His political alliance with George Norcross, the legendary South Jersey Democratic boss who has expressed “the highest regard for Governor Christie’s aggressive leadership,” has made things difficult for Sweeney, who was installed as Senate president as the result of a Norcross power play and now must simultaneously try to satisfy both his political patron and the Democratic legislators who want him to be a strong voice of opposition. “Sweeney is always walking this fine line,” one prominent New Jersey Democrat says. “He’s probably going to have a stroke from all this.” Meanwhile, Steve Adubato and Joe DiVincenzo, two Newark-area Democrats who run the most powerful political machine in North Jersey, have become increasingly vocal in their support of Christie. “He’s a personal friend, and he’s been very helpful to me and my county,” DiVincenzo, who in November was elected to his third term as Essex County executive, told me. “As far as governors I’ve worked with, Chris stands alone.” These words of praise for Christie from “Joe D,” as DiVincenzo is known by everyone, must weigh heavily on the mind of Sheila Oliver, who, in addition to being speaker of the General Assembly, works as an Essex County administrator. “How can Oliver counter Christie when Joe D is one of the closest people to Christie and she makes $83,000 a year working for Joe D?” gripes a New Jersey labor leader.
“All he knows how to do is blow hot air … so I don’t really care what Frank Lautenberg has to say about anything,” says Christie.
“Christie’s managed to completely co-opt our party leadership,” says one Democratic legislator. How he’s done so is a matter of much theorizing in New Jersey political circles. One explanation is fairly prosaic: He’s simply engaged in the sort of transactional politics that have always defined Trenton, restoring nearly $17 million of proposed cuts to Essex County (thereby allowing DiVincenzo to avoid layoffs) and pledging $28 million in annual funds to a new medical school in Camden (the pet project of Norcross).
But a number of New Jersey Democrats take a more conspiratorial line. They mutter darkly—and circulate PowerPoint slides—about a state investigation into voter fraud in Essex County that, under Corzine, produced indictments against several members of Adubato and DiVincenzo’s political organization and appeared to be creeping closer to the two bosses themselves but that, since Christie became governor, seems to have ground to a halt. They speculate it was not a coincidence that Norcross was the biggest fish Christie failed to catch during his time as U.S. Attorney, noting that he didn’t prosecute the boss even after the state attorney general referred a case against him to the Feds. (At the time, Christie said the state had botched its investigation.)
Christie and his allies dismiss the allegations as unfounded—“I’m not going to dignify any of that with a response,” says his spokesperson Maria Comella—and the thinking does carry a hint of paranoia on the part of Democrats, who are still coming to grips with Christie’s success. Then again, this is New Jersey. When I asked one prominent Garden State Democrat what he thinks is going on, he answered, “I can go as deep into my own suspicions as you want.”
However you slice it, Christie’s détente with the Democratic Party bosses is at odds with his image as the governor who has single-handedly transformed New Jersey’s toxically corrupt political culture—“the scourge of Trenton,” as the National Review calls him. But Christie has proved masterful at creating a narrative in which he alone has the power and determination to confront the villains standing in the way of New Jersey’s future. In his telling, mundane policy disputes become twilight struggles between good and evil.
His battle with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), over a proposed pay freeze and an increase in employee contributions to health benefits, has been particularly epic. “I came to Trenton … and it’s like coming to a new schoolyard,” he says. “I looked around, and there were a bunch of people on the ground, all bloody and moaning, all beat up, and there was one person on the schoolyard standing … When you see that one person standing up, that’s the bully. And in New Jersey, that’s the New Jersey teachers union.” He has accused teachers of “ripping off” the state and treating their pupils like “drug mules” after some were sent home tasked with asking their parents how they would vote on the school budget. And the demonizing has worked. A November poll put Christie’s in-state approval rating at 51 percent—30 points higher than the NJEA’s.
Less than a year into his tenure, Christie is no longer just a popular governor; he has become a national Republican star. His focus on fiscal issues and his reluctance to wade into the culture wars—during his gubernatorial campaign, he declined Palin’s offer to stump for him—have endeared him to members of the GOP’s sane wing. “The breakthrough he’s scoring in New Jersey is hugely promising,” says David Frum, a conservative writer who fears that the Republican Party is being swallowed by the tea party. At the same time, Christie’s combativeness has made him a popular figure with the tea party in a way that someone like Indiana governor Mitch Daniels—who’s fought some of the same fiscal battles in his state but with the mien of an accountant—can only dream of. More than anything, Christie fills the longing, currently felt in all corners of the GOP (and beyond), for a stern taskmaster. “People just want to be treated like adults,” Christie says. “They just want to be told the truth. They know we’re in tough times, and they’re willing to sacrifice. But they want shared sacrifice.”