On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Southern California, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie arrives at a private home overlooking the San Diego skyline for a lunch with local supporters.
California’s big coastal cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego — are common destinations for nationally recognized Republican candidates and elected officials to raise funds and mobilize supporters, giving people the opportunity to meet with a leader who they otherwise see only on television.
The governor, who is joined by New Jersey’s Republican National Committeeman Bill Palatucci, may be a national figure, but today the conversation is all about New Jersey. The governor immediately launches into a briefing on the Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts with a mastery of details demonstrating an intense level of personal involvement. In a state of 8.8 million residents, 7 million were immediately without power, all wastewater plants down, all water treatment plants down, 78 operational gas stations in the state, 41,000 families still homeless, 1500 in hotels.
Asked whether the federal government is directly involved in the recovery efforts through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the governor responds, “Yes, unfortunately. The problem is the people in charge of FEMA aren’t really in charge.”
“FEMA only does things when the White House screams at them,” says Christie, who elaborates with a story of 41 families who were evicted from FEMA-funded hotel rooms despite the FEMA director’s personal approval to extend their stay. A personal call by the Governor to the White House was necessary to clear up the bureaucratic bungling.
Americans expect executives – governors, Presidents – to be personally involved when disaster strikes, and Christie’s lengthy and detailed discussion of the relief efforts demonstrate that level of engagement. Yet, he is quick not to take all the credit. “New Jerseyans are pretty tough. 85% of the state is OK, but for the 15% whose lives were destroyed, we have to help them get back to normalcy.”
As a former state Republican Chairman, I’m interested to see not just how elected officials conduct themselves to a crowd, but how they relate to people one on one. Some leaders have a friendly exterior only to prove uncomfortable dealing with people one on one. Chris Christie, however, doesn’t suffer from this common problem. Speaking to the group, he conveys the confidence that comes from a mastery of the job, but in one-on-one conversations before and after his talk, Christie proves engaging. He listens, respects the person who is speaking with him, and responds without the usual boilerplate language we hear from many candidates. This is a leader who can connect.
Before long, the conversation turns to politics, and the issue of what the Republican Party must do to recover from the 2012 election.
“There’s too much navel gazing right now,” says Christie, who clearly has spent time thinking through the issue and is bullish about the party’s future. “I’m not going to go around the country giving speeches about who we need to be. It’s not about packaging.”
“We have a lot of talent in this party…we have 30 Republican governors. We have a lot of talent in the House, and even though we’re not the majority, we have a lot of talent in the Senate. We don’t lead by talking. We lead by doing.”
Focusing back on his record in New Jersey, the governor credits his 42-point lead in the polls and 74% approval rating to one thing: “We said what we were going to do, and we did it.” Among the biggest accomplishments he cites are a reduction in state spending, a smaller state workforce, reform of the state’s outdated teacher tenure law, and vetoing multiple tax increases passed by the Democrat-controlled New Jersey legislature.
“For one, you know that if I’m re-elected your taxes are not going to go up in New Jersey. I don’t think you can look at the leadership in California and say the same thing,” said the governor, who quickly pointed out he worked with the legislature to cut business taxes by $2.3 billion at the same time California has been raising taxes.
Christie’s national profile stems in large part from his larger than life performance on the political stage. But his record in a blue state, combined with an engaging style, are qualities that really stand out on the governor’s Golden State tour.
Ron Nehring served as Chairman of the California Republican Party from 2007 to 2011.