Within 24 hours after the election of Chris Christie as Governor, the battle was joined between the Governor-elect and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). This could become the Ali-Frazier of New Jersey issue battles.
The issues: 1) A tighter school district budget cap, which Christie strongly advocated in the debates as a matter of property tax control; and 2) Expansion of charter schools, particularly in urban areas, an issue of core significance to the Governor-elect.
The stakes: The future of property taxes and urban education in the Garden State.
Christie is right on these issues, and he is smart to begin this battle now, immediately after the failure of the NJEA’s effort to defeat him in the gubernatorial race. His success in expanding charter schools will be very dependent on the effectiveness of his Education Commissioner. On the issue of tighter school district budget caps, however, he will need legislative passage of such a measure.
Christie faces significant obstacles to the passage of tighter school district budget cap legislation, not only from Democrat Assembly members and Senators, but from Republican legislators as well. The NJEA is the most powerful and effective state teachers union in the country. Much of their effectiveness stems from their politically adept support of Assembly and Senate candidates of both parties. These legislators value the campaign contributions of the NJEA and the campaign assistance of its members.
NJEA-supported legislators will only vote for a Christie-proposed tighter school district budget cap bill if they are confronted by a countervailing political force. In other states, a governor would be able to use his office as a bully pulpit by going on television and campaigning for such a measure. The public support thus generated by a governor would serve as such a countervailing force to legislative lobbying forces, such as the NJEA, that oppose his initiatives.
Unfortunately for Chris Christie, New Jersey has no television station with a widespread state audience. Accordingly, like any other New Jersey governor, his effective use of his office as a bully pulpit is somewhat limited.
The best way Christie can prevail in conflicts with entities like the NJEA is to have an effective grassroots “tax revolt” organization, such as the now defunct Hands Across New Jersey of the early 1990s supporting his property tax and education initiatives. Obviously, a governor himself cannot devote his time to the formation of such an organization. In New Jersey, movement conservatives and their organizations are in the best position to establish such an entity.
In the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “ay, there’s the rub.” Christie and movement conservatives have never been too comfortable with each other, despite the fact that on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun control, Christie will be the most conservative governor in the history of modern New Jersey.
It is possible, however, that the comfort level between the Governor-elect and movement conservatives may have been enhanced by the role played by Steve Lonegan in keeping conservatives loyal to Christie at the end of the campaign. The new governor will need grassroots conservative support in order to enact significant measures on a host of issues. Indeed, Chris Christie will benefit if the marriage of convenience between himself and movement conservatives evolves into a true partnership for meaningful reform.
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.