Can Chris Christie Avoid Eliot Spitzer's Mistakes?

Eliot Spitzer took an aggressive prosecutorial style to the New York governor's office. It didn't work. Can the nation's new most famous prosecutor-turned-governor, New Jersey's Chris Christie, succeed where Spitzer failed?
by | July 2, 2010
 

No, I'm not talking about that mistake. But, long before the prostitution scandal, Eliot Spitzer's governorship was on the rocks. A large part of Spitzer's problem, I think, is that being New York attorney general and being New York governor are very different jobs. Spitzer struggled with the transition. My question is whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie can make a similar transition (from being a U.S. Attorney) more smoothly than Spitzer. It just so happens that it's a question that Christie recently addressed.

First, about Spitzer: There's a new book about the former New York governor, "Rough Justice" by Peter Elkind, that's a helpful reminder of everything that went going wrong for him. Spitzer didn't just feud with expected foes such as Republican Senate President Joe Bruno (a feud that led to the original Troopergate scandal). He also alienated potential allies, including the Assembly’s majority Democrats (over the appointment of a new comptroller) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (over drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants), by attacking them publicly in personal terms.

It's not as though Spitzer never tried to compromise or court individual legislators -- he did. He just wasn't very good at it. Somehow, people don't want to make a deal when you're always cursing at them. He was only used to compromising in the form of a plea bargain. He pushed for cuts in health care spending and the drivers' licenses rule change without getting buy-in from the key players.  “As AG, he could kill,” Elkind writes. “He’d come up with the goods, bring suit, threaten to indict, and his opponents would cave. Game, set match. But as governor, everything was different. The lawmakers could pass a bill without him; he couldn’t pass anything without them.”

The striking thing about Spitzer is that, in retrospect, many of the causes he fought for look pretty good. Ethics reform? Well, Bruno ended up being convicted on corruption charges. Plenty of other New York legislators have been behaving badly. If Spitzer's health care cost controls had been embraced when the economy was doing well, the state would be in better fiscal shape today. Perhaps New York's budget wouldn't be three months late. The big lesson from Spitzer's tenure, however, is that being right isn't enough to succeed as governor.

None of that is to say that governing New York would have been easy for Spitzer if he'd been a nicer guy or more willing to bargain. Bruno was an intractable enough foe that it's possible that he couldn't have gotten anything done until Democrats controlled the New York Senate.

This is where Christie has an advantage. In some ways, Christie was dealt a weaker hand than Spitzer. He was elected with a narrow plurality, not in a landslide. He's facing a legislature where both houses, not just one, are controlled by the opposing party.

The good news for Christie is that the New Jersey legislature seems a lot more amenable to his agenda than Bruno's Senate was to Spitzer. Stephen Sweeney, the president of the New Jersey Senate, echoes Christie's criticisms of public employee unions and doesn't downplay the state's fiscal problems.

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, Christie's state treasurer, knows something about the difference between New York and New Jersey. He used to be a budget official in George Pataki's administration in New York (he's also a former member of the New York City Council). He told me:

In my personal dealings with the legislature, I have been pleased and gratified by the professionalism of the interaction – the sense that although there may be at times bitter disagreement over policy and policy priorities there is at the end of the day a commitment to getting the job done, to governing and to delivering government for the people of New Jersey.

The reason I kind of focus in on that is that was woefully lacking in my previous experience. In New York State, it’s almost as if nobody cares anymore. And here, quite gratifyingly, people feel an obligation to govern and an obligation to the process.

As an aside, this is the single most damning thing I've ever heard about New York state government and the New York state legislature in particular. New Jersey is often accused of being the nation's most corrupt state. Several of the people Christie sent to jail as U.S. Attorney were New Jersey legislators. Yet here's someone who has worked intimately in both states and says there's no comparison. New York is worse.

That's why I think that if Christie knows when to stand his ground and when to compromise he should be able to get a lot done. But does he? Will his prosecutorial instincts take over? Politico asked Christie about this very subject:

He achieved YouTube fame for a video in which he dressed down a local reporter who regularly covers him for asking a question about temperament but Christie insisted that he wasn’t falling victim to the prosecutorial demons that haunted Rudy Giuliani and Eliot Spitzer when they became mayor and governor of New York, respectively.

“It’s not a struggle, it’s just an awareness you have to keep” of the differences in the two jobs, he said, adding that he had commented before the voting began on his budget that “the U.S. Attorney job was much easier, there was no democracy. I was the boss, I made the decisions. When I said go, [we’d] go; when I said stop, [we’d] stop.”

He added, “I’m surrounded every day with the realization, especially having a Democratic majority in the legislature, that, you know, pushing people around’s not what’s gonna do it.”

“Now, I have a forceful personality and I say things pretty bluntly,” he added. “But I think there’s a big difference between that and bullying. I just speak candidly. And I think lots of times the press has a real difficult time kind of processing that differential. Bullying is a particular act. Speaking forcefully is something different. For me, I don’t worry about it. Am I conscious of it? Of course.”

That sounds like a healthy level of self-awareness from the governor. Still, some of his actions have sent a different message. The most striking example was on the federal Race to the Top education grant program. Christie's own education commissioner struck a compromise with the state teacher's union on issues like merit pay to win the union's support for the state's proposal. But Christie nixed the deal, which makes it unlikely the state will win.

On the other hand, just today there was news that Christie was dropping his insistence that a new property tax cap (the biggest issue in New Jersey) take the form of a constitutional amendment. In doing so, Christie moved a step closer to Sweeney's own property tax cap proposal. Perhaps, despite his confrontational reputation, New Jersey does have a governor who knows when to strike a deal.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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