TRENTON – A bull in full-fledged battle gear.
That’s how state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) describes the approach of Gov. Chris Christie, whom he credits with fostering a Pamplona-like atmosphere – not outside the Statehouse where children yesterday rallied for the passage of Lesniak’s school choice bill and teachers fought for attention – but within the chambers of government.
Lesniak’s bill passed out of committee, but he’s aware of a bigger backlash from public sector teachers’ and schools’ advocates stirred up by the governor as he attempts to drive his opportunity scholarships in the senate as a whole.
“It’s bad timing,” said the veteran Democratic senator. “I told the folks at the governor’s office that the biggest impediment to getting this bill passed is the governor’s belligerent attitude and belligerent approach.”
A vouchers proponent, Christie supports the Lesniak bill, which is co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield).
Lesniak cringes at having Christie on his side.
“The teachers see the bill as piling on, sure, there’s that,” he said, a day after wrangling with the NJEA himself at the press conference for his bill. “But I’m talking about trying to generate support for the bill in the caucus. A lot of Democrats are so angry at the governor’s demeaning and uncompromising approach that they’re not too keen on doing anything he supports. It’s both of those forces working against the bill, but I think we ultimately have enough momentum.”
Lesniak said Christie’s tough guy demeanor won’t help his cause, not in this case, or in others.
“In general, it’s his total demeanor that is annoying and not helpful,” he said. “His being dismissive to Justice Rabner and the former justices of the state Supreme Court on the Wallace issue, very poor. It’s a philosophical difference we have, yes, but he articulates it in a condescending manner. It’s not helpful to advancing his beliefs.
“I don’t object to tough measures, we need that. Reform of state government is an absolute necessity. I talked about this three years ago, gave a speech on the floor of the senate. I pleaded with Jon Corzine to take bold action. We need it, but this governor crosses the line. He doesn’t know when to stop.”
For the senator, Christie went too far when he likened children in the middle of the schools budget debate to “drug mules,” then failed to renominate Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, a moderate judge appointed by then-Gov. Jim McGreevey.
“What he should do is say ‘look, obviously the senate is not going to act on my nominee, I’ve heard the arguments, and I always reserve the right to change my mind. That would boost him incredibly. But that’s not in his nature, so and the result is we’re going to have a vacancy on the Supreme Court for two years.”
As Christie ravages the public sector and dangerously targets Urban Enterprise Zones, in Lesniak’s view, the governor simultaneously wobbled on the Atlantic City Revel project, which created more agada for the Union County senator, who pushed the South Jersey jobs growth package.
“I was very discouraged with the governor dawdling and making it more difficult for the process to go forward,” he said. “The governor’s attitude on economic development in general is Reaganesque. It’s all about policies filtering down to create job growth. I voted against his treasurer because of that. New Jersey doesn’t need broad philosophical statements. We are in a dogfight with all other states to attract jobs. We need targeted economic growth polices not generic policies like no millionaires tax.
“What they need to do with Revel is get the financing back in place,” Lesniak added. “It fell apart when the governor dawdled. They wern’t going to take the beating and said we’re going to take our $800 million somewhere else.”
Lesniak said he is also working on getting the governor to redevelop Fort Monmouth in an effort to create over 10,000 jobs.
Notwithstanding the senator’s hard assessment of Christie, lower and mid level Democrats over the months since the former US Attorney took office have worried about their leadership being too close to the new governor.
But Lesniak, who at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner last month ribbed Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo about supporting the governor 95%, said he’s happy with the performance of Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and others around him.
“Sometimes the most important thing for us to do is just give Governor Christie enough rope and let him hang himself,” he said. “Overall, I’m happy with the approach and that is not reacting in kind to his unyielding attitude; picking our fights judiciously, drawing the line in the sand. I am very pleased with Senator Sweeney drawing the line on Justice Wallace.”
The Democrats’ counterattacks with Wallace and the millionaires’ tax are the standouts, in the senator’s judgement.
Having just co-authored a book with state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) on marriage equality, Lesniak reflected on the fight in last year’s lame duck session, which uiltimately proved unsuccessful, as Democrats, including Sweeney, backed away from the issue.
Sweeney had made the case that it was inappropriate for Democrats to shoulder the marriage equality banner during an economic downturn. It pitted him against Lesniak, whose Union County support he had just relied on to unseat former Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) in a caucus fight late last year.
“I’ve heard that argument about timing on many different issues, and the only response is that it is never good timing,” Lesniak said. “There will always be something to impede you. If you don’t really believe in it, there will always be bad timing. Some said it was better timing before the election, but it was bad timing because there was an election! It’s how much you believe in it, that’s all.
“I was not happy with him,” Lesniak added of Sweeney. “He apologized immediately profusely three times afterwards. I was not happy with a lot of folks. Honestly, I wasn’t crazy with Dick Codey (who was in the waning days of his senate presidency). It took us a long time to post the bill – too long. Yes, I was disappointed in Sweeney’s position, but I was also very impressed with his immediate recognition that he made a mistake. That meant a lot to me.”
Lesniak’s party generally regards Sweeney, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen), and State Party Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) as potential challengers to Christie in 2013.
The longtime senator who last year voted for Sweeney over Codey in the caucus, now says he believes Codey would be the Democrats’ best candidate to again assume the governor’s chair.
“I tell anyone who asks me that our best candidate would be Dick Codey,” said Lesniak. “If Christie continues his belligerent style, the contrast between the two is remarkable. Dick Codey would play very well against that. Do I think Dick Codey can do it? I doubt it. Dick has his political enemies that would make that problematical within his party.”