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Eye on the News

Pete Peterson
Sacramento by Way of Trenton
What gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman might learn from New Jersey governor Chris Christie
6 July 2010

The California Nurses Association—one of the state’s strongest unions—recently launched a new advertising campaign under the slogan, “Nurses Won’t Be Pushed Around.” The tagline refers to a recent New York Times story describing an apparent physical altercation between Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman and an eBay employee back in 2007, while Whitman was still the company’s CEO. Playing up the class angle, activists for the union—which has endorsed Whitman’s opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown—have carried signs calling Whitman “Queen Meg” alongside images of cash and gold. The new line of attack highlights what’s becoming the central identity question for the Whitman campaign: will unions succeed in framing her as an aloof, pampered billionaire incapable of understanding the issues of “everyday” Californians, or will those same Californians see her as a Margaret Thatcher-like “Iron Lady” who can bring the state back to some semblance of fiscal sanity?

On the other side of the country, New Jersey governor Chris Christie knows something about Whitman’s plight. In his efforts to bring state spending on unionized personnel under control, Christie’s brash leadership style (Time described him as a “human bulldozer”) is providing a strategic and personal template for budget-conscious governors—and aspiring governors—even as he’s become a target for unions and liberal legislators. Recent polling on his job performance highlights the potential costs of this type of governance—but also the opportunities. Whitman and her team should study the Christie example closely.

Christie has become a YouTube hero to fiscal conservatives for his videotaped speeches in support of his “Cap 2.5” plan to slow the state’s property-tax and spending growth to 2.5 percent annually. He’s effectively focused responsibility for out-of-control municipal salaries and benefits on union organizations and not on individual employees like nurses, firefighters, and teachers. During a talk in early June, the governor proclaimed that his effort to cut back K–12 funding was “not about teachers, and let’s make this really clear: the overall majority of teachers are in there for the right reasons—they love kids . . . but, the union is a different story.” At each of his public engagements, Christie is careful to make this distinction, and it’s a central one, politically, if he hopes to prevail. Public-sector unions know that if the fight can be framed between a governor and a firefighter, they’ll win every time.

Through his speeches and press conferences, Christie has also demonstrated the ability to walk the essential tightrope for any fiscal conservative: be tough, but show a sense of humor, too. From his joking dismissal of then-governor Jon Corzine’s crude attacks on his weight during the 2009 campaign (he predicted he’d be “a big fat winner”), to his dead-on barbs aimed at union leaders, liberal legislators, and reporters, Christie has tempered his straightforward rhetoric and austere policy proposals with one-liners and self-deprecating asides. Whitman could learn from Christie here. Though an experienced speaker from her days in the Fortune 500 world, she appears stiff even in television commercials, not to mention the rare press conference. Hiring a few joke writers probably wouldn’t hurt.

For all of Christie’s “straight talk” mixed with humor, though, mid-June polling by Quinnipiac University shows that Garden Staters haven’t entirely fallen in love. On the positive side, Christie continues to be the most popular statewide politician in New Jersey and appears to be succeeding in his efforts to draw a line between public-sector workers and their unions. As the director of Quinnipiac University’s Polling Institute, Maurice Carroll, puts it, “Voters like their kids’ teachers but they sure don’t like the teachers’ union.” But while the New Jersey governor’s plan to roll back property taxes receives understandably high marks from the voters, almost every spending cut Christie has proposed fails miserably in the poll. Looking at the results, Carroll notes, “Almost none of the deficit-cutting things that have been talked about—except the millionaire’s tax that Christie vetoed—win much support.” From state employee layoffs to cutbacks in aid to local municipalities, the governor has trouble mustering 40 percent support.

And on the issue of personality, Christie’s aggressive demeanor appears to be wearying New Jersey voters. To the question, “Would you describe Governor Christie as more of a bully or more of a leader?”, respondents divided almost evenly, with 44 percent saying they viewed the governor as a leader, and 43 percent viewing him as a bully. While Republicans and Democrats gave starkly different answers to that question, Independents were slightly pro-Christie (46 percent to 42 percent). The Whitman camp should also take heed of how differently men and women view the Jersey governor. New Jersey men, by 49 to 38 percent, view Christie as a leader, while women saw him as a bully by a nearly identical proportion, 49 to 39 percent. How Californians, particularly women and Independents, assess Whitman on this crucial quality—either as a tough leader or a silver-spooned bully—may go a long way toward deciding the California governor’s race this November.

For his part, Christie seems completely unfazed by negative reactions. Like few major politicians in recent memory, the New Jersey governor appears prepared to push ahead with his policy prescriptions, even if doing so condemns him to a single term in office. In remarks over the last several months, Christie has declared that he’s “not looking for an escape hatch” by using obfuscation to describe his policy plans, since he “came here to govern, not run for re-election.”

California’s outgoing governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, talked a similar game about being independent and not needing the office, but after his devastating defeats to unions on several budget and union-related ballot propositions in 2005, the “Governator” never recovered his tough-guy image. In seeking to become the state’s next governor, Whitman should consider emulating the Christie example. Contrary to the nurses’ union campaign, Californians indeed may want a governor to do a little “shoving around” in Sacramento—provided it’s for the good of the state and not a self-serving attempt to position her for re-election or higher office. As the bumper sticker reads: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

Pete Peterson is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

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