With enemies like these, Chris Christie doesn’t need to make friends

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Stephen Sweeney and Chris Christie. (camdencounty, via flickr)
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Only in New Jersey could it even possibly be a sign of a healthy, functioning political partnership when the president of the State Senate calls the governor "a rotten prick."

That's how Stephen Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat who has led Trenton's upper chamber since 2009, characterized Chris Christie after the Republican governor used his line item veto powers late last week to cancel out funding for an array of health and social service programs that Sweeney and his fellow Democrats had inserted into the budget.

"You know who he reminds me of? Mr. Potter from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the mean old bastard who screws everybody," Sweeney told the Star-Ledger's Tom Moran in a piece that appeared over the weekend. (The entire interview, which may set a New Jersey record for most juicy quotes per column inch, is worth reading.)

If you don't know New Jersey politics that well, you might assume that Sweeney is just another Democrat who can't stand Christie's conservative agenda, or the swaggering style and excessively personal rhetoric the governor has employed in pursuit of it. In reality, Sweeney has been one of Christie's most important allies, a man whose support was critical to the passage of the massive public-employee-benefits overhaul that Christie signed into law last week, just before turning to the budget.

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The passage of that benefits bill—which radically scaled back healthcare and pension benefits for state, county and municipal employees and banned collective baragaining for at least the next four years—is testament to a symbiotic partnership that Christie has entered into with the state's biggest Democratic powerbroker, an alliance that has helped him to enact the bulk of his agenda despite the presence of Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers.

Sweeney is the protege of a wealthy insurance executive named George Norcross, the political boss who oversees the massive South Jersey Democratic machine. Over the last two decades, the Norcross organization has steadily expanded its hold on the region and extended its reach across the state. It's not written down anywhere, but it's acknowledged by everyone (privately, of course): You don't run for office as a Democrat in South Jersey unless George is OK with it—and you don't win in the fall without him. Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross', knows how this works: He came to the Senate in 2001 by ousting a 28-year Republican incumbent, a victory that was keyed by Norcross' money and muscle.

There have been suspicions of wink-and-nod collusion between Norcross and Christie for years, dating back to Christie's decision as U.S. attorney not to pursue a criminal case against Norcross and his machine back in 2006. At the time, Christie blamed the state attorney general's office, which had been investigating Norcross after a South Jersey mayor had come forward alleging that he'd faced retaliation from Norcross-aligned officials after refusing to fire his town's solicitor at Norcross' request. As part of the investigation, more than 300 hours of secretly recorded conversations had been compiled, including boasts from Norcross about his influence in statewide politics.

What was curious was that Christie had made big-name corruption prosecutions the centerpiece of his work as U.S. attorney, racking up scores of convictions and plea deals and delighting in the glowing headlines they produced. But here he was passing on a chance to go after the biggest fish in New Jersey politics, the man who ran the whole show south of I-195. It was well-known that Christie—who had started out as an ambitious politician in Morris County, N.J. before suffering two humiliating losses and turning to the U.S. attorney's job for redemption—wanted to run for governor. And Norcross enjoyed (as he still does) a reputation for being a dealmaker more than an ideologue or a partisan. People began wondering: Was this the start of a Christie-Norcross alliance?

Those suspicions escalated as Norcross' relationship with Democratic Governor Jon Corzine deteriorated and as Christie moved to challenge him in the 2009 election. And it's now treated as a given by New Jersey insiders that Norcross and his operation "went to sleep" on Corzine in November '09, failing to fully mobilize their machine and contributing to Christie's four-point victory—the first statewide triumph for a Republican in a dozen years.

Fast forward to the vote on the benefits bill last week. It passed the Senate with 24 votes, three more than the magic number. Eight of those votes came from Democrats—and six of those Democrats were from South Jersey. The breakdown was similar in the state Assembly.

Why was it in Norcross' interest to support what most Democrats regard as a union-busting bill? Maybe it's because he's just as disdainful of public employees as Christie. The machine that Norcross runs is primarily suburban in nature; catering to the party's traditional coalition groups isn't nearly as important as making sure the suburban masses don't feel compelled to rise up against a tax-and-spend Democratic Party (the way they did during New Jersey's early '90s tax revolt). So Norcross has as much interest in neutering public employee unions as Christie -- which could help explain why Sweeney, four years before Christie became governor, was already lashing out against public employees and their benefits.

When Christie signed the benefits bill last week, he lavished praise on Sweeney, who was on stage with him. He also acknowledged having had personal discussions with Norcross about the bill. Norcross, by most measures, now has what he's always wanted in the governor's office—a philosophically aligned partner who actually knows how to use the power of the office to achieve results. That Christie is a Republican only makes it a better deal for Norcross. When Democrats controlled the front office, he was one of many bosses vying for the governor's ear. Now he's virtually alone.

Considered against this backdrop, Sweeney's eruption over the weekend starts to feel a little different. After all, he has statewide aspirations of his own, maybe for the governorship in 2013 (but would Norcross really stand for that?) or for the Senate in 2014, assuming Frank Lautenberg doesn't run again. But his path through a statewide Democratic primary got a lot more complicated last week, with Democratic activists waking up to the extent of his cooperation with Christie, and to the real, practical significance of his ties to Norcross.

In other words, it's suddenly imperative for Sweeney to create distance between himself and Christie, to prove to skeptical Democrats that he shares their values and is willing to fight for them against the Republican governor. It's notable that just a few days before his outburst to Moran, Sweeney seemingly out of nowhere declared that his refusal to vote for gay marriage in 2009 had been his biggest mistake as a legislator. This came as the benefits bill was moving toward passage. It was like real-time contrition, as if Sweeney realized that his problems with the base were starting to add up and had decided to course-correct on the spot.

A cynic could read his tirade against Christie the same way. It made for a nice show for every Democrat who Sweeney angered by embracing the benefits bill. But it was, in the end, a show. After all, when the dust settles, every one of Christie's line item vetoes will stand. Whatever Sweeney says, the Republican governor got his way. Again.