PRINCETON — Governor Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie continued a 36-year-old tradition tonight, both speaking at the Employer Legislative Committee Dinner.
In combative speeches that bookended the night’s red meat and chicken meal at the Princeton Hyatt, the candidates laid out different interpretations of the state’s economic condition and competing visions of its future. Corzine concentrated on defending his record, which he said will help New Jersey reach economic recovery ahead of the rest of the country, and characterized Chrsitie’s campaign pledges as unrealistic. Christie, in turn, gave a harsh critique of Corzine’s record and blamed seven years of Democratic-controlled government for lack of private sector job growth.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Christopher Daggett was also present. He made the rounds but did not speak.
After two weeks of getting hammered by Republicans over the budget and his contract agreement with the Communications Workers of America, Corzine gave a pointed and thorough defense of his record as governor before going on the offensive against Christie.
Corzine started off his speech by deflecting Christie’s claim that the state’s economic troubles are the outcome of poor state leadership rather than the global economic crisis. Paraphrasing Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks at Corzine campaign kickoff rally two weeks ago, Corzine pinned the blame on the Bush Administration.
“The problems lie in very bad decisions in Washington and Wall Street, and a business and governing philosophy that said almost anything goes,” he said.
But Corzine chose John Adams as his most quoted politician, punctuating his speech with a famous quote from the second president that was aimed directly at Christie.
“Facts are stubborn things,” he said repeatedly.
Corzine launched into a defense of his record, noting that he’d cut the budget by $4 billion during his term, that last year’s growth in the rate of property tax was only 3.7%, that the government had managed to increase education funding while cutting elsewhere, and that he replaced Abbott Districts with a school funding formula that distributed money “more fairly through the state.”
“Our opponents say that we’re growing the size of government, and facts again are very stubborn things. Here are the facts: I’m the only governor in 60 years — and that’s only because that’s as far as we have data – to cut the size of government.”
Corzine did not once mention Christie by name, but took a shot at his campaign proposals, saying that his critics “promise the moon” and that one would have to “suspend the laws of mathematics” to cut taxes, increase services, increase property tax rebates and balance the budget. He also took a shot at the oft-cited ranking of New Jersey as the 50th least business friendly state by the Tax Foundation, which he noted was founded “to oppose Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and has been at it ever since.” He went on to point out that the state ranked most business friendly was Wyoming, which he said is not home to one Fortune 500 company.
Corzine, who has the New Jersey Business and Industry Association’s leaders’ endorsement for this year’s budget, got polite applause from the audience. But the reception for Christie was noticeably more enthusiastic. He got a more more full standing ovation at the start of his speech, and more applause and laughter throughout it.
Corzine was not there to hear Christie’s remarks, however. He left for an organized labor event in Atlantic City shortly after speaking. Christie noted that he doesn’t often get the opportunity to share a room with Corzine – a similar complaint to the one former Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan made about Christie during the GOP primary.
Christie, who called the governor’s remarks a “self-congratulating pat on the back” started his speech by evoking the image of a New Jersey landmark.
"At one time the phrase on the Lower Free Bridge was true. You’ve seen it – it says 'Trenton Makes, the World Takes.' Well, not anymore,” said Christie, who then cited the same statistic that Corzine denigrated an hour earlier.
“New Jersey ranks dead last when it comes to being a good place to create a job and grow a business,” he said. “All you in the audience know that. You don’t need me to cite statistics to tell you what you are living through every day.
Christie was not afraid to get personal. Twice, he called Corzine a “good man” to preference criticism of him as a weak governor.
“A good man, a decent man has been so beaten down by this job that he is tragically out of touch,” he said, adding later that Corzine “cares more about being loved than being effective.”
Christie said that “bloated government” was pushing aside programs that improve residents’ quality of life, and turned the Adams quote around on Corzine several times.
“Earlier I heard the governor say that facts are stubborn things, and they are. Because over the last seven years of Democratic leadership in this state, for every one private sector jobs created in this state there have been 15 public sector jobs,” he said.
Among the fiercest attacks leveled by Christie was his response to Corzine’s claim of reforming education funding. He argued that Corzine had done nothing to address the fundamental problems in inner-city schools, the failures he said was creating “permanent second-class citizens.”
“He assuages his guilt… by writing bigger and bigger checks to the districts,” he said.