WASHINGTON D.C. — During his keynote address here at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s 78th annual Walk to Washington dinner, Gov. Chris Christie once again assured detractors and supporters alike that he’s committed to making the state a “better, more affordable” place to live and work.
In a 30 minute speech in front of a ballroom full of business leaders and politicos in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Christie managed to accomplish a whole host of objectives, smacking Democrats for making the state less appealing to businesses, painting a rosy picture of New Jersey’s economic progress over the past five years, and offering up an image of himself as an ardent defender of the middle class.
“I’m not coming here to give you a new speech on a different theme, because if we don’t get this right, none of the rest of it matters,” Christie said. “If we don’t keep people from moving out of our state, as they are — if we continue to go down that path, we’ll never be able to grow the economy to the level that we need to let our middle class families prosper.”
For many observers, it was the latest attempt by Christie, a well-known GOP leader who’s openly mulling a presidential run, to better position himself on the national stage ahead of next year’s Republican primaries. Christie has used many of his recent public address and appearances to better refine that image, bolstering his conservative bona fides at places like the Iowa Freedom Summit and defending his rough-around-the-edges personality at recent stops in New Hampshire and Illinois.
At the same time, however, his popularity has wavered some both at home and nationally. Recent polling put his job approval rating among residents in New Jersey among the lowest levels its ever been over his five years in office, and he continues to come in second place among Republicans nationwide to more establishment or more conservatives candidates like Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz.
Tonight, Christie endeavored to play up what he called the economic and fiscal accomplishments of his own tenure, pointing to things like pension and benefit reform and declining unemployment numbers to prove his competence as top executive. He blasted the state’s inheritance tax and policies that have led to a sour business climate, both of which he said have helped drive residents and companies like Mercedes Benz out of New Jersey.
“I can tell you I’m going to continue to fight to make this state more affordable,” Christie said, promising to keep state government small and saying he hopes further pension and benefit reforms “can be a co-operative effort” between public labor and his administration, rather than continued clashing.
“We have resisted the temptation to put more taxes on our citizens in order that our government could have more money to spend,” he added. “We are going to continue to stand for that and fight for that over the course of the year to come.”
The second-term Republican’s next budget address is set for Tuesday, and comes amid certain concerns over his last few budgets, all of which have failed to meet revenue projections. Offering a small preview of the address, Christie vowed not to raise taxes in the face of pressure from Democrats, arguing residents and businesses can’t take on anymore burden.
“This is no longer an argument, it’s a fact,” Christie said.
One of the main narratives threading this year’s Walk to Washington is the quiet competition between a handful of Democratic leaders in attendance who hope to succeed Christie in the governor’s seat. There’s Phil Murphy, a former Ambassador to Germany and chairman of the new middle class nonprofit New Start New Jersey; Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who’s already solidified support from much of his home Hudson County; Senate President Steve Sweeney, long considered a frontrunner for the post; and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, one of Christie’s most vocal critics.
Christie took all four to task today, threatening to “sign an executive order to remove all the mirrors from the statehouse.”
“You wonder why would a second term governor would want to remove all the mirrors from the statehouse,” Christie said. “It’s because every time a Democrat looks into it, they see a governor. And that tends to change their perspectives a bit. That great spirit of compromise that once filled the hallways tends to change.”
He also payed homage to former Gov. Brendan Byrne — while also managing another jab at Democrats. This year marks the first time in nearly 50 years the revered Democrat did not attend the Chamber’s event.
“I talked to a Democrat tonight, he said how are things going,” Christie began. “I said oh, you know, second terms, they can be challenging. And he said well no governor, no, we don’t know second terms, we haven’t had one since Brendan Byrne.”