TRENTON, N.J. — On Tuesday, New Jerseyans are trading a scowl for a smile.
Outgoing Gov. Chris Christie, a county-level politician and lobbyist turned tough-guy U.S. attorney, spent eight blustery years as governor taking on teachers, activists and his political foes in Trenton and beyond. Delighting in confrontation, he made himself into a pugnacious national figure, a failed GOP presidential contender and, ultimately, an ally of President Donald Trump.
He’ll be replaced Tuesday by Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive whose campaign was defined by the diplomatic style he learned as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany — and whose smile is so affixed to his face that some politicos privately mock him for it.
It’s whiplash for New Jersey’s notoriously rough political culture. And not just ideologically, as the state moves from its most conservative governor ever to a man who’s all but pledged to be its most liberal one. New Jersey’s governor is widely considered the most powerful in the nation.
The two men’s political styles are as far apart as can be, from Christie’s prosecutorial confrontation and hard-line negotiating to Murphy’s diplomatic consensus building — at least publicly.
“They’re very different. Christie’s kind of in your face. Murphy’s not. He’s a gentleman — an absolute gentleman,” said state Sen. Richard Codey, who served as governor for 14 months and was one of Murphy’s earliest backers. “But don’t think his kindness is weakness. He’s got onions.”
Murphy, admittedly, enters Trenton as a relative unknown.
“Chris Christie knew the inside game better than anybody else in the 25 years that I’ve been around New Jersey politics. Phil Murphy is still learning,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky, who was Murphy’s first hire when he began laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run in 2014. “But when it comes to their communications skills, it’s the tale of the bully versus the valedictorian.”
There have been indications that Murphy has a cutthroat side, thus far kept below the radar. In September 2016, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who had been the favorite of North Jersey Democratic bosses for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, abruptly dropped out of the race and endorsed Murphy. While Fulop insisted that he came to the conclusion himself, the timing of the move, to this day, has led New Jersey political insiders to speculate that Murphy had a potentially damning piece of information on Fulop.
But the toughest side of Murphy that New Jerseyans have seen so far is a letter he sent to the Christie administration warning of a potentially massive budget deficit and asking him to freeze discretionary spending. It was a page straight out of Christie’s playbook, since the governor pulled the same move on his predecessor, Jon Corzine. But the letter’s tone was far from aggressive.
”You have to read between the lines. I think it’s probably some of that diplomacy coming through again,” said Carl Golden, who served as a spokesman for Republican Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman. Golden offered his own translation: “You’ve fouled up the budget for the last eight years with lousy revenue estimates and questionable spending, so don’t do any more of it.”
Early in Christie’s tenure, he told off critical teachers and others at town hall meetings, cutting the arguments into YouTube videos that resonated first with New Jerseyans, and soon with a national audience. “I sat here, stood here and very respectfully listened to you. If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well, then I have no interest in answering your question,” Christie said in an exchange with schoolteacher Marie Corfield. The video would rack up more than a million views on YouTube.
New Jerseyans were looking in a mirror, or at least had a governor who reflected how the state is so often perceived. Christie was born in Newark, the state’s largest city, but grew up in nearby Livingston, an upper-middle-class suburb.
Residents, however, eventually grew tired of the act. Christie’s 2014 admonition to Hurricane Sandy activist Jim Keady to “sit down and shut up” at a Shore news conference was met with applause at the event itself, but eye rolls afterward.
Christie’s town halls were designed in such a way that they drew overwhelmingly sympathetic crowds. They were always held on weekdays, drawing an audience that skewed toward retirees; many were invited by local Republican officials. But Christie chose questions from the audience not knowing what was going to be asked.
Murphy grew up outside Boston, in Needham — like Livingston, a well-heeled suburb. He often says his family was “middle-class on a good day,” contrasting his background with his current income of about $7 million per year exclusively from his investments.
Murphy’s campaign town halls were smaller, and questions were pre-selected and written out on note cards. Murphy didn’t greet confrontation so much as ignore it. At one event a young Republican activist, Kevin Tober, dressed as a gas pump, heckled Murphy about his support for increasing the gas tax.
“Is something going on that I’m missing?” Murphy deadpanned, his back to the activist. “Water infrastructure has never gotten this sort of reaction.”
While Christie’s public appeal was partly based on his bluster, he proved to be a shrewd operator in Trenton. From the beginning, he cut deals with Democratic bosses who ran powerful machines in South Jersey and Essex County, enabling him to pick off enough Democratic legislators to pass key agenda items like an overhaul of public worker pension benefits. He took on the public-sector unions, most of all the New Jersey Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union and biggest public-sector union, period — and bashed it at every opportunity. Christie also kept Republicans in near lock step, and those who voted against his priorities were punished by seeing their allies’ nominations held up.
Golden, the former spokesman for Kean and Whitman, said Murphy will likely learn the need to play rough.
“He comes across as this sort of happy warrior guy who thinks that logic and goodwill carry the day. Well, I’m here to tell you, that just doesn’t work,” Golden said.
Murphy early on allied himself with the NJEA. But he angered Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney by refusing to step in and tell the union to cool it as it was spending millions of dollars in a failed attempt to unseat him.
During the Democratic primary debates, Murphy came under attack by three opponents, who focused on him relentlessly. He smiled and stuck to his talking points.
“It will be interesting to see how Murphy’s consensus-building DNA, what happens to that when his position is one of total power or close to total power,” said Matt Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University. “Christie understood more than perhaps any other governor of recent memory how much more he had at his disposal and how to pull those levers.”
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