On Wednesday, Christie Watch followed the New Jersey governor to an idyllic, beachside pavilion in Belmar, New Jersey. Under crystal blue skies and amid soft, cool ocean breezes, Chris Christie held the 125th in his long-running series of town hall meetings. But you could tell that the governor’s heart wasn’t in it. Beleaguered at home, dealing with a budget crisis and a faltering New Jersey economy, engaged in a statewide confrontation with teachers, police, firefighters and other state employees over Christie’s plan to slice and dice public pensions, and still dogged by Bridgegate, there’s little doubt that the governor would like to leave New Jersey behind and get started on his 2016 presidential campaign—for which, if he decides to run, he’ll probably resign sometime next year and leave New Jersey’s problems to his successor. Indeed, today the governor is in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state, whose feisty, independent-minded voters hold the key to Christie’s presidential future.
At Christie’s last town meeting, July 22 in Long Beach, the governor found himself facing a formidable, silent protest by 200 police and firefighters angry over’s Christie’s intent to conduct another round of pension and healthcare benefit cuts later this year. So, too, on Wednesday in Belmar Christie found himself facing a healthy contingent of protesters, mostly teachers and other state workers, among the 400 or so who showed up to see the governor. Holding signs and placards, talking to reporters, singing songs—including one specifically written for the occasion by the Solidarity Singers, a pro-union group—the protesters dominated the audience, interrupting Christie’s patter, asking tough questions during the Q&A session, and mostly dominating the event’s ambience. Riffing on Christie’s latest theme, “No Pain, No Gain,” Carol Gay, president of the Industrial Union Council of New Jersey, said, “We’re here because we don’t think our pain should be Christie’s gain.” Like many in the crowd, Gay was angry that earlier this year Christie reneged on a deal to make the full, promised payment toward New Jersey’s public pension plan’s solvency. “He’s trying to make public workers the scapegoat for his mistakes,” she said.
“He’s screwing with all of our pensions. He’s basically trying to get rid of it,” said a correction officers with eight years on the job, who asked that his name not be used. “Morale is suffering. There are guys who don’t know if they’ll be on the job in five or ten years.”
During the event, part of a series of such meetings along the Jersey Shore this summer to build support for what Christie promises will be sharp cuts later this year, a teacher in the audience asked Christie to reassure her that teachers won’t face draconian reductions. “We negotiated those benefits,” she told the governor. “We took low salaries all these years because we knew we could count on a pension when we retire.” But Christie was unmoved, during a back-and-forth exchange. Pressed to guarantee that the state would follow through on its commitments, Christie said: “I can’t.… If I were to guarantee [that], I’d be lying. The money is not there, and it will not be there.” By the end of the summer, he said, he’ll announce the outlines of his plan to deal with the problem. To make sure his audience got the point, he raised the threat of the state pension system’s going “bankrupt” and New Jersey’s ending up like Detroit.
That’s Christie’s message, not so much to New Jerseyans but to Republican primary voters, especially the ultraconservative and Tea Party types who are suspicious of Christie’s right-wing bona fides. And it might be working, at least according to some early polling, including a CNN poll this week that found Christie leading the pack among potential GOP 2016 candidates, though in a crowded field of nine rivals. Pretending that Bridgegate, the scandals involving corruption and self-dealing at the Port Authority, and charges that the Christie administration used recovery aid from Hurricane Sandy as blackmail against Hoboken’s mayor are all in the past, Christie is traveling the country, visiting as many as two dozen states, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and he’s setting fundraising records for the RGA by appealing to his real base, the über-wealthy, hedge fund managers and Wall Street. Indeed, on Monday night, according to a story by Heather Haddon of The Wall Street Journal, Christie spent the evening at a “thank-you party” with 140 big-money donors, including his chief backer, Home Depot’s Ken Langone, along with hedge fund wheeler-dealer Paul Singer and financier Lewis Eisenberg, plus New Jersey developer Jon Hanson, whose role was recently spotlighted in a Christie Watch series on Christie’s involvement in the controversial American Dream megamall at the Meadowlands.