Chris Christie does a gay-marriage dance, and New Jersey Democrats stand still

Chris Christie. (Photo via the governor's office.)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

With a bill to legalize same-sex marriage making its way to his desk, New Jersey’s Republican governor made a play last week for both the primary and general electorates. Instead of simply reiterating his promise to veto the bill, Christie called for a voter referendum to coincide with the 2012 presidential election, akin to California’s Proposition 8.

“I think this is not an issue that should rest solely in my hands, or the hands of the Senate president or the speaker or the other 118 members of the legislature,” the governor said. “Let’s let the people of New Jersey decide what is right for the state.”

If approved, as polls suggest it would be, Christie would get to do a George-Wallace-in-the-schoolhouse-door bit, saying that he did his part before yielding to unstoppable forces.

If the question fails, the Republican base gets what it wants and Christie can tell everyone else that he let it go to a vote when he didn’t have to. And the more likely event that the issue doesn’t go to a vote (the governor needs the legislature to go along with a referendum question), he can keep his promise to veto the legislation and claim it was not the outcome he would have preferred, blaming the gridlock on legislative Democrats.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Christie will claim success under any scenario.

Earlier last month, State Senate president Steve Sweeney, a former same-sex-marriage skeptic, announced the bill would lead off the Democrats’ 2012 legislative agenda. Already looking past Christie, a former top aide to Governor Jon Corzine proposed a constitutional amendment that could reach the ballot as early as 2013. The Star-Ledger editorial board then endorsed the idea.

Two weeks later, Christie called for the 2012 referendum.

The governor’s maneuver has inflamed marriage-equality supporters, and prompted media appearances from his best frenemy, Newark mayor Cory Booker. But while the pro-gay-marriage Star-Ledger opposed the idea of a ballot vote and called Christie out for “a political dodge,” Booker complicated the notion that he is a credible Democratic challenger to Christie in 2013 by rejecting such criticism as “cynical.”

Booker’s idealism has carried him far, but this naiveté flies in the face of recent history. It was only two short years ago that Christie played a key role in crushing a marriage-equality push in Trenton.

In the closing days of the Corzine administration, a bipartisan coalition came together to get a bill before the lame-duck governor for signing. Christie, the governor-elect, informed pro-equality G.O.P. legislators that he would take it as a personal affront if they handed Democrats a major victory just before his swearing-in. With their Republican fig leaves removed, several wobbly Democrats like Sweeney sat on their hands and the bill went down in defeat. (The one Republican assemblyman who broke ranks—Bill Baroni—was appointed to the Port Authority the next month.)

Christie has kept an impressive grasp on legislative Republicans ever since, and his call for a referendum may be a new way to give his pro-equality caucus members a reason to vote “no” on the pending bill.

Christie’s allies are working hard to keep the governor’s poll numbers up and New Jersey in play this November, maximizing his chance of becoming the vice presidential nominee. The big pro-Christie PAC launched a new ad buy this week. Meanwhile, anti-Obama ads from Crossroads GPS, a group run by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, are also showing up on the New Jersey airwaves.

The governor maintains a higher approval rating than the president with New Jersey voters, and is by far the most popular politician in New Jersey.

And he’ll continue to be, until the local Democrats figure out how to play at his level.