William Paterson Debate: Christie’s Best Night

I thought that Chris Christie’s performance at the William Paterson University televised debate on Friday was his best yet in Gubernatorial Campaign 2009, including the primary as well.


In the previous televised debate at NJN studios in Trenton on Thursday, October 1, the Republican gubernatorial candidate performed well substantively but did very poorly stylistically. He appeared angry and never projected any warmth or vision in that forum. At various points that evening, he resembled the caricature that Chris Daggett had portrayed of him in his “escalator” commercial.


By contrast, at the William Paterson debate, Christie was warm, engaging, and most persuasive in his answers. Christie’s best asset in life is his family – his wife, Mary Pat and their four children. His dedication to them is total, as is his feeling for his native state. When he spoke at the debate of his family and New Jersey, he displayed an endearing humanness that is often not apparent when he is jousting with his critics in the media.


By contrast, Chris Daggett was both a stylistic and substantive disaster at the William Paterson debate. In boxing terms, he reminded me of the former heavyweight champion of the world, Ingemar Johansson.


Johansson was a Swedish fighter with a powerful right hand who as a 5-1 underdog floored the then heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson seven times in the third round at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 1959, thereby scoring a technical knockout. In the rematch at the Polo Grounds on June 20, 1960, Patterson knocked out Johansson with a vicious left hook in the fifth round. I remember that fight because I listened to the broadcast on the radio with my father, and it was the first time I ever heard Howard Cosell.


Indeed, Daggett has been the personification of Johansson in the debates. He scored a surprise victory in the first debate at NJN. That night, he was verbally sharp, smiling, and witty. Unfortunately, at the William Paterson rematch, Daggett was unsmiling and extremely petulant. When Christie uttered the following words regarding Daggett’s plan to finance a property tax reduction with an extension of the sales tax to various business services, he scored a verbal knockout over the independent challenger:


“Well, I got to get you a dictionary, Mr. Daggett, because you’re offering a $4 billion dollar tax increase and call it a tax cut.”


Corzine actually performed well at this debate, although Christie performed better. The Governor was well disciplined and able to stick to the proven strategy of his chief strategist Jamie Fox by emphasizing “Democrat values in a Democrat state” on economic, health care, and social issues. Corzine has come a long way from his first debate with Jim Florio in the 2000 Democrat U.S. Senate primary, where he seemed to be relieved just to survive the encounter with the former Governor.


The major success of Corzine recently in the polls has been the rise, however small, in his “positive” approval ratings. In order to continue to increase his positives, Corzine has recently been giving the New Jersey electorate a virtual tutorial regarding his accomplishments over the last four years. The debate may have been helpful to the Governor in this regard.


The major issue accomplishment for Christie at William Paterson was that at long last he is finally dealing substantively with the property tax issue, although it may be too late.


In my various articles on PolitickerNJ.com, I have advocated that Christie propound a property tax platform, consisting of two principles: 1) Control property tax increases by limiting the growth of local municipal and school district budgets; and 2) Limit the extent of the power of the courts to divert state school aid from suburban to urban school districts. Christie actually did deal with the first principle effectively, discussing such measures as tighter caps, audits, and, if need be, a constitutional convention.


The former U.S. Attorney did discuss the issue of the courts in terms of appointing justices who will interpret the law rather than legislating from the bench. I was pleased by Christie’s favorable remarks regarding U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito, especially in view of the foolish failure of the last Republican gubernatorial nominee, Douglas Forrester to endorse the Alito nomination during the 2005 campaign.


Christie did not, however, establish the link between the concept of “legislating from the bench” and the various New Jersey Supreme Court decisions which have resulted in excessive diversion of state school aid from suburban to urban school districts. It is absolutely necessary for Christie to discuss during the last two weeks of the campaign how his appointment of strict constructionist justices to the state’s highest court can result in the reduction of property taxes in suburban school districts.


The most unfortunate aspect of the debate for Christie was the failure of the media to declare him the winner in their post-debate coverage. In my view, this is due to the antagonism that has increased between Christie and the media throughout the campaign. This is another unfortunate aspect of what the Courier-News, in their endorsement of Christie yesterday, called his “poorly constructed campaign”.


During the final weeks of the campaign, the Republican nominee will have to overcome the failed strategy and poor press relations that have resulted from the incompetent decisions of certain Christie top strategists and senior staff. Chris Christie’s excellent debate performance at William Paterson, however, was a good first step in this regard.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

William Paterson Debate:  Christie’s Best Night