Can a New Staff Save the Governor?

Ask yourself what the CWA and the NJEA would say if a Republican Governor in his or her re-election year proposed a State Budget that reduced the annual payment to the Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund by more than $500 million, from almost $700 million the previous year, to only $120 million?

How long would it take for an NJEA Rally to be organized at the Statehouse to protest this policy?

The unions' silence and acquiescence in Governor Corzine's plan to do just this, and their assent to legislation permitting towns to defer local pension payments, are strong evidence that Governor Corzine's senior staff and political team have not rolled over and played dead in the face of severe public backlash over his budget and recent devastating independent polls.

That the union leadership has either agreed or been cowed into silence in the face of these proposals demonstrates a surprising degree of skill and tact from the Governor's senior advisors, which some observers say had been lacking in the front office for several years.

The question is – Is this new group of advisors, while perhaps short on "flash," long enough on smarts to help the Governor recover from his current image problems?

Under the leadership of Chief of Staff Ed McBride, an unflappable veteran of senior positions in several Democratic Administrations, the mix of veterans and fresh faces has demonstrated a new energy and focus in the countdown to November. McBride has emphasized a stronger Inter-governmental Relations function, to forge stronger ties with Democratic Mayors, Councils and Freeholders. Legislative veteran Chief Counsel Bill Castner has given Legislative Democrats increased access to the Administration. Deputy Chief of Staff Diane Legreide brings her trademark facility to make the trains run on time and get decisions made. New Policy Counsel Michellene Davis has brought long-needed fresh ideas to the Front Office.

It is already paying dividends. Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac's strong public endorsement of the Governor's budget was noted by many who know that he didn't previously have the closest relationship with this Administration.

Of course, even the best staff cannot sell bad ideas or ideas that NJ's middle-class and swing voters just won't consider. And even the best staff cannot change the opinion of voters who, after four years, might have formed opinions about their boss that cannot be undone in several months or even by significant advertising.

And most observers are scratching their heads at an Administration that backed off on a property tax deduction within days of announcing it. Why propose it in the first place?

But if you scratch the surface of the budget, one can discern the political calculations and coalition-building that went into its preparation. Indeed the Governor was careful not to offend any groups in his hard-core constituent base, even if he was prepared to give up significant chunks of suburban, middle-class support. Holding onto the NJEA leadership while eviscerating their pension fund was a work of political finesse. Carefully shielding senior citizens from the hits on the property tax deduction and rebate elimination was deliberately designed to protect the Governor's image among that constituency. Increasing municipal and school aid to Democrat towns and school districts, even at the expense of middle-class suburban communities, also demonstrates the Governor's desire to first protect his hard-core base.

On the Republican side, it appears that Republican Chris Christie is fielding a very strong campaign team, the strongest in at least 10 years in NJ state-wide politics. His huge wins at the organizational grass-roots level, against a candidate who has been campaigning among these grass-roots for 4 years, show that he and his team are organized, focused, and ready.

While Republicans have every right to feel optimistic – Chris Christie's leads of 6-15 points, before the budget message, represent the strongest position for a GOP candidate against an incumbent or for an open seat in more than 20 years — there are meaningful — and frankly surprising –signs of political astuteness on the part of the Administration that only mean this election will be a titanic struggle for the future of the state. Can a New Staff Save the Governor?