It’s hard to imagine worse optics than the scene Chris Christie painted for the July Fourth holiday weekend.
Aerial photos showed the governor and his family partying on the sand at Island Beach Park, the sole occupants of the 10-mile beach thanks to a government shutdown Christie ordered.
But other politicians shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Christie’s woes as a personal catastrophe: in many ways, the dysfunction gripping New Jersey reflects a bundle of national and political problems that extend far beyond the Garden State.
Still, it didn’t help that when asked about it, the governor flat-out lied: “I didn’t get any sun,” he said, adding dishonesty to dysfunction.
Miles north, thousands of visitors were turned back from Liberty State Park, unable to visit the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island. Elsewhere in New Jersey, campers in state parks were told to leave, Department of Motor Vehicles offices, courthouses and other state offices were shuttered, and about 45,000 state workers were furloughed — and Christie said they shouldn’t plan on getting back pay for the lost work.
As owner of the lowest approval numbers in the history of New Jersey polling (an anemic 15%), it seems clear that Christie has abandoned any hope of returning to elected office after his tumultuous tenure as governor ends in January.
There are well-documented reasons for Christie’s unpopularity. At home, he cultivated a nasty habit of publicly berating hecklers, public servants, voters and anybody else who voiced opposition or skepticism about his policies and ideas.
Christie spent an incredible 191 days outside his state in 2015, preparing to run for President, which angered state voters. The conviction of top Christie aides in the Bridgegate corruption scandal fueled a narrative that an ambitious, out-of-touch governor had lost control of his administration.
And despite claiming to be a fiscal conservative, under Christie, New Jersey’s long-standing pension crisis metastasized into a $135 billion shortfall, making it the most severely underfunded public system in America.
A last-ditch effort to fix the state’s structural fiscal problems, in fact, is what triggered the latest crisis. Christie asked the state legislature to dedicate money from the state lottery to help shore up the sagging pension system. He also sought to take about $300 million from the financial reserves of Horizon Blue Cross, a state-regulated health insurer, and use the money to tackle opioid addiction.
The insurance company and the Democratic-controlled legislature refused to go along with Christie’s plan, triggering a provision of state law that requires a government shutdown if a budget isn’t passed by July 1.
It’s anybody’s guess how the crisis will be resolved. But Christie’s problems — underfunded pensions, an addiction crisis and partisan gridlock — are hardly unique to New Jersey.
State pension funds are underfunded by more than $1 trillion, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, with states contributing only 88% of the money needed to protect the retirements of public workers.
Christie’s attempted raid on Horizon Blue Cross reflects the need to cope with an addiction epidemic affecting more than 12 million Americans.
And the political gridlock in Trenton is neither better nor worse than the fights that have stymied legislation in North Carolina, Wisconsin or Washington, DC itself. Before laughing off Christie’s embarrassing debacle, other political leaders should look in the mirror and ask: could I be next?