Tens of thousands of New Jerseyans rallied against Gov. Chris Christie's proposed budget cuts on Saturday in one of the largest protests ever in the state.
They gathered near the Statehouse to send the governor a message that his priorities are "out of whack" and to urge him to reconsider his proposed cuts in school aid and other programs they consider vital.
State Police estimated between 30,000 and 35,000 people attended the rally, spokesman Sgt. Stephen Jones said. There were no arrests, and no problems were reported, he said. The rally lasted about three hours.
The protesters — a diverse mix of union members and community activists, parents and children and people of all ages — cheered loudly as several speakers blasted Christie's plans, saying that the state's most needy residents would suffer the most.
"We're sending out an SOS today — save our schools, save out students, save our state," said William McNary, president of USAction, a national group that advocates for social issues.
Citing recent events such as the deadly Minnesota bridge collapse and the major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, McNary said Christie's budget cuts would cause great pain and sorrow for residents.
"The human-needs infrastructure of New Jersey is falling apart, and that is a crisis as well," he said, drawing raucous cheers from the crowd.
Organizers say members of public employee unions hoped the show of force would sway the state's top politicians to fight Christie. The rally formally started around noon, but crowds started to form by 10 a.m., and the site soon became packed with people, most of whom wore red or white shirts touting their unions.
Christie has called for workers to accept wage freezes, and he's pushed for them to contribute toward their health benefits. The governor was not in the Statehouse on Saturday and did not attend the rally. He has said that protesters have a right to speak their minds. His spokesman, Michael Drewniak, declined to comment Saturday.
Among those participating in the protest were members of the New Jersey Education Association and the Communications Workers of America. They were joined by several community and nonprofit groups that will lose some or all their funding if Christie's plans are adopted.
"We're tired of being the whipping boys and girls of this governor," said Mary Decker, a Middlesex County middle school teacher. "People think we're sponging off the public, that we don't pay for anything — there's a lot of misinformation that's been spread. The truth is we're just like people in the private sector — we work hard, we're very involved with our students, and the best benefit we get from this job is to see them succeed and become awesome people."
Many in the crowd said they hoped the budget battle wouldn't get mired in politics and mudslinging, noting that many protesters carried signs mocking Christie's weight.
"We have to let people know this is about much more than who gets paid what or who pays for who's health benefits. It's about people, nothing else. Plain and simple, it's about helping people in need, be they poor, middle class, whatever," said Trey Hillman, a 32-year-old New Brunswick resident who said he came out to show support for his "community I call New Jersey."
Police had blocked off a long stretch of roadway near the Statehouse by early Saturday morning, and nearby parking lots soon were filled with cars and dozens of buses that brought protesters from all parts of the state.
Many people marching to the rally carried signs criticizing the governor and his positions. One read, "Christie for ex-governor," while another said, "NJ's biggest loser: Steal from the poor, give to the rich."
The latter was a reference to the so-called "Millionaire's Tax" legislation that the Republican governor vetoed on Thursday, just minutes after it was passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
The measure would have restored a higher income tax on those making more than $1 million, an increase Christie said would continue to drive top earners out of New Jersey. He had long vowed to veto the tax, which was enacted for one year by former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and expired in December.
However, several groups involved in Saturday's rally say the Democrats' bill did not go far enough: they want lawmakers to reinstate the surcharge on households earning more than $400,000.
"Over 100 community organizations have endorsed this rally, and they're out there with a very clear message to the governor and Legislature: that we've got to stop those cuts and restore the tax on those earning over $400,000 a year," said Bill Holland, a spokesman for Better Choices for New Jersey, one of the groups organizing the rally.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, also the Democratic State Party chairman, praised the protesters for "clearly illustrating the outrage and heartache felt across the state" in response to Christie's proposed budget cuts.
"I commend and congratulate the organizers and participants of today's historic rally for their hard work, dedication and success in putting a face on the priorities that we share."