To push his first-term agenda, Republican Governor Chris Christie had no greater booster than Senate President Stephen Sweeney, New Jersey’s top-ranking elected Democrat.
When Christie wanted to make state workers contribute more toward pensions and benefits, Sweeney, an ironworkers union organizer, stepped up with a bill. To drum up voter support for $750 million in borrowing for university construction, Sweeney, who never attended college, hit the campus tour circuit.
Now, as Christie seeks backing from the legislature’s majority Democrats to further cut pensions that constrain his record $34.4 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2015, Sweeney is casting himself more as foe than enabler.
“This has nothing to do with me getting along with him or not,” Sweeney, 54, said in a Feb. 25 interview. “It’s business.”
The chill comes amid state and federal investigations of the administration’s links to intentional traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge. Christie, a potential presidential candidate, is seeking a policy victory to reverse sliding approval. He also is looking for bragging points as chairman and chief fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association in a year in which 36 states will elect chief executives.
Sweeney is the one New Jersey politician with the clout to make both the legislature and labor swallow a sequel to Christie’s first-term benefits cutbacks, which included a higher retirement age and bigger employee contributions to health insurance and the pension plan. Sweeney on Feb. 24 said another round isn’t negotiable.
“He’s saying, ’I don’t feel like giving anymore, especially to a weakened governor,’” said Matthew Hale, a political-science professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange.
Since Christie, 51, began his second term last month, Sweeney has soured:
The governor’s inaugural address, the burly lawmaker said, was “long on rhetoric and short on solutions.”
His handling of Hurricane Sandy aid: a “colossal failure.”
On another Christie proposal, a 10 percent income-tax cut, Sweeney told reporters Feb. 24: “You gotta be kidding me.”
Sweeney, like Christie, isn’t afraid to speak his mind. A resident of West Deptford, a Philadelphia suburb, Sweeney entered public service after his daughter was born with Down syndrome, because he wanted to improve laws and services for children with special needs. He served on his county’s governing board and was elected to the Senate in 2001. He has been re- elected three times, and has been president since 2010.
Since 2006, the lawmaker had been pushing pension changes over the objections of members of his party, who are typically backed in New Jersey elections by public unions.
Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, wouldn’t hear of it, telling workers at a rally in front of the Statehouse that he would fight for them.
In the Feb. 25 budget speech, Christie said New Jersey’s pension system is underfunded by $52 billion after a decade of expanded benefits and missed payments. He signed a law in 2011 requiring the state to make one-seventh of its pension contribution in fiscal 2012, then raise the payment each year until it reaches the full annual amount, $5.5 billion, in 2018.
Christie ousted Corzine in the 2009 election as voters rejected the one-term Democrat’s handling of the economy. The first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, Christie and Sweeney made an agreement in June 2011 on a plan to curb pension costs. Unions picketed outside the Statehouse, while members hissed and booed inside as Sweeney testified on the measure before a legislative panel.
A month later, when Christie removed millions of dollars of Democratic add-ons to his second budget, Sweeney called him a bully, a punk and “a mean old bastard.” Christie told reporters two weeks later that he held no grudges because of the remarks, and he said together they had done “amazing things.”
“Senator Sweeney and I have a passionate relationship,” Christie said then. “When you have a passionate relationship like that, sometimes people get overemotional, and I think Senator Sweeney’s comments of two weeks ago are probably an example of that. We have a good relationship and we’re friends.”
The pension and benefits bill “never would have happened without Steve Sweeney’s vision and his leadership,” he said.
Christie’s first-term successes were made possible because of alliances with prominent Democrats. Such ties stretch to Sweeney’s South Jersey base and its major political fundraiser, George Norcross. In the north, Christie is aligned with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. The governor worked with DiVincenzo on the pension changes and with Norcross on reorganizing the state’s universities.
Sweeney, mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2017, made it clear this week that he wants credit for the 2011 retirement legislation.
“Let’s get it straight: It was my plan, not his,” Sweeney told reporters after Christie’s Feb. 25 budget address. “I was not his collaborator. He came along and worked on a plan that I believed in because I know pensions.”
Sweeney ceded a chance to challenge Christie last year to Barbara Buono, a Senate colleague from Metuchen who lost by 22 percentage points in November. In January, after e-mails showed a Christie aide suggested the bridge tie-ups in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse the governor, Sweeney formed an investigatory committee with power to subpoena members of the executive branch.
“He’s been such a close ally of Christie over the past four years that he has to prove himself anew to the Democratic Party,” said Peter Woolley, a politics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison.
Christie, in his budget speech, said the pension changes haven’t gone far enough, because costs continue to rise. He gave no specifics on what else was needed. Sweeney said the governor should focus on improving the economy to boost revenue, not cutting obligations.
“Sweeney saw his political star rising because of the ascendancy of Chris Christie, and that allegiance could carry him into the governor’s mansion,” said Brigid Harrison, a political professor at Montclair State University. “Now he recognizes that his alliance with Christie is detrimental. Over the next several years he’s going to make every effort to distance himself.”
Sweeney in recent months has adapted some of Christie’s public-relations strategy. Christie has his town-hall meetings; Sweeney this month started touring towns to draw attention to Sandy victims’ troubles.
Once a month, the governor hears from voters during an hour-long radio call-in show. In December, Sweeney began weekly “Twitter Thursdays,” using his social-media account to answer questions. He has about 2,500 followers; Christie has 439,000.
In a Dec. 12 exchange, one user asked who would be the victor in a Sweeney-Christie arm-wresting match. Sweeney, with apologies to the governor, said, “It’s only a competition if the other guy has a chance.”
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