This Week’s Report Card

What a week.  It snowed, but Gov. Christopher Christie made legislators show up for his get-tough budget address the next morning anyway (nobody dared complain, even if some of the roads were still a bit patchy).  They then heard him excoriate prior administrations for their budgeting and, by executive order, freeze $475 million in school aide funding among his $1.6 billion in proposed cuts.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) cried foul, arguing not just against the substance of Christie’s cuts, but that he was trampling on the talk of bipartisan good will that had dominated state politics since November.

So how did the three most powerful state government elected officials do?  We asked  four pollsters and political science professors to grade their performance.

Governor Christopher J. Christie

Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair State University
Grade: B

Comment: Not only is the honeymoon over, Democrats in the legislature are consulting with their (divorce) attorneys. Christie scored points (particularly among conservatives) for taking the bull by the horns, and he seems to recognize that he could wind up bloodied in the court of public opinion by doing so. And while freezing school spending could encourage municipalities to think creatively about potential cost saving measures, spending down surpluses could also negatively impact bond ratings, costing taxpayers more in the long run. It also could have the effect of generating enormous populist opposition among parents, NJ Transit riders, and others who are not as easily vilified as NJEA and CWA are. (Remember how farmers targeted Jon Corzine after he shut down the Department of Agriculture? Remember Jim Florio when he tried to solve the problem using a different but unpopular solution?) Also problematic is Christie’s approach: we understand his anger and frustration, we feel his pain. But the imperial tenor of his decrees is off-putting.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute
Grade: A

Comment: Thursday’s speech was a brilliant piece of political theater.  The governor understands that voters want to see him grab this problem by the throat and not let go until he’s wrestled it to the ground.  
Message sent.

Peter Woolley, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll.
Grade: A

Comment: Well-crafted, well-delivered and believable speech. And “believable” is the key.

His predecessor played the Dutch uncle twice a year, once for the state-of-the-state address and once for the budget speech, but after a while the public just didn’t believe him. Christie needs to say what he means and then mean what he says.

Yet keep in mind, first, there is no guarantee the New Jersey public will give him high marks for doing what they say they want-cutting the budget and holding the line on taxes.  Second, the Republican governor’s audience is also national-both parties and publics across the land will be looking for governors who succeed or fail under the triple duress of high debt, high taxes and recession.  And both state party organizations know this: that it is not just about governing, but about the perpetual national campaign.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
Grade: A-

What happens if the guy who said he was going to balance the budget by only cutting spending actually does it?  This is the great political question of the week as the Governor gave a hard-hitting speech to a joint session of the legislature.  But there is a reason we have cliches like, “You get more with wine than with vinegar.”  (The problem with cliches, of course, is that they are largely true.)  Tough talk is what the public wants to hear now, but the seeds of a pushback are being sown with each new fight he picks.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney

Brigid Harrison
Grade: C-

Comment: Christie contends that he would not pull the rug out from under legislators, but Sweeney is shim-shamming across the hard wood floor. Despite the bi-partisan rhetoric, despite the conservative Democrat’s desire to be a part of the process, he is frozen out, sidelined by Team Christie. Added to the mix: Christie is targeting the shadow government of independent authorities and agencies that some Democrats in the legislature and party bosses have relied on as the source of their patronage-bred loyalty.

Patrick Murray
Grade: C-

Comment: Legislators take the bait and complain that they have been left out of  the process.  On the plus side, his promise to push pension reform makes him part of the solution.

Peter Woolley
Grade: A-

Comment: That old Florentine, Nicky M., who immigrated to New Jersey sometime ago, would praise the scripted indignation of the majority party leaders.  They calculate they are much better off positioning themselves between the governor and the interest groups traditionally in their own camp than to embrace a governor from the opposing party and risk increasing his influence or success.  The minus is for transparency.

Ben Dworkin
Grade: B

Comment: They did their constitutional duty and held the joint session, but the agenda in Trenton is clearly being defined and driven by the Governor.  The Democratic caucuses are playing second fiddle.  But longtime watchers of Garden State politics know that the ups and downs of legislative politics happen over months, not just a few weeks.  This grade goes up if the majority caucuses are able to get their Republican counterparts to step out front on all these tough votes that are being requested by the Governor.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver

Brigid Harrison
Grade: C-

Comment:  This week, Christie made Oliver (and most other Democratic legislators) irrelevant through government by executive order and veto. Oliver voices opposition, but in reality, there’s very little legally she can do about it. And this year’s budget process is going to make 2006 look like a day at a state-shut-down beach.

Brigid Murray
Grade: D+

Comment: Oliver: D+ Legislators take the bait and complain that they have been left out of  the process.  The legislature’s job approval rating is in the 20s, while Christie is still getting the benefit of the doubt from voters.   Who do you think is going to win the “process” argument?

Peter Woolley
Grade: A-

See Sweeney comment

Ben Dworkin
Grade: B

See Sweeney comment

This Week’s Report Card