New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may be lauded in the national press as being more concerned with results than politics, but right now he's locked in a highly divisive, partisan battle in his home state. While Christie has cultivated the image of being “post-partisan” through strategic embraces of President Obama, he draws the line on conservative social values, like opposition to abortion and gay marriage. And right now he's locked in a bitter debate in New Jersey on the latter issue, and it could have national implications.
Christie, of course, governs a state that, polls indicate, supports establishing same-sex marriage and protecting a woman’s reproductive rights. So how does he walk the fine line, governing effectively in a state whose constituents have progressive social values, without disqualifying himself from the 2016 Republican primaries in which conservative Tea Party activists are the gatekeepers to the nomination?
In 2003, New Jersey was one of the first states to pass “domestic partnerships,” but the state’s Supreme Court struck them down. In 2006, the New Jersey Legislature voted to permit “civil unions.” In 2009, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine committed to sign a marriage equality bill if the Democratic Legislature sent one to his desk. They weren’t able to make it happen in the few remaining months of Corzine’s term.
While a same-sex marriage bill was defeated in the state Senate in 2010, last year it passed both the Assembly and the Senate. But, as promised, Christie vetoed it.
And last week, just days after two landmark Supreme Court decisions advanced the cause of gay marriage, Christie happened to be holding his 109thtown hall meeting in Republican-friendly Sussex County. But even in GOP territory, gay marriage has its boosters.
Hope Breeman, from Highland Lakes, first politely pitched the issue of gay marriage to Christie as a potential $100 million windfall for the state’s tourism and wedding industries. Christie reminded Breeman and the audience that he had run opposing gay marriage and had consistently held to his view that it should be left up to the voters.
“You and I have a fundamental disagreement,” Christie responded. “To me, this is changing a 2,000-year-old institution and if it is going to be done, it should not be done by nine men and women in black robes in Washington, D.C. It shouldn’t be done by legislators. It should be done by the people of this state. Let them vote, and whatever they vote on I will support.”
Breeman was quick to push back. “Civil rights can’t be a referendum issue,” she interjected, even as Christie was still talking. “No, no, sir,” she insisted.
In the early days of Christie’s town halls, such persistence might have garnered the passionate questioner a refresher in manners “Jersey style” from the governor. But, it is an election year. Christie thanked Breeman for raising the topic.
Christie did rhetorically ask why Democrats in the Legislature had chosen to put a referendum on the November ballot that dealt with raising the minimum wage but not for same-sex marriage. “I don’t know why the Democrats don’t have the confidence in the people of New Jersey to do what they believe is right,” Christie postured with the crowd.
That masterful twist of a phrase — or the question — is a recurring tactic in Christie’s town hall “conversations.” As Bill Weightman, Democratic Assembly candidate for Sussex County, observed about Christie’s performance after the town hall, “He’s a good entertainer. He knows how to break somebody in their stride.”
He also knows how to navigate the politics of his state, but this is a challenge that isn't going away.
Back in 2009, Christie’s election in a very blue state -- right after President Obama’s victory -- was seen as a kind of bellwether for the brewing grass-roots push-back that gave the Republicans the House. Even many Jersey Democrats conceded that, with 565 towns, 21 counties, almost 600 school districts and thousands of independent authorities and utilities, the Garden State had grown too much government. Christie carried six New Jersey counties, all of which have more registered Democrats than Republicans. Just a year earlier, President Obama had carried all of those counties.
Christie’s biggest coup was in Middlesex County, home to thousands of socially conservative Catholic Reagan Democrats, who had given Obama a 20-point landslide in 2008. In Middlesex, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 3-to-1. Just a year later, they went for Christie (a Catholic himself), born in Newark and whose family migrated to suburban Livingston when he was a kid.
President Obama, who finally embraced gay marriage before the 2012 election, increased his reelection margin in New Jersey by just under 1 percent over 2008, but close to a quarter of a million of the 2008 voters stayed home in 2012.
This year, Christie has to run on his own record to win reelection and illustrate his viability for a run for the presidency in 2016. He touts the creation of 140,000 private sector jobs and the elimination of 30,000 public sector positions as signs of progress. He has secured, with bipartisan support, long-term pension and teacher-tenure reforms.
In contrast, critics point to the state’s relatively high unemployment rate and continued struggles with foreclosures, as well as growing income disparity, as signs that the Christie turnaround is more "Morning Joe"-perception than reality.
Childhood poverty in the state has expanded beyond the traditional urban core, gaining a toehold in suburban and rural counties. According to a report earlier this year from the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the “post-recession” news has been really bad for the states’ families with kids. The number of children on food stamps has jumped by 80 percent since 2008 — perhaps portending the growth of a kind of permanent underclass.
So far, Christie’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, has not had much success linking Christie’s tax and budget policies to these troubling trends or even getting equal time to make her case on the national TV shows that beg for a Christie appearance.
And despite Christie’s repeated veto of funding for women’s reproductive healthcare centers and his opposition to gay marriage, dozens of Democratic mayors and elected officials have endorsed Christie for reelection. For these Christie-crats, backing the heavily favored incumbent apparently trumps backing their party’s nominee who is trying to make gay marriage a defining issue.