It was the most powerful moment in new Governor Chris Christie’s inaugural address by far. Christie looked directly at new Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who are Democrats, and asked them to join him at the podium. Both of them looked surprised. Christie then said; “We in office must not shrink from the challenge, we must rise to it. So today, right now, I ask Senator Sweeney and Speaker Oliver to come and stand with me, please, and join in a handshake of resolve and friendship.”
There was spontaneous applause that lasted for nearly a minute. I know Trenton pretty well, and as a former legislator and now a journalist, I have sat through countless speeches given by governors. It takes a lot to get legislators from both parties to spontaneously stand and enthusiastically applaud, especially for this long.
But there is a sense in Trenton that the status quo isn’t nearly good enough these days and that a spirit of bipartisan cooperation is absolutely essential to accomplishing the CHANGE that Chris Christie talks about and voters are demanding.
As he held Sweeney and Oliver’s hands, the new governor said; “Handshakes of commitment to stand for our principles — but to never abandon our duty to serve the people. We have shaken hands as a symbol for our citizens of all that is possible in a future that demands that who gets the credit finally takes a back seat to doing something worth getting credit for. Senator Sweeney and Speaker Oliver, that is my commitment to both of you.”
Afterwards, Democratic Senator Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) told The Daily Record; “The handshake was a magic moment. Everybody reaching out, we’re all going to work together — I thought that was a nice tone to set for the inaugural address.”
The next day I interviewed Senate President Sweeney for a new series on public television called “New Jersey Capitol Report.” Sweeney said while he was surprised by the gesture, he genuinely appreciated it and felt good about Christie acknowledging that there are three key players in getting New Jersey government back on the right track, including the governor, the Senate and the Assembly.
If you read some of the Internet blogs after Christie’s speech, you hear the haters. These are the folks who anonymously and consistently attack everyone and everything in government. Many are cynical and negative toward Christie’s gesture of bipartisanship with Sweeney and Oliver. Many bloggers wanted Christie to attack the Democrats and immediately go on the offensive. You can always see comments about “cleaning house” and “throwing the bums out”. But anonymous blogging is one thing, actually governing and getting things done, is quite another.
Sure, it was just one gesture and a very shrewd political and PR move on Governor Christie’s part. Call me naïve, but I have this crazy idea that there are some folks in the Statehouse who actually want to do the right thing and work together. Of course there are going to be disagreements, one of the biggest around Christie’s commitment to reduce taxes on people who earn over $400,000 a year. Most Democrats I’ve talked to, including Sweeney and Oliver, vehemently disagree with our new governor on this issue. But bipartisan cooperation doesn’t mean there can’t be disagreement. There should be a spirited debate on whether a particular tax cut makes sense. There should be a debate on Christie’s proposed cuts in the state budget, which will surely come when he delivers his budget address in March. There should be a debate on Christie’s very provocative education policies, which revolve around school choice and merit pay for teachers. But disagreeing doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable. It doesn’t mean you have to attack and impugn each other’s motives. It doesn’t mean in the process of disagreeing that you try to destroy the other person’s reputation.
For too long, New Jersey and politics have been driven by who gets credit for things that appear to go right, and who we can blame when things go wrong. Further, the partisan bickering is often tied to scoring cheap political points for some upcoming election, no matter how far away it might be. It is that mentality that has heavily contributed to getting us in the mess we are in. It has a lot to do with why we have a nearly $10 billion budget deficit as well as why the unemployment fund is in big trouble and public employee pensions are seriously under-funded. It’s also why our property taxes continue to skyrocket.
Look, I know it is only one day, and as I said, one gesture. And, I look forward to the spirited, but hopefully civil debate and discourse that needs to take place under this new leadership in Trenton. The old spirit of nasty, vicious partisanship not only won’t work, but will sink us deeper into a black hole that is becoming increasingly difficult to get out of. So, angry and anonymous bloggers can say what they will about the proposed spirit of bipartisanship in New Jersey government. But I choose to be an optimist, because the alternative is too depressing and worse, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy that I won’t participate in. What do you think? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org