Stephen Sweeney, Christie’s ‘Odd Couple’ Democratic Partner in Power, Talks Bridgegate

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Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/2014 Getty Images

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie and Democratic State Senate President Stephen Sweeney have been branded by the political press as the Odd Couple. In an era of intense partisanship, they are often described as allies, if of a prickly and intermittent sort. Sweeney was Christie's partner in passing a 2011 overhaul of pensions and benefits for state workers, one of the governor's headline political accomplishments. Certainly their backgrounds are disparate: Christie worked as a GOP fund-raiser and built his political identity going after unions; Sweeney is a former ironworker from Camden, New Jersey — one of America’s poorest cities — who came up through a labor union and says he got into politics to fight for the rights of his daughter with Down Syndrome. Former New York Times journalist Matt Bai, in his exclusive interview with Christie on Monday, said of the two:

Someone should probably write a book about Christie’s tumultuous, almost siblinglike relationship with the powerful president of the New Jersey Senate, Stephen Sweeney, a labor Democrat who has called the governor a “punk” and threatened to hit him – and that was just in one week. In the end, the two men, similar in temperament, have repeatedly returned to Christie’s conference table and forged one of the more functional political partnerships anywhere.

Like Christie, Sweeney has largely avoided speaking to the press since Bridgegate blew up earlier this month. Daily Intelligencer reached him by phone earlier this week and asked him his thoughts on Governor Christie, the Bridgegate revelations, and how he sees the scandal playing out.

How would you describe your relationship with Chris Christie?
It's great. I still have a good relationship with him. We talk to each other. I like him as a person. I don't like these revelations that we're hearing about, but up until these revelations, he's one of the most skilled politicians you'll ever meet. And honestly? I've told people this before: Our personalities are similar, except I have an off switch.

What’s an example of him not having an off switch?
Like when he was fighting with the teachers — once you win, stop! Don't just keep pounding them. If I win a fight, I actually will reach down and pick the person up and dust them off and try to make a friend. You know, people do fight, there are differences of opinion. And Chris, obviously, like with the teachers, he just pounded them into the ground.

Have you said that to him?
If you want to do a little research, go back to July 3, 2011, when I called the governor a "bully" and a "mean old bastard" in an interview with the Star-Ledger.

Prior to the e-mail revelations, did you buy Christie’s claims that his office had nothing to do with the bridge closure?
Yeah, I had no reason not to. Why would anybody create a traffic jam? When the bridge incident happened, and the governor said no one in his cabinet was involved, I absolutely believed him. I've got to tell you, now that these e-mails popped up, they are very disturbing. We're going to do an investigation, and we're going to get to the bottom of it.

Are you disappointed in him?
Listen, he says he's been lied to. I know a lot of people find that very hard to believe. We're taking his word for it for now, but understand, we're doing an investigation. It is going to go wherever it is going to go, whether that's to the governor's office itself — we're going to get to the bottom of it.

Have you spoken to him privately since all of this happened?
I was onstage with him Friday.

But privately?
I spoke to him publicly on Friday. I've spoken to him on other governmental issues, but we haven't spoken on this. 

You've been described as an ally of the governor. What do you make of that characterization?
I wouldn't say "ally." I'd say, you know, I'm the Senate president, and I've worked with him on things that are important to the state, and I've fought with him and stopped things that I don't agree with. I really, truly think there's somewhat of a misunderstanding here.

Correct it.
What I would call myself is someone that's willing to work in a bipartisan fashion to get things done. The benefit reforms that the governor did were mine four years before he came into office. They were things that I proposed when Jon Corzine was governor and Jon Corzine refused them. The pension reform and the health-care reform — they were all my ideas. I was willing to do things that are unconventional, and I wasn't afraid to do what was needed. But I've also stood up to him on many things the people of this state didn't agree with him on.

Like what?
How about his Supreme Court nominees? How about marriage equality? How about minimum wage? How about the Dream Act?

When did you first meet him?
I met the governor a couple of times when he was the U.S. Attorney, at different events. But when I actually really sat down with him, I can repeat this story to you: He called me up after he won the election, and said, obviously, he wanted to talk to me. He came to my union office in West Deptford, New Jersey. He came to my office, and he sat down with me, and he said, “Look, is there any chance in the world that we can get anything done here?" Because Washington wasn't going very well, and still isn't going very well. And I said, "For sure we can — we've got to look for areas of compromise." What happens in Washington is they find areas where there's no compromise, and they stay focused on that. The example is Obamacare. How many times have the Republicans tried to vote down Obamacare? 60? 70? So we actually started focusing on issues where there was common interest.

So where do you Chris Christie go from here?
This is business, it's business. Look,  you walk into a bar and you sit down with someone and you start watching a football game — before you start talking to the person, you don't say, "Wait a minute, are you a Republican or a Democrat?" You don't! You form relationships. But those relationships only go so far. You still can stand on your principles, which I think I have all along.

Bro bumping in better days Photo: John Moore/Getty Images