“I am setting the tone.” The Moorestown town-hall meeting was over, and Christie was now leaning his frame on a giant butcher block in the building’s kitchen and explaining to me how he approaches his job. Christie suffers from asthma, and his boasting was punctuated by heavy breathing and frequent swigs from a water bottle. He seemed less a politician leaving an event than an athlete coming off the field—or Rex Ryan, that other larger-than-life New Jersey character, standing in a victorious locker room.
He has set the tone, in part, by being “a strong governor who has opinions and is willing to express them,” he said. When I asked him about New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg’s criticism of his decision to cancel the tunnel, Christie shot back, “All he knows how to do is blow hot air … so I don’t really care what Frank Lautenberg has to say about much of anything.” Anything? “I’m always willing to read something in the paper that he said, and if he makes sense, I’m happy to work with him on it. I haven’t found one yet.” Christie believes his aggressive approach sends a signal to everyone else in the state. “The tone I’m trying to set for New Jersey is: action. Less talk, more action. And I think that’s what I’m doing as governor, and I think we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done already because of that, because I’m pushing and pushing and pushing.”
Much of the push comes from Christie’s willingness to exercise the enormous powers the State Constitution vests in his office—even the seldom-used ones. In May, angry about what he viewed as a liberal and “out of control” State Supreme Court, he refused to reappoint a sitting justice whose seven-year term was set to expire—an action that, despite being constitutionally permissible, no governor prior to Christie had ever taken. He especially relishes vetoing the meeting minutes of the more than 60 state authorities and commissions, ranging from the Turnpike Authority to the Maritime Pilot & Docking Pilot Commission, having vetoed more minutes in ten months than Corzine did in four years. Joe Kyrillos, a Republican state senator, says, “He understands and is not afraid to use the strength of the office to force outcomes in a way that other governors haven’t.”
Christie also exercises his power in less public ways. His control over his fellow Republicans in New Jersey is such that Steve Sweeney complains, “There’s no need to even have Republican legislators anymore. Once he decides something, they vote with him.” He’s achieved that loyalty partly with carrots. In the months between his election and his inauguration, Christie proved a quick study of New Jersey’s byzantine appointments system and did a masterful job of preventing Corzine from rewarding his supporters with plum spots on authorities and commissions—something almost every lame-duck governor has done. “It was an elaborate chess game,” recalls a former Corzine aide, “and he beat us at every step.” That meant those coveted appointments became Christie’s to dole out to his allies.
Not that he’s above cementing party loyalty with sticks. Republicans who have expressed doubts about various parts of the governor’s agenda have swiftly been brought into line with threats of retribution such as withholding fund-raising assistance or denying them their preferred judicial appointments. “He rules with an iron fist,” one Republican legislator told me. “If you’re a team player, he’s with you, but if you’re not, you’ve got problems. He’s vindictive, and it gets personal. He holds most of the cards, and he’s not afraid to play them.”
Christie has been most Machiavellian in his dealings with Democrats. Cory Booker, the Newark mayor once thought to be the Democrats’ best hope of beating Christie in 2013, now seems ill-suited for that role given his partnership with Christie to overhaul Newark’s schools—a Felix-and-Oscar act the two have taken all the way to the set of Oprah. “The governor holds the keys to every door that Booker needs unlocked,” a mayoral adviser explains.
Christie has more-important Democratic allies, as well. Although New Jersey often feels like an endless suburb, the state’s Democratic Party has long been dominated by a patchwork of old-style urban political machines—with all their concomitant ills. As U.S. Attorney, Christie made a name for himself by successfully prosecuting 130 public officials for corruption, including a number of the state’s most powerful Democratic bosses. And he’s tried to carry that reputation with him to Trenton, making ethics reform one of his signature issues. “I know you will find it hard to believe in New Jersey that you need an ethics-reform package,” he likes to say. And yet, since becoming governor, Christie has cultivated strong relationships with the three most prominent Democratic power brokers currently not in jail.