Two years ago, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin introduced his falsely named "budget repair bill." In doing so, he transformed himself from an obscure Midwestern governor to the personification of a nationally orchestrated, well-funded right-wing movement that was more – much more -- than just an attempt to balance the budget on the backs of public service workers. His plan, concocted in quite public collaboration with the Koch brothers, was to gut public sector collective bargaining rights altogether.
The right had a new champion. Having weakened and nearly destroyed the private sector union movement in America over the last 30 years, it was time to home in on a new target: public sector unions and, in fact, the very idea that a fair society requires a robust public sphere. (Hint: This is true for the non-wealthy, less so for people who can buy their way into private schools, private beaches, private jets and so on.)
As everyone knows, the people of Wisconsin fought back. Madison became our Tahrir Square. It was thrilling to watch, and the entire labor and progressive movement understood how important a battle it was. Tactics included civil disobedience on a scale rarely seen in the U.S. and an ambitious electoral recall of a handful of Republican state senators and Walker himself. Several senators lost their seats in the recall, but Walker won. Unfortunately, too many union members themselves voted for Walker, despite an enormous groundswell of progressive labor mobilization in the recall. Walker's reelection campaign in 2014 will be another "all or nothing" moment for labor and progressive forces as we learn whether Walker-Koch conservatism is here to stay.
Before we get to the 2014 rematch, however, there’s another governor up for reelection in 2013 who is also in the public eye. I'm referring to the East Coast's own version of Scott Walker. No one would confuse Chris Christie's brash (pugilistic?) demeanor for that of a polite Midwesterner. But when it comes to strict adherence to right-wing ideology, Christie is every bit the match for Scott Walker -- and, in some cases, even worse. I’m from New Jersey, and it’s astonishing to me that someone this awful is the governor of my home state.
Before the dust had settled in Madison, Christie was pushing a similar package of collective bargaining "reforms" in New Jersey. Christie frequently made the comparison himself. During a series of press events in Wisconsin during the recall campaign, Christie rallied support for Walker by comparing and celebrating what he and Walker had done. The New Jersey Star Ledger reported it this way in May 2012:
The Republican governor [Christie] drew no distinction between the pension and benefit reforms pushed through New Jersey’s Democrat-controlled Legislature and Walker’s near-elimination of collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions — actions that flooded the Madison statehouse with protesters and could make him Wisconsin’s first governor to be dumped during his term.
“You see what I’ve been able to do is give Scott and the people of Wisconsin a little preview of what good conservative governance can do for states,” Christie told several hundred people at a landscaping equipment maintenance shop near Milwaukee.
But Christie isn’t just hostile to working-class organizations. He has an all-encompassing right-wing philosophy that seeps into every aspect of his agenda. No matter the issue – minimum wage, marriage equality, climate change, directing public money to private corporations, lowering taxes on the rich – Chris Christie is a hard-right Republican. He may be a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, but I can guarantee that Springsteen is not a fan of his.
So, as a public service for any progressive or labor-friendly voter who might have been disoriented by Christie's post-Hurricane Sandy photo opportunities with President Obama, here's a short dossier on why we should not be confused by this guy. Sadly, some New Jersey-based building trades locals have already endorsed Christie in his 2013 reelection bid. But hopefully everyone else will line up with his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono. Christie is clearly the odds-on favorite in the race; he’s got a ton of cash, his opponent is relatively unknown, and he taps into a deep well of suburban anger about stagnant wages and soaring property taxes. But he is in fact as bad as Scott Walker. Period.
He's firmly on the side of the 1 percent
Last year, Gov. Christie proposed a $1.2 billion tax cut, with the bulk of the cuts going to the top, even though the state faced enormous budget gaps. He has repeatedly vetoed Democratic legislative efforts to close those gaps by raising taxes on millionaires. Romney would be proud, and surely, Christie's wealthiest donors are too.
But here's where it gets even more unbelievable. Since taking office, Christie has awarded more than $2 billion in tax breaks to huge corporations like Prudential Insurance, Panasonic and Goya Foods. They promise new jobs, but in fact just shuffle around existing ones. Prudential got a quarter-billion just to move its headquarters a few blocks in Newark. Instead of investing precious tax dollars in actual job creation, New Jersey wastes it on handouts to well-connected corporations.
