Christie, Known for Confrontation, Touts Compromises

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP

    In his short time in office, Gov. Chris Christie has made a national name for himself with his sharp tongue and confrontational style.

    His public fights with unions, lawmakers, reporters and even everyday people who attend his town hall events have made him a YouTube sensation, a Republican Party darling and a frequent guest on national talk shows.

    Yet his major successes in New Jersey have all been the result of deals he brokered with the Democrats who control the Legislature — none greater than his latest to require public sector workers to pay more for health care and pensions.

    "Sometimes people misinterpret my bluntness for inflexibility," Christie told The Associated Press just hours before the Assembly approved the bill Thursday. "But if you look at what has happened here over the last 17 months — every major thing I've accomplished has been based on compromises."

    As he spoke from his Statehouse office, the clamoring of union rallies just outside his window provided the soundtrack to his success: a combination of confrontation and compromise.

    The deal on employee benefits, like his other deals to cap property tax increases and benefits won by police and firefighters in contract arbitrations, were victories that came only after long negotiations with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and with serious concessions.

    The 2 percent annual cap he signed last summer to slow the growth of the nation's highest property taxes was originally proposed as a 2.5 percent constitutional cap that contained almost no exemptions and couldn't be repealed by lawmakers. The compromise was a lower cap with exemptions for some costs local governments cannot control, such as health care and pension costs that will be reviewed in a few years.

    An agreement to limit annual salary increases for police and firefighters at 2 percent and the amount they can be awarded during arbitration over disputed their contracts marked another significant agreement among the three leaders in which Christie got most — but not everything — he wanted.

    But in light of protests in other states, most notably Wisconsin, over the threat of dismantling collective bargaining for unions, Christie's benefits victory is especially noticeable because it effectively circumvents collective bargaining for four years.

    "It's stunning mainly because it was a bipartisan deal, and that's not Christie's national image," said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "He's seen as confrontational and partisan. The deal belies that and people are taking notice in light of what's going on in other states."

    At the heart of the benefits deal and other reforms that have cemented his credentials as a fiscal conservative is his relationship with Democratic leaders.

    After months of using his town hall events to lambast Sweeney and Oliver as leaders of a "do-nothing Legislature," Christie now has no one else more to thank. And while he was berating them publicly, privately he was hammering out a deal.

    "Part of my incentive to put a lot of pressure publically on them in the spring was to say get this done and get this out of the way," Christie said. "But there were always conversations going on between me, Steve and Sheila."

    All three leaders came into power at the same time and all three say their working relationship has been a work in progress.

    "It's evolving," Oliver said.

    Christie and Sweeney have an easier relationship in large part because their personalities are similar, which the governor describes as "emotive."

    "Sheila has a great laugh and a good sense of humor, but generally she's more reserved," Christie said.

    Christie and Oliver have had tense moments, most notably after he publicly called Oliver a liar for claiming she tried to discuss with him a compromise over arbitration reform.

    "I did not have a great affection for the initial combative style — the name calling, the harshness," she explained. "It made it difficult to conduct business with the governor."

    The governor said that while their relationship is different, it has grown.

    "Our relationship is a few months behind mine and Steve's because of that initial tension," Christie said. "It took longer to build that trust with each other than it did with me and Steve."

    When he announced a deal on the property tax cap last summer, Sweeney was standing by his side, but Oliver skipped the news conference. She said she wasn't part of the deal, but wouldn't stand in the way of its passage because the Assembly's concerns were addressed.

    For months it seemed that the employee benefits deal wouldn't happen, with Oliver once again standing in the way.

    She said she wanted the backing of a majority of her Democratic caucus, which she never secured because of the deal's chilling effect on collective bargaining for unions.

    But after Christie agreed to a sunset provision Oliver insisted on, she signed on — even without a majority of Democrats backing it.

    "I think there was some real risk on all sides, which is usually when you get a deal done," Christie said.

    The risk for Sweeney and Oliver was far greater than for Christie; they have been vilified by traditionally Democrat-friendly unions and accused of betraying party principals to push through the deal.

    "I don't apologize for it. I'm proud of what we did the other day," Sweeney said.

    Oliver was more measured, but said in the end, the state couldn't afford the current health care price tag.

    "I'm not proud that Democrats in my caucus didn't want to support it. I understand the political implications," she said. "The reality is we couldn't afford to give people health care for free."

    But with a week to go before a budget must be passed, the Democratic leaders are trying to make amends with their Democratic base by putting forward their own budget that restores objectionable cuts made by Christie.

    Christie responded by moving back into his corner, calling their accounting "unrealistic, pie in the sky, fantasy budgeting." Yet he said he's still confident a budget will pass on time.

    If his previous deals and strategy are any indication, it will pass — with compromise.

    "Getting to know each other and getting a feel for how to push each other," Christie said, "it's part of the game."