Tuesday, April 19, 2011
BY CHRIS MEGERIAN
STATE HOUSE BUREAU
TRENTON — It wasn’t the first time Gov. Chris Christie had launched an impromptu broadside against a political opponent or a confrontational teacher.
But last week the object of his scorn was a familiar sparring partner, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) — a 76-year-old widowed grandmother and canny politician in her own right — who began collecting her lawmaker’s pension last year without leaving her $49,000-a-year-job.
Christie told a throng of reporters at a Statehouse press briefing "to take the bat out on her" for criticizing him as soft on double-dipping political allies without disclosing that she was doing the same thing.
The freestyle performance came gift-wrapped for controversy. Democratic adversaries, spotting a rare opening, called the governor’s remarks a suggestion of violence and simply the latest example of browbeating incivility from the state’s highest office.
While his supporters say Christie’s no-nonsense attitude is one of his greatest strengths, others say his approach could ultimately work against him.
"It’s his Achilles’ heel," said Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Senate majority leader and a Christie foe. "Since the very beginning, he’s had this very nasty approach to dealing with people that has been masquerading as honesty."
Christie’s national stature has been pegged to his well-honed image as the rare politician who supporters say is brutally straightforward. But there are signs that New Jerseyans, at least, are tiring of the governor’s tone, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday. Although more voters view him favorably than not, the percentage describing him as a bully tripled since August.
David Redlawsk, a Rutgers politics professor, joked they should have waited to run the poll until after Christie’s tussle with Weinberg last week.
"It reinforces the storyline of a guy who can potentially cross the line," Redlawsk said. "The question is, does it tip public opinion?"
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said Democrats are in no position to point fingers, having controlled state government for nearly a decade.
"They’ve bullied the taxpayer, run our finances into the ground, created an intractable mess," Drewniak said. "And they get all high and mighty about somebody who pushes back, and pushes back hard?"
But others are more wary of Christie’s verbal salvos.
"He’s not going to win a lot of style points for diplomacy," said Carl Golden, who was a spokesman for Republican governors Christie Whitman and Tom Kean. "He’s walking that line between strength and leadership and offending some people."
ATTACK AND COUNTERATTACK
Christie has pushed back hard on the teachers' union (he has called them "thugs"), independent authorities (the "shadow government") and the Parsippany schools superintendent (the "new poster boy for all that’s wrong with the public school system").
As for the latest flareup, Drewniak said Democrats were purposely taking Christie’s comments out of context for political purposes.
The governor’s attack on Weinberg stems from a controversy over a pension being taken by Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr.
DiVincenzo "retired" last year and began collecting his pension without stepping down from the job, which is legal because of a state law Christie wants changed. Weinberg was one of several Democrats who criticized Christie for not immediately denouncing DiVincenzo, a valuable political ally of the governor, as he has with other officials who have taken advantage of pension rules.
The next day Weinberg disclosed on a blog that she, too, was "retired" and collecting her pension and paycheck simultaneously for the same job. Her arrangement, like DiVincenzo’s, is legal.
Christie said at last week’s briefing that Weinberg "put herself in the line of fire" for criticizing him, for which she deserved a "hypocrisy award."
For more than a year, Democrats in New Jersey have struggled to hold the line against the governor. So when Christie urged reporters to "take the bat out" on Weinberg, they pounced, seeking to turn the governor’s remarks into a wedge issue.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said Christie had "found a new low in public discourse." By week’s end, two Bergen County Democrats called on every lawmaker to denounce Christie’s remark.
"The governor’s comments are indefensible," Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen) said. "No one, no matter their role, should be advocating violence against a 76-year-old woman, or anyone for that matter."
While Democrats criticized Christie, Bob Yudin, chairman of the Bergen County Republicans, played down Weinberg’s sympathetic role. She may be a grandmother, he said, but she’s also a veteran politician.
"In this political environment, you give criticism and you get criticism," Yudin said.
Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), Christies’s closest friend in the state Senate, said the debate was a "ridiculous waste of energy."
"Instead of having a fight over a choice of words," Kyrillos said, "we should be fighting to fix the structural problems of the state."
Cliff Zukin, another politics professor at Rutgers, cautioned that Christie’s tone may have run its course.
"His in-your-face way of handling things is starting to wear thin," he said. "It was good for getting attention, but the question is whether he has another style to go to because he’s alienating people."
Outside of New Jersey, Christie’s tough talk has spurred support for a presidential run. Still, Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs at Princeton, said his off-the-cuff comments could be a liability on the national stage.
"There’s a certain charm to the tough talker," Zelizer said. "But if you make careless remarks, it will offend some people. And just as importantly, it will raise questions for Republican operatives, ‘what is this guy going to say next?’"