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Chris Christie and the Hollowness of Terms such as “Moderate” and “Bipartisan”

For the past five to six months, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been confronting a seemingly ever-increasing number of legislative and legal investigations into misconduct by his immediate subordinates, starting with the politically motivated decision to close lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge but expanding into seeming improprieties in how federal funds allocated for Sandy relief have been used to leverage private development projects and to reward political loyalists.

The national media initially paid scant attention to the story, focusing more on the then presidential frontrunner’s brusque and often derisive dismissals of the inquiries being doggedly pursued by local investigative journalists than on the crux of the matter–that Christie either has lied about his awareness of and perhaps even his direct involvement in what has occurred, or he has been woefully and inexplicably oblivious to what his most immediate, senior advisors have been doing.

Having adopted a grossly simplistic storyline about Christie, the national media was loathe to abandon it. That storyline extrapolated from two details—Christie’s literal and figurative embrace of President Obama during the Sandy crisis and at the height of the 2012 presidential election and his subsequent landslide re-election as governor in 2013. And so, in an age of entrenched political partisanship and gerrymandered political advantage, this Republican governor of a heavily Democratic state briefly became the seeming embodiment of bipartisanship, beloved by the residents of the state not in spite of his bull-in-a-china-shop persona but because of it. In a period of escalating political impasse, Christie seemed to embody a refreshing “can-do” attitude toward governing.

So Christie was seen as an anomaly in comparison to the wave of Republican governors who were initially elected a year later than him across the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states. Whereas governors such as Corbett in Pennsylvania, Kasich in Ohio, Snyder in Michigan, and Walker in Wisconsin used new or enhanced Republican majorities in their state legislature to bulldoze their opposition and pass radical legislation that quickly revived their political opposition by enraging labor unions, progressive community groups, and professional women, Christie seemed to be almost as popular among Democrats as among Republicans and Independents.

Increasingly, however, that media-constructed story is being exposed for being as thin as the most facilely fabricated campaign literature. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Christie is as much a conventional bully as a bull in a china shop. The beginning for the end for most bullies is the decision by a few people to stand up to them and to expose what they have been doing. Once the cracks in the façade of irresistibility and inevitability start to widen, it is surprising how fast the whole thing collapses.

A recent piece in Labor Notes highlights two much clarified realities about Christie and his administration. First, for all of the efforts to brand him as a moderate, he has attacked public education and public-employee unions with as much determination as any of the other, seemingly more radical Republican governors in the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states. Second, the entrenched complacency and ineffectual compliance of many public-employee unions in New Jersey has been mischaracterized by the media as either direct support for Christie or a passivity in the face of the “reforms” that he has pursued. As elsewhere, in New Jersey, “reform” has turned out to be a code word for “dismantle,” “demolish,” and “destroy.”

In the article “Newark Teachers Battle Governor’s School-Privatization Agenda,” Branden Rippey chronicles both Christie’s escalating efforts to replace public education in Newark with corporate-operated charter schools and the unwillingness or incapacity of the leadership of the teachers’ union to resist that privatization of public education. A decade and a half ago, the administration of the public schools in New Jersey’s largest city had been placed more directly under the governor’s control, but that transfer of power had not resulted in any dramatic improvements in the schools. Critics of the public schools and supporters of Christie privatization scheme have, of course, blamed all of the long-developing problems with the schools on the teachers’ unions, ignoring the fact that those unions have simply not been as powerful as they were being characterized.

Indeed, Rippey makes clear that the opposition to that privatization of public education started to coalesce long before “Bridgegate” and the associated scandals. For, ironically, before they could start to rally broader community support in opposition to Christie’s agenda, the core group of teachers who were determined to advocate for public education first had to take control of their own union. Because the inaction of the union leadership had led to widespread apathy among the member teachers, it took two election cycles for the reformers to build enough support to seize control of their union. Now that they have done so, their active resistance to the transfer of public funding and public property to corporate-operated charter schools has begun to galvanize support among formerly dispirited teachers and residents of the city. Each Friday, members of the union and their community supporters have been wearing black to signify their opposition to Christie’s determination to kill public education. They have been organizing neighborhood rallies to preserve publicly controlled neighborhood schools, and they have been funneling the energy generated by those rallies into a very large and visible presence at school board meetings and at any public appearances by the school district’s upper administration, which is dominated by Christie appointees.

Anyone who is familiar with the efforts to privatize urban school districts in other states will recognize the influence of ALEC in Rippey’s summary of what Christie has been doing:

“He’s pushed through pension and benefit ‘reform’ for district and state employees, massive cuts to state aid for public education and colleges, a two-year-plus pay freeze, a 2012 contract that includes ‘merit’ pay and “renew” schools (where the entire staff is laid off, forced to reapply for their jobs, with only 50 percent rehired), and a new statewide teacher evaluation system that rates teachers by student performance, partly on standardized tests.

