6:41 am Jul. 19, 20101
Something rather incredible has unfolded this year in Trenton, where a new governor came to office and faced off with a notoriously obstinate and intractable legislature and (more or less) bent it to his will, defying expectations and enacting reforms that are anathema to the state’s political establishment.
Chris Christie was inaugurated six months ago today, and the story of his governorship—so far, at least—is one New Yorkers ought to take note of, since the man who will be their next governor is apparently dead set on doing the same thing.
The similarities between Christie and Andrew Cuomo are more than just stylistic. They both claim the reformer mantle, yes, but the substance of their agendas is also remarkably similar—especially when you consider that one is a Republican and the other is a Democrat. (And not just any Democrat—Mario Cuomo’s son.)
Christie took power pledging to resist tax hikes, slash state spending, confront public employee unions and the state’s pension nightmare, and improve New Jersey’s overall business climate. And in his first budget, approved by the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate and signed into law last month, he made surprising progress toward those goals. He followed that up by pushing for a constitutional amendment to cap local property-tax increases at 2.5 percent annually, which resulted in a compromise with the legislature: a smaller cap of two percent with more flexibility.
Cuomo’s program isn’t that different. Like Christie in his campaign last year, Cuomo is presenting himself as a tax-averse penny-pincher, an Albany outsider willing to expend his political capital to go to war with public employees and other entrenched interests in order to bring the state’s finances into line. Pension and Medicaid reform rate highly on Cuomo’s priority list, along with charter schools. And like Christie, who axed the “millionaire’s tax” that New Jersey Democrats enacted under one of his predecessors, Cuomo says he’ll let a tax hike that Democrats imposed on upper-income New Yorkers expire next year.
The question is whether Cuomo will have the same success Christie has enjoyed when it comes to implementing his agenda. And this is where their stories may diverge. To understand why, you need to understand how they came to power. (Yes, Cuomo hasn’t actually been elected yet, but come on…)
Christie’s election last November came as a jolt to Trenton. But Cuomo’s pending triumph may not even cause a ripple in Albany.
This seems counterintuitive. After all, Christie barely won his race over Jon Corzine. The outcome was in doubt until the very end and Christie failed to secure an outright majority. Cuomo, on the other hand, enjoys enormous popularity across the state and could easily clear 70 percent in November’s suspense-less election.
But New Jersey’s Democratic establishment never saw the Christie train coming. Sure, they knew that Corzine’s poll numbers were wobbly and that the brutal economy had voters feeling restive. But a decade and a half of electoral success had the party feeling invulnerable. From 1994 through the 2008 election, Republicans basically had no chance in New Jersey. With Newt Gingrich and his band running Congress and George W. Bush running the White House, the state’s culturally liberal voters embraced the Democratic label like never before. It didn’t matter how much the Democrats abused their power (Robert Torricelli, Jim McGreevey), voters continued to side with them, election after election.
So when the G.O.P. nominated Christie and polls showed him a few points ahead of Corzine, no one panicked. It’s a Democratic state, they said, and Corzine has all that money! What they failed to realize was that the election of 2008 meant that, for the first time since before 1994, Democrats controlled everything in Washington—and everything in Trenton. Which meant that New Jersey voters were suddenly willing to consider Republican candidate—as protest vehicles, if nothing else. No longer could the state’s Democrats use Washington as cover for their own ineptitude.
Christie pulled away late and scored a 49-to-44 percent win on Election Day. It was the first Republican victory in a statewide race in New Jersey since 1997 (when Christie Whitman was re-elected in a humbling squeaker) and the second-largest margin of victory for a Republican in 37 years. Until the very end, Democrats swore that Corzine was safe and that their boilerplate attacks on the G.O.P. nominee—so successful between 1994 and 2008—would work as usual. It is impossible, therefore, to articulate what a body-blow Christie’s triumph was to the Trenton establishment.
This has been a major source of Christie’s legislative success. His victory shook Democrats, disabused them of their notions of invincibility, and compelled them to regard the new governor’s agenda with a seriousness they never afforded Corzine and his plans.
The ruling Democrats in Albany are just as arrogant as they were in Trenton, but Cuomo’s impending victory—no matter how massive the margin—won’t prompt any comparable soul-searching. The reason is simple: They’ve seen this story before.
Four years ago, Eliot Spitzer entered the governor’s race as the same kind of 800-pound gorilla that Cuomo now is. His popularity was just as broad, and its source was identical: the public relations goldmine that is the state attorney general’s office. Just like Cuomo, Spitzer used high-profile prosecutions and investigations to rack up the kind of poll numbers that made his election as governor a foregone conclusion at least a year before the ballots were cast.
And just like Cuomo now, Spitzer spent his coronation-like gubernatorial campaign making loud (and sincere) noise about giving Albany a facelift, believing that a landslide election would make him a “steamroller.” Sheldon Silver and other change-resistant Democratic legislative leaders would have to accommodate him, the thinking went, or face the wrath of the Spitzer-crazed public.
We all know how that turned out. Silver used a fight over the vacant comptroller’s office to school the new governor in the ways of Albany, and it was all downhill from there. Before scandal ended his brief reign in early 2008, Spitzer’s poll numbers had come crashing down and his re-election prospects were in doubt. But Silver and the establishment, whose power seems to grow in direct proportion to their public disapproval rating, were stronger than ever.
You can forgive Silver for thinking history will soon repeat itself. From his vantage point, and from the vantage point of most of the Albany establishment, the governor-in-waiting looks and sounds a lot more like an Eliot Spitzer than a Chris Christie. We'll know soon enough whether they're right.
More by this author:
- Exit everyman: How the Jersey Democratic bosses destroyed Dick Codey and unleashed Chris Christie
- When Lautenberg's age met Booker's ambition: An elegy for the Swamp Dog