To push his first-term agenda, Republican Gov. Chris Christie had no greater booster than Senate President Stephen Sweeney, New Jersey’s top-ranking elected Democrat.
When Christie wanted to make state workers contribute more toward pensions and benefits, Sweeney, an ironworkers union organizer, stepped up with a bill. To drum up voter support for $750 million in borrowing for university construction, Sweeney, who never attended college, hit the campus tour circuit.
Now, as Christie seeks backing from the legislature’s majority Democrats to further cut pensions that constrain his record $34.4 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2015, Sweeney is casting himself more as foe than enabler.
“This has nothing to do with me getting along with him or not,” Sweeney, 54, said in an interview. “It’s business.”
The chill comes amid state and federal investigations of the administration’s links to intentional traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge. Christie, a potential presidential candidate, is seeking a policy victory to reverse sliding approval.
Sweeney is the one New Jersey politician with the clout to make both the legislature and labor swallow a sequel to Christie’s first-term benefits cutbacks, which included a higher retirement age and bigger employee contributions to health insurance and the pension plan. Sweeney now says another round isn’t negotiable.
Since Christie, 51, began his second term last month, Sweeney has soured. The governor’s inaugural address, the burly lawmaker said, was “long on rhetoric and short on solutions.” His handling of Hurricane Sandy aid was a “colossal failure,” and on a 10 percent income-tax cut: “You gotta be kidding me.”
Sweeney, mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2017, made it clear last week that he wants credit for the 2011 retirement legislation. “Let’s get it straight: It was my plan, not his,” Sweeney told reporters. “I was not his collaborator. He came along and worked on a plan that I believed in because I know pensions.”
“Sweeney saw his political star rising because of the ascendancy of Chris Christie, and that allegiance could carry him into the governor’s mansion,” said Brigid Harrison, a political professor at Montclair State University. “Now he recognizes that his alliance with Christie is detrimental. Over the next several years he’s going to make every effort to distance himself.”