… and not the 99 percent
Meanwhile, he did raise taxes on one group: the working poor. Christie cut the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program with a long record of bipartisan support that puts more cash in the pockets of struggling families. And just for good measure, Christie also vetoed a modest $1.25/hr. increase in the minimum wage.
Need to keep the beer cold? As Jim Hightower would say, put it next to Chris Christie’s heart.
But isn't he a social liberal?
People sometimes get the idea that Northeastern Republicans are “fiscal moderates and social liberals.” Not Christie.
On marriage equality: Christie is not only against same-sex marriage, he vetoed a bill that would have given equal rights to same-sex couples.
On the DREAM Act: He killed it. This was a bill to allow the children of immigrants who graduated high school in New Jersey to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates.
On women’s health and abortion rights: He eliminated all funding for women's health, cutting $7.4 million to Planned Parenthood and other clinics that offer contraception, cancer screenings and other essential services.
That's not all.
Christie’s blind faith in trickle-down economics has left New Jersey with the seventh-highest unemployment rate in the country (9.3 percent). Yet Christie single-handedly killed the biggest public infrastructure project in the country. The ARC tunnel would have connected New Jersey to New York and created 45,000 permanent jobs, but Christie blocked the project. He’s like one of those moronic Republican governors who turned down high-speed rail money from the Federal Stimulus Act in Florida or, you guessed it, Wisconsin.
He's also endangering New Jersey's reputation as a state that cares about education. In his first year in office he cut $1.2 billion in state aid to public schools. The cuts were so deep that the state Supreme Court found they violated students' rights. As a candidate, Chris Christie pledged to increase funding for higher education. But then he was elected. And he turned around and cut higher education funding 15 percent, all the while referring to the leaders of the state’s teachers’ union as a “group of political thugs” for opposing these policies.
But what about that great moment after Sandy? Doesn't that mean anything?
No. Not really. Christie said he didn't "give a damn" whether global warming contributed to the storm. And while climate scientists agree that climate change will produce worse and worse storms, Christie pulled New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The RGGI is a compact among the Northeast states to limit carbon emissions, and is widely seen as a very smart policy.
"We Are Wisconsin New Jersey?"
By now you're probably wondering whether it's time to grab your picket signs, pack a sleeping bag and get on the next bus to Trenton to start occupying the New Jersey State Capitol. The answer is: It's complicated.
Christie is up for reelection this November. It will be tough to defeat him, even as he richly deserves to go down. The media like him, and some Democrats in the state Legislature have on occasion made it too easy for him to look effective and far-sighted. If we tell the truth to ourselves, the truth is, right now, Christie is popular. The latest polling has him ahead of his likely Democratic opponent by 35 points. And he has a huge financial advantage.
Still more alarmingly, Christie has somehow secured support from some segments of organized labor, notably the laborers and plumbers unions. No doubt the leaders of these unions see themselves faced with a difficult choice. With Christie so far ahead in polls, it's tempting to play the percentages and bet on the likely winner in the hopes of securing some small advantage for your members. Pragmatism has its place in politics. We get it.
But in this case, it's deeply troubling.
Sometimes, even when the odds are bad, you have to fight. The alternative is simply making an enemy stronger.
This isn’t the first time labor has made this mistake. There are many famous examples of letting short-term pragmatism blind you to a longer-term reality. The Air Traffic Controllers backed Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, and he turned around and crushed them. Richard Nixon was backed by many construction unions in 1968 and 1972, and he then worked to undermine them. And of course in Wisconsin, the police and firefighters unions endorsed Walker in his first campaign, and have to know what a gigantic mistake that was.
Christie's record speaks for itself, and his kind words for Scott Walker should erase any doubt: Christie is no moderate. His worldview should be anathema to progressives everywhere. He's also dangerous, because he’s popular and is a strong contender for the Republican nomination in 2016. A landslide victory in 2013 will be a launching pad for his 2016 race — “I won a bipartisan landslide in a blue Northeastern state (one that Barack Obama won by 18 points and Bob Menendez won by 20 points), I tamed the unions, and I can make a conservative message work everywhere from New Jersey to New Mexico.” Being able to point to labor support will only bolster his case.
Even if it won't be easy to defeat Christie, we can’t concede his victory without a fight, and we must take him on with everything we've got. By his deeds and his words, he is clearly committed to the death of the labor movement and every other sort of social progress. Christie is strong, but labor and progressives and environmentalists and immigrants and women and anyone else whose heart still beats on the left must stand and fight.