“In textbook corporate education ‘reform’ style, the governor appointed a hand-picked superintendent, with no community input, who can overrule decisions made by a democratically elected advisory board. It’s the preferred way that conservative, predominately white politicians push privatization schemes in predominately black and Latino cities. For politicians like Christie, democracy is apparently only for white, suburban voters.”

That this passage is very politically charged does not make it any less accurate. Indeed, in Newark, the less-than-passionate defense of public education had proved to be no defense at all. And the fact that the teachers and their community supporters have decided to stand up to the governor’s bullying does not make them self-interested in any inherently negative way. Bridgegate has exposed the ugly underside of political self-interest, but standing up for public education, one of the core institutions of American society and culture, can only be characterized as being against the public interest by those who have lost all historic sense of what core American values actually are. Indeed, if teachers fighting for their schools and their jobs are to be characterized as self-interested, then how should one characterize the corporations that are leveraging political influence in order to generate stock dividends from the education of our children? When you get beyond the talking points, the cure to our struggling public schools is exposed as no cure at all. It is, instead, nothing short of an abdication of their public responsibilities by those elected to be public servants.

About martinkich

I am a Professor of English at Wright State University, where I have been a faculty member for almost 25 years. I serve as the president of the WSU chapter of AAUP, which now includes two bargaining units, as the vice-president of the Ohio Conference of AAUP, and as a member of the executive committee of AAUP's Collective Bargaining Congress. As co-chair of the Ohio Conference's Communication Committee, I began to do much more overtly political writing during the campaign to repeal Ohio's Senate Bill 5, which would have eliminated the right of faculty to be unionized.

4 comments on “Chris Christie and the Hollowness of Terms such as “Moderate” and “Bipartisan”

  1. Donnie Brasco
    February 9, 2014

    Whoever wrote this is clearly a partisan operative for whom facts are an inconvenience. In fact, Christie has boosted aid to urban schools and done it by screwing overtaxed suburban and rural districts. His “reform” efforts now have teachers paying $50 a month for health insurance even though their policies are $1500 a month or more. There is a reason he was endorsed by so many left-wing nuts last year, including the neo-Marxist Star-Ledger Editorial Board.

    • martinkich
      February 9, 2014

      This blog, like most, presents opinion pieces, and most opinion pieces are by definition “partisan.” that is they present a certain point of view. There is no pretense that the writing is strictly factual and devoid of opinion.

      You use the term “partisan” as if it is a special sin of progressives, but you yourself couldn’t write five sentences without resorting to name-calling, without using the term “neo-Marxist” like a club. I don’t believe that I resorted to that sort of inflammatory, biased language in the entirety of my much longer piece.

      But that sort of rhetorical approach is often used by those on the Far Right: stigmatize criticism from progressives as biased so that Far Right biases can dominate the discussion as if it is beyond any reasonable challenge. Every time I write a political post to this blog, someone tells me that I have gotten it all wrong and suggests that I am in the employ of some nefarious and decidedly un-American ideology. That is, if I am not a mouthpiece for the Far Right, I must be a Commie academic or some equivalent, because it is an either-or world–with us or against us, or as you say urban or suburban and rural, with all of the biases that that language suggests.

      I can’t help but notice that, in expressing my “partisan” opinions, I am willing to identify myself by name, whereas, unless perhaps you’re Joe Pistone, you’re clearly not.

      More broadly, the piece in Labor Notes is hardly the only evidence that Christie has not been a friend to public education, especially in the urban school districts.

      And although I am not very familiar with the specifics of what has been going on in New Jersey, I am very familiar with what has been occurring in Ohio and other Midwestern states, and if ALEC itself is not the source of these policies, the parallels from state to state suggests some sort of common source. And I have seen nothing that suggests that what is occurring in New Jersey is very different.

      Christie has created and relished a public persona that is now creating problems for him. The mainstream media gave him a pass on a lot of things, and now many of those things are under scrutiny, some of very intense scrutiny. I don’t think that he’s the devil incarnate, but I do think that there needs to be much more careful consideration of what he does stand for.

    • Aaron Barlow
      February 9, 2014

      A note: I think Martin’s response to Donnie Brasco is right on the money but he may not have known one fact: That “neo-Marxist” (to use Brasco’s own factually challenged phrase) Star-Ledger now regrets that endorsement.

  2. martinkich
    June 28, 2014

    Reblogged this on Ohio Politics.

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