Governor Chris Christie: reformer or demagogue?

New Jersey governor Chris Christie is one of the more intriguing political figures today, even for those who don’t agree with him.

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai considers Christie’s appeal, his political strengths, and his case against public-sector unions in his attempt to haul New Jersey out of its giant sink hole:

Acid monologues… have made Christie, only a little more than a year into his governorship, one of the most intriguing political figures in America. Hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers linger on scenes from Christie’s town-hall meetings… Newly elected governors — not just Republicans, Christie says, but also Democrats — call to seek his counsel on how to confront their own staggering budget deficits and intractable unions. At a recent gathering of Republican governors, Christie attracted a throng of supporters and journalists as he strode through the halls of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel like Bono at Davos.

While Christie has flatly ruled out a presidential run in 2012, there is enough conjecture about the possibility that I felt moved to ask him a few weeks ago if he found it exhausting to have to constantly answer the same question. “Listen, if you’re going to say you’re exhausted by that, you’re really taking yourself too seriously,” Christie told me, then broke into his imitation of a politician who is taking himself too seriously. “ ‘Oh, Matt, please, stop asking me about whether I should be president of the United States! The leader of the free world! Please stop! I’m exhausted by the question!’ I mean, come on. If I get to that point, just slap me around, because that’s really presumptuous. What it is to me is astonishing, not exhausting.”

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.

While Christie’s approval rating is at 50 percent or better among his constituents, his arch-nemisis is the state’s most powerful teacher’s union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The union vehemently disagrees with Christie about his “merit pay, charter schools and the abolition of teacher tenure.” And if Bai is to be believed, Christie versus the NJEA has become pretty personal, with both sides no longer on talking terms.

One of my favorite quotes from Bai’s article has to be by Joseph Del Grosso, leader of  American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Newark, the smaller of the two major national teachers’ unions. The AFT has said 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… explained the strategy…

You can read the entire piece here.

Zoe Romanowsky

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Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Godspy.com. Zo

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