As he prepares to unveil his presidential campaign on Tuesday, Chris Christie is promising American voters that he will tell it to them straight – New Jersey-style.
New Jersey has a straight message for American voters, too: run away.
In a state famous for blunt speech, Christie, who has been governor since 2010, has gained notoriety for scenes, invariably captured on YouTube , in which he tells constituents things they don’t want to hear, sometimes insulting them in the process. The scenes define a political brand that Christie now hopes to take nationwide as he joins the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with a “tell it like it is” tour scheduled to begin as soon as he completes his announcement on Tuesday at Livingston high school, his alma mater.
The problem for Christie is that New Jersey’s reputation for sharp speech cuts both ways – and it is a big state with, currently, a lot of Christie detractors. The “tell it like it is” campaign, it appears, could turn into an extended razzing of the candidate.
No sooner was the venue for Christie’s presidential speech made public than Christie’s opponents began planning a protest that organizers predicted would draw a thousand people in an attempt to upstage the governor’s big announcement. The state’s public teachers’ union, a Christie nemesis after years of fighting over pensions and dues, said the choice of venue was gratuitously provocative – and typical.
“Once we heard that the governor was planning on making his presidential announcement at Livingston high school, once the word got out, it really felt like he was just rubbing our faces in it,” Anthony Rosamilia, a union official and teacher at the school, told the Guardian. “He’s been beating us over the head for the last five years. So really, it shouldn’t be a surprise that people are up in arms and looking to protest.”
Rosamilia said that teachers objected to more than Christie’s moves to cut their pensions, delay their retirements and make them pay for healthcare. Like other teachers and public officials interviewed for this story, Rosamilia said that Christie had injected poison in the relationship by making it personal. He compared the fight to the similar struggle between public-sector unions and Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
“I know the Scott Walkers and Chris Christies of the world would like to look at us as terrorists and parasites, but we’re not,” said Rosamilia. “We’re your friends, we’re your neighbors – we’re New Jerseyans. And when New Jerseyans get attacked, we fight back. I mean, if anybody should know that, this governor should.”
One of the most famous Christie smackdowns disseminated on YouTube by the governor’s press team was a 2010 town hall confrontation between the governor and Marie Corfield, an elementary school art teacher. Corfield accused Christie of being unnecessarily coarse in his dealing with educators, and handed him some attitude in the form of a sardonic laugh at his reply.
“If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question,” Christie snapped. The video has been viewed nearly 1.4m times.
In an interview with the Guardian on Monday, Corfield said that she didn’t think Christie would ever win a presidential election, but that she found the thought “very disturbing” all the same.
“He’s called legislators, elected officials in the state of New Jersey – he’s used words like ‘jerk’, ‘numbnuts’, ‘liar’,” Corfield said. “That’s not leadership, that’s textbook schoolyard bully.”
Theresa Delano, a teacher in the Paterson school district and an independent voter, said the governor was misleading the public by saying that teachers were bleeding the state, when she was making less than she did 10 years ago. “We’re not rich, by any stretch,” Delano said. “And he’s he’s made us out to be the antichrist.
“His thing is classic bully style – yell and scream and get in that person’s face about how they’re wrong, they’re wrong, they’re wrong. He’s the type who’s going to to come up and punch you in the face. That’s his style. It’s infuriating, and it’s demoralizing.”
Criticism of Christie in his home state, where a Monmouth University poll last month tracked his favorability rating at a record low of 35%, is not confined to teachers. In a blistering editorial published at the weekend, the Newark Star-Ledger warned, bluntly: “He lies.”
“My testimony amounts to a warning: don’t believe a word the man says,” wrote Tom Moran of the paper’s editorial board. “When Christie picks up the microphone, he speaks so clearly and forcefully that you assume genuine conviction is behind it.
“Be careful, though. It’s a kind of spell. He is a remarkable talent with a silver tongue. But if you look closely, you can see that it is forked like a serpent’s.”
Moran gave examples of broken promises on public workers’ benefits, statements Christie made claiming he had not signed any anti-gun laws as governor, and his claim to have won a court case he lost.
New Jersey has not always been so down on Chris Christie. His approval rating touched 70% after the superstorm Sandy recovery effort of late 2012, and he was re-elected in 2013 with 60% of the vote.
Accusations in early 2014 that Christie associates had conspired to close access lanes to the George Washington bridge between New York and New Jersey in an act of political retribution against the mayor of the town of Fort Lee, however, set the governor on a spectacular slide that still has not skidded to a stop.
The so-called “Bridgegate” scandal amounted to one more warning signal the country should heed in contemplating a Christie presidential bid, said Corfield, the art teacher.
“This is a man who surrounds himself, his inner circle was made of people – innocent until proven guilty, of course – but he surrounded himself with people who had vendettas,” she said. “And that speaks volumes about his character. If that’s who he surrounds himself at the state level, I can’t imagine what he would do, God forbid, if he were president.”
Rosamilia, the union official, echoed the Star-Ledger’s criticism of the governor’s truthfulness, saying it was “ironic” that Christie was trying to build a national brand around his supposed straight talk.
“I’m from New Jersey, too,” said Rosamilia. “I understand the value of straight talk. I get that.
“But this guy, this guy – Chris Christie is a liar of epic proportions.”
He cited vows by Christie before he was elected that pensions for public-sector workers including teachers, police officers and firefighters were “sacred”.
“It’s embarrassing. The whoppers that this guy has told, it’s been so outrageous, that the straight-talk thing, honestly – he has his own version of the facts.
“So I think it’s really ironic that that’s what he’s using as his main campaign slogan.”