to see December’s catastrophic job loss as just an anomaly, suggesting “the numbers would right themselves and job growth will re-emerge.”
But Gordon MacInnes, President of New Jersey Policy Perspective, and a former Democratic state senator, notes that New Jersey leads the nation in the percentage of long-term unemployed with more than 320,000 people out of work—46.6 percent, according to a Washington Post report last month. The national average in the same analysis was 37.3 percent.
“New Jersey has only recovered 44 percent of the jobs it lost during the great recession, says MacInnes, “and what we have added is lower paying retail service jobs that don’t come with benefits.”
Christie’s reliance on offering generous tax abatements and inducements to corporations to remain or expand in New Jersey has failed to spark the economy, according to MacInnes. “We have given out a half-billion dollars in tax cuts and forbearance to companies like Prudential, Panasonic and Goya, [which were] already here in the state, that moved to another in-state location, sometimes just blocks away.”
With all the national media attention on Christie’s colorful personality and weight, there was little mention of the economic and social conditions in the state he has governed for over four years. Last spring the non-profit Advocates for Children of New Jersey reported that in 19 of the state’s 21 counties poverty was on the upswing, spreading well beyond places like the urban core of Camden and Essex to rural and suburban communities.
New Jersey’s home foreclosure rate is now second only to Florida with more than 10 percent of New Jersey mortgage holders in serious delinquency. The Center for Housing Policy recently reported that close to a third of New Jersey’s 1.1 million low and middle income households bear a punishing housing-cost burden, shelling out more than half their income to put a roof over their heads.
All these depressing numbers are not necessarily Christie’s fault. Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Peter Woolley says the press and the public often overestimate the power of governors to affect their states’ economies one way or the other, especially in the era of globalization. “There is only so much you can do from any state capital. Every other neighboring governor is offering the same tax abatements.”
Despite the media frenzy around Bridgegate Governor Chris Christie has many vocal supporters who say he continues to bring transformational change to a state they believe was historically “hostile to business.”
Jeffrey Scheininger, the immediate past president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, says that Christie’s image as a Governor not afraid to make the hard choices is very much intact.
“He has managed to not only re-brand New Jersey for the nation but for the business community in general which now sees the state as a place to come and set up shop, “Scheininger says. “That really is a sea change.”
Nonetheless, for a politician who has gone on the road to claim credit for New Jersey’s “comeback,” the current state-of-the-state is a serious concern.
Former Republican Assemblyman Rich Merkt, who ran against Christie for Governor in 2009, says the Governor is increasingly in a reactive mode: he has to be on guard for the next disclosure related to Bridgegate, while simultaneously governing a state that remains in economic straits. “He is being whipsawed by his trying to be a national fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association while the state faces serious financial problems.”
Before Bridgegate, what Christie had going for him in selling his budget was the widely held perception that under his leadership the state was headed in the right direction and he was a serious contender for the highest office in the land. Now the numbers are telling a somewhat different story, at a time when the Bridgegate revelations have dealt the Governor’s image as a no-nonsense, can-do leader a severe blow.