ATLANTIC CITY – They are about as diverse a group of leaders as could be assembled in one room: three Democrats, two Republicans; some elected, some appointed; one ruled for eight years while one served less than four days.
Some have become revered elder statesmen. One who resigned in disgrace has endured as a champion for social causes.
They served in vastly different eras from the mid-1970s into the early years of the 21st century, but former Govs. Brendan Byrne, James Florio, Donald DiFrancesco, John Bennett and James McGreevey share a bond: They once sat where Gov. Chris Christie sits now, and were in prime position Wednesday at the N.J. League of Municipalities’ conference here to assess Christie’s successful re-election romp and what might await him.
Byrne, the only member of this quintet to achieve a second term, expressed surprise that Christie did not have coattails to pull in some GOP legislative wins, but Bennett, who served the shortest tenure, summarized why that happened: the map produced by redistricting left only two or three truly competitive districts whereas in his era he estimated as many as 10 districts year in and year out could be considered competitive.
During the session moderated by News 12’s Luke Margolis, the ex-governors were in general agreement on why Christie won and won easily: A combination of his post-Superstorm Sandy charismatic leadership, the weakness of his opponent, Sen. Barbara Buono, the inherent power of incumbency; and his style of leadership as seen in direct contrast to the chaos that was occurring in Washington, D.C.
“There is a famous saying,” Bennett said, “There is not a Republican way or a Democratic way to fix a pothole.”
Christie’s post-Sandy air of calm, of assuring residents the state would survive that hurricane, served him well in his re-election campaign despite the fact most voters support items Christie opposed: the minimum wage hike, women’s right to choose, stronger gun control laws.
Towering over those issues may have been Christie’s personal style, they said.
In the days and weeks after Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, “the state really needed a leader to step forward, and they found it in Chris Christie,’’ McGreevey said.
Christie took on House Speaker John Boehner on the front pages over Sandy aid and that was watched not only in the state but nationally.
“It puts him in great stead for national office and god willing, a Republican national candidacy,” McGreevey said.
“People want a workable government. They’re frustrated by what’s happening in Washington and you saw it in New Jersey, with voters returning Democrats to both houses of the Legislature.
“I was in the Hudson County Courthouse,’’ McGeevey said, “and a clerk comes running out and says I love way the governor took on the speaker of the house … this resonates deep down.”
Bennett said that “Sandy made Gov. Christie into a superstar, not as a Democrat or as a Republican, but as a leader.”
But will it resonate elsewhere?
Fellow Republicans Bennett and DiFrancesco said that Christie’s personality, his tell it like it is manner, will play well in Iowa and Nebraska, but it was left to Democrat Byrne to phrase it succinctly: “I think Christie can do anything he wants, and it’s (called) leadership.”