Chris Christie recently grabbed lunch with an eclectic group of six who wanted to talk to him about becoming a member of their highly exclusive club — those who have served as New Jersey governor.
"It's one of those moments that actually moves you closer to being governor," he said of his lunch with former Govs. Brendan Byrne, Jim Florio, Thomas Kean, Christie Whitman, Donald DiFrancesco and Jim McGreevey.
While he declined to divulge specifics on what was said at Friday's meal, he called them each "incredibly generous in their advice."
On Tuesday, he joins their ranks to take over one of America's most densely populated states, where the property taxes are the highest in nation and an upcoming budget deficit could reach $10 billion by the start of the 2011 budget year in July.
The 47-year-old Republican will take charge of a government dominated by Democrats waiting to see exactly how he will balance the budget without breaking his campaign pledge to not raise taxes and to roll back several of them.
Christie also promises a far different style of communicating than his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Unlike Corzine, a former Wall Street executive who can seem wordy and hard to read, Christie leaves no question about what's he thinking.
After the New York Times reported in October that Corzine said he would consider reviving an unpopular plan to lease the New Jersey Turnpike to raise money for the cash-strapped state, Corzine said his position was mischaracterized. He said he meant that he may generate revenue by allowing advertising on some turnpike properties, like rest stops.
"Corzine always seemed to be trying to remember what it was he was supposed to say. Christie is unfiltered," said Peter Woolley, a political scientist and pollster at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Christie, the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, seems most comfortable behind a podium and has shown no hesitation in throwing down a gauntlet and criticizing those standing in his way.
Since being elected, he has fought with Corzine to stop the Democrat from filling seats on powerful boards and authorities and ripped lawmakers for pushing through last minute spending bills.
"So, Chris went off again today. He does enjoy his rants," former Senate President and one-time Gov. Richard Codey said after Christie's attack on the spending bills. Codey, who did not make the Friday lunch, predicted: "This ain't going to last that long."
While the former federal prosecutor doesn't shy away from a fight — in fact, on a certain level, he seems to enjoy the sparring — Christie also fosters long-standing relationships, many the product of his deep roots in the state, with politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Those wondering why Democratic Sen. Sandra Cunningham would join Christie's transition team need only to watch video of the touching eulogy Christie delivered at her husband's funeral a few years ago. The chairman of his campaign, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, was introduced to his wife by Christie in 1992 and when he went on his first date with her, Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, came along.
And at nearly every Cabinet announcement he made last week, there seemed to be some story of how Christie and his nominee had long ties — how he grew up near some of them or how their families knew each other.
"Corzine was elected partly because he was an outsider. And in the end, that's why he wasn't re-elected," Woolley said. "Christie is far more personal than Corzine. He's got this whole narrative that is linked to his experience in New Jersey."
As a Republican running in a Democratic state against a millionaire incumbent, his victory was far from assured. But a few weeks ago, he was reminded by former Gov. Kean, for whom he campaigned as a teenager, of how his hard work in politics had paid off.
"He said, 'You know Chris, in 230 years or so, there's only 55 of us.'
"That's emotional stuff," Christie said. "That hits you even more when you weren't expected to win."