By the looks of it, the two seemed like long-lost buddies, reunited again on mutual path to success. “Hi, this is my friend Tom MacArthur,” the affable governor said as he made his way around the establishment, introducing the third district congressional candidate to patrons like he was family.
But there was more to read into during yesterday’s campaign stop in Bordentown, where Gov. Chris Christie appeared with MacArthur to drum up support for the Republican ahead of a Nov. 4th election with Democrat Aimee Belgard, than party camaraderie. The surface-level optics ignored the elephant in the room — or, in this case, the giant, gestating pig.
Controversy over Christie’s refusal to approve legislation, passed by the legislature twice now, that would ban gestation crates for pregnant pigs has been well-documented. Beginning late last year when the Republican vetoed an original version of the bill sponsored by state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Christie has received flak from some Democrats and animal rights activists, who see the Republican — and prospective presidential candidate — putting political ambition in front of compassion. With his eye toward Iowa in 2016 — a state with a massive hog industry, especially compared with New Jersey’s — political observers speculate that Christie has a lot to gain by keeping the legislation from law, where he could risk alienating rural voters in the battleground state with a measure that could fall hard on the livelihoods of its farmers.
The issue seemed like it was put to bed until it arose again this month, when a second version of the bill landed on Christie’s desk after passing the Assembly — and the Senate back in February — late last week with 53-13 with 19 abstentions. Star-studded animal rights groups also returned, trying to force on the Republican a change of heart, with celebrities like Martha Stewart, Bill Maher and, more recently, Danny DeVito, calling on the Republican to “free the pigs.” Amidst it all, however, Christie has given little indication that his position has changed since his first veto, which chalked up the responsibility of defining “inhumane treatment,” which critics take the use of gestation crates to fall under, to the state Department of Agriculture.
MacArthur connects up with the issue, too, albeit in a slightly different way. A middle-of-the-road Republican whose endorsements seem to span both sides of the aisle, MacArthur was recently backed by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, the very organization leading the charge against the use of gestation crates and behind DeVito’s and others’ public statements last week. In his race against Belgard, a Burlington County Freeholder, MacArthur’s been happy to employ the endorsement as evidence of his bipartisan appeal to district voters. But asked by PolitckerNJ if he supported the pig gestation bill, or legislation like it, during yesterday’s presser, the candidate was reluctant to take hard stance.
“That legislation is here in the state, and I haven’t looked at it very closely,” MacArthur said. “I’m happy to have the Humane Society’s endorsement, I’m very much in favor of treating animals carefully, but that specific bill I haven’t looked closely at.”
Christie, meanwhile, kept quiet.
While far from the sort of ideological divide that would keep one Republican from endorsing another, MacArthur’s HSLF support paired next to Christie’s recent dealings with the issue did add an element of subtle political intrigue to the otherwise chummy event. As the candidate — Christie, not MacArthur — continues to gear up for what seems like an inevitable presidential run, it re-instilled the fact that he’s had to balance placating the interests of constituents at home while also keeping in mind those of the future, Iowans included.
In this case, the decision might have been an easy one to make. Faced with the prospect of a presidential contest and all the campaign that comes with it at the tail end of his career, Christie gains little from obeying the whims of a legislature he’ll never have to answer to again, or the handful of activists that likely wouldn’t have much impact on an state or nationwide election anyway — but he has a lot to gain by making sure he enters an Iowa primary without having estranged a sizable chunk of the conservative populace (though it’s unclear that’s the effect it would actually have, according to at least one poll).
“The governor does not have to appear in front of the New Jersey electorate ever again,” said Ben Dworkin, director at the Rebovich Institute of Politics. “And so to the degree he has a new constituency, it’s a Republican primary and electorate, which starts in Iowa.”
“The benefits of being a lame duck governor is that you don’t have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion in your home state,” he added.
Still, the decision forces Christie to deal with criticism at home in the meantime — as it does for MacArthur, with just under two weeks to go before judgement day.
“There are clearly a number of high-profile bills Tom MacArthur hasn’t looked at very closely,” Hannah Ledford, campaign manager for Belgard, told PolitickerNJ. “For some inexplicable reason he’s under the impression that the nearly identical budget Congress has passed four years in a row is a hypothetical, and he seems to know just enough about equal pay legislation, and legislation that increases access to women’s healthcare services, to know that he’s against it. I think it’s about time he did his homework so he can at least explain his out-of-touch stances to the residents of Burlington and Ocean Counties.”