Source: Christie and Sweeney are on a ‘Collision Course’

By Alyana Alfaro | 03/01/16


Christie and Sweeney in 2013.


As the most powerful Republican and Democrat in New Jersey’s state government, Governor Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney used to be incongruous associates. Now, however, that relationship seems to have reached is expiration date with the two very often publicly parting ways over the past year.

According to sources and political pundits, the departure between the two seems to stem for their respective appeals for higher office: Christie’s failed 2016 presidential run and Sweeney’s likely run for governor in 2017.

On Monday, Christie nominated Republican Judge David Bauman to fill a six-year vacancy on the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, Sweeney issued a scathing statement denouncing that pick as an effort by Christie to tilt the political balance of the state’s highest appellate court. Sweeney wants to up the minimum wage and has begun to broker a deal with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to devise a plan to boost the it to $15 per hour. Christie staunchly opposes raising the minimum wage. Sweeney wants Christie to lay off his call for more pension reform, saying that the Governor is unnecessarily targeting public workers. Late last year, Sweeney managed to push a veto override through the Senate of a gun control measure that would make it more difficult for those with mental health records to get guns (the override did not pass the Assembly).

But, it didn’t used to be this way.

In Christie’s early years as governor, the two compromised on issues like creating a property tax cap, getting public workers to pay more into their pensions and limiting police/fire salary raises.

Ben Dworkin of the Rider University Rebovich Institute for Politics told PolitickerNJ that be believes shift in the relationship between the two legislators stems from the evolution of Christie’s administration.

“The first two years were a tremendous change of the style and attitude,” said Dworkin. “We saw a number of accomplishments. The second two years you saw the legislative democrats pull back a bit but then Christie’s administration was moving forward with it’s huge reelection victory. Then you had Bridgegate, then you had the presidential campaign and now you have the final two years. Steve Sweeney is one of the people who wants to take over. I think you have legislative Democrats who are more interested in replacing Christie than working with him.”

According to Dworkin, though the two will come together on critical issues like approving a budget, Sweeney’s political goal of becoming Governor will likely shape his approach to his position as Senate President as Christie rides out the last two years of his tenure.

“I think they worked best together when their interests aligned,” Dworkin said. “You end up in the final two years of a lame duck governor, the interests might not be in alignment as much.”

Dworkin also said that because the Democratic gubernatorial primary is going to be an “intense fight” Sweeney might opt to distance himself from his working relationship with Christie. Though the race for governor is still over a year away, Sweeney is not alone in his pursuit of the governorship. As he jockeys for the spot he likely faces opponents like former Ambassador Phil Murphy, state Senator Ray Lesniak, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, among others.

“Showing you can work well with a Republican like Chris Christie might not be the best way to emerge victorious in that primary fight,” Dworkin said.

According to one New Jersey state legislator who chose to remain anonymous, the fight between Sweeney and Christie is just beginning and is likely to be something that hasn’t be seen in New Jersey for “many, many years.”

“They are clearly headed for a collision course,” he said. “We haven’t seen the depths of the war that is going to break out and is brewing on the horizon in many, many years. The consequences of that could be catastrophic. It could stall the budget process, it could stall significant bills. The worst thing people could do is stop talking.”

The legislator agreed that much of Sweeney’s approach to Christie now and in the future will likely stem from his approach to the Democratic primary.

“I think the greatest criticism that Steve Fulop is going to have against Sweeney is that he had worked pension reform, he has worked closely with the governor,” the legislator said. “They are going to take a picture of Christie and morph him into Sweeney. It clearly does not hurt Sweeney’s base politics to go toe to toe with a now singularly unpopular governor in the other party.”

Fulop is also likely to push Sweeney on boosting the minimum wage, something the mayor used an executive order to implement in Jersey City on Monday. Initially, Sweeney introduced a plan that wouldn’t reach $15 until the year 2024. Fulop is pushing for the increase to be achieved by 2021. That push will further challenge the Senate President’s progressive agenda when looking at the heated 2017 gubernatorial battleground.

But, even as Christie and Sweeney they butt heads, a working relationship is still there. Christie took Sweeney’s side on a Northern NJ Casino battle that had pitted Sweeney and Prieto against each other.

According to a source close to Sweeney, the relationship between the two men really hasn’t changed in the past few years and much of what is said about Sweeney’s gubernatorial run impacting his relationship with the governor is based on “assumptions.”

“The reality is that I wouldn’t call it a shift,” said the source of the Sweeney/Christie dynamic. “I think the Senate President has said time and time again that if he agrees with him on something and it is good for the people of the state, he is there.”

The source said that the apparent difference actually stems from a change in Christie’s approach to governing, not Sweeney’s.

“There are plenty of examples where Chris Christie has decided that he is not going to be the Governor of all of New Jersey but be the quintessential Republican state chairman instead of the Governor,” the source said. “He is auditioning for a Republican national job here. This is nothing but politics. Since his reelection campaign, that is all Chris Christie has been about: politics.”

According to the source, Sweeney’s position on the Supreme Court and other issues has been steadfast.

“I think it really important to underscore that whether it be pension health benefits, whether it be earned income tax credits, those are the kinds of things that the Senate President has the duty and responsibility to work with the Governor on as it pertains to benefiting New Jersey,” he said. “But pure political posturing does not fall under the same.”

With Christie’s recent endorsement of Donald Trump for president, there is much speculation that the governor is still aiming for higher office despite ending his presidential campaign last month. That endorsement has made him a punching bag for state Democrats who disagree with the decision to back Trump for president. For Christie, working with Sweeney could go one of two ways: it could demonstrate a bipartisanship that he so often lauded as a positive in the early days of his tenure, or it could show weakness to conservative Trump supporters who may now be looking at him with more scrutiny.

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