Although the legislature remains firmly in Democratic control, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) expects that the new political landscape ushered in by Republican Gov. Christopher Christie’s election will make the Democratic legislative leadership more receptive to Republican ideas.
“We’ve reached across the aisle to find solutions… And I anticipate going forward that many of the solutions we offered that were ignored by Jon Corzine and his predecessors will be successful,” said Kean in an interview at his Westfield legislative office.
In some cases, bipartisanship isn’t even needed. In his first day in office, Christie signed an executive order mandating the creation of a “user friendly” Web site to track spending on a quarterly basis (The web site put up by Gov. Corzine during his last week in office, Kean said, was a “mockery” that “couldn’t even be navigated.”) It enacted the main proposals the Transparency in Government Act championed by Kean and state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) for a year.
But Kean also thinks that the problems facing the state – the economy, the tax burden, the pension problems – have reached such a critical mass that the Democratic controlled legislature and the governor will, by necessity, work together.
The bipartisan rhetoric on inauguration day – when Christie invited Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) to share the stage with him – was genuine, Kean said.
“It was just a good, positive feel. You sensed, not only in the church and in the War Memorial, but in the halls of Trenton, an excitement, optimism, an energy that hadn’t existed in a long, long time.”
But that feeling, at least among some Democrats, was sullied when Christie signed an executive order holding unions to the same pay-to-play standards as corporations – a move that would significantly undercut Democratic fundraising, and one the public workers unions and key Democrats are expected to challenge it in court.
“I’ve been fighting for those types of reforms for years. It’s the exact right direction to go,” said Kean.
Christie is still very much in his post-election honeymoon, but Kean doesn’t expect that glow to fade, even as the new governor is forced to make budget cuts certain to be unpopular with influential interest groups and segments of the public. The rest of the public, Kean said, is hungry for an unwavering, if tough love, governor.
“Jon Corzine’s problem was that he couldn’t make a decision. I don’t think that anybody’s under the impression that Chris Christie can’t make decisions,” he said.
A clear difference has already emerged in how the two governors interact with the legislative leadership, according to Kean, who said he only met with Corzine a few times during his four years in office: Shortly after his caucus selected him as minority leader two years ago, and about 10 minutes before his State of the State and budget addresses.
“I don’t think that’s simply because we were Republicans. I think that’s a common occurrence of Republicans and Democrats alike,” said Kean. “Just over the course of the last two weeks, I and many other legislators, include Stephen Sweeney, have talked to Governor Christie frequently.”
If there are any differences of opinion between Kean and Christie, they have not emerged publicly.
Kean did not fault Christie for saying that taxes would need to be raised on the state’s unemployment fund if help from the federal government did not materialize, instead chastising former governors for diverting money from it (not including Corzine, who he said should be “praised” for not raiding the fund).
“There are a host of bad options that exist, but my expectation is we can work with the executive branch in Washington DC and work together as a legislature to prevent a tax increase,” he said.
And Kean, who like most Republicans and some Democrats was outspoken against Corzine’s asset monetization plan, said that he had no fear that a different version of the idea would surface during the Christie administration, even though Acting Transportation Commissioner James Simpson expressed support for it in 2008.
But while Christie beat Corzine by a four point margin, Republicans only gained one seat in the assembly. But Kean thinks that two years from now, when all 40 senate seats are up for grabs as well, Republicans will have a good shot at taking a majority. Partly, Kean said, because he expects a “fundamentally different map.”
By November, 2011, the state’s legislative district map will have been reconfigured by a 11-member redistricting commission appointed by party leadership: five from Democrats, five from Republicans, and one tie breaker from the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Republicans expect big changes this time around, with population shifts to the southern part of the county and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in North Carolina that could affect the way the districts are drawn.
And Kean said that he expects to have input on who Republican State Chairman Jay Webber appoints to the panel.
Kean would not go into detail about which Democratic senators he thinks could be vulnerable.
“I think we will have a constitutional and fair map, and I think the issues we will continue to fight, which center around affordability and job creation, are issues important to the state of New Jersey,” said Kean.