Love him or hate him, you’ve got to say this about Steve Sweeney, he knows how to light up the summer sky with political fireworks.
Never has one politician called another a “prick” and a “rotten bastard” – in public at least and certainly not on the front page of The Star-Ledger.
Some speculate that Sweeney’s outburst was a carefully choreographed maneuver designed to get him back into the Democratic base camp after he championed pensions and health care benefit changes that labor unions vehemently opposed.
That’s possible but I doubt it because the Senate president is much like his Republican alter ego – Gov. Chris Christie. Both are bigger than life size political figures and neither holds back anything.
Sweeney’s outrage seems genuine. He has labeled Christie’s spending vetoes “mean spirited” and he’s got the evidence to prove it.
What it comes down to is that the governor acted in angry adolescent and not as a rational leader making measured reductions to the budget.
People may like a straight-talking leader. It’s how Christie endeared himself to the public early on in his term and how he has gained national visibility. He told everybody that cuts were absolutely necessary because the state simply didn’t have the money. He was right.
But people also want a governor who displays some compassion. They don’t want a vindictive guy who punishes the innocent in an ill-conceived effort to show his opponents who’s the boss. They don’t want a governor out for revenge at all costs.
That’s what Christie has done and that’s what Sweeney is charging. It’s a characterization of Christie that’s likely to stick.
If all Sweeney had to offer was his frustration of dealing with the hardheaded Christie then his charges would have little impact.
He would be just one more politician casting his opponent in a sallow light.
But there’s more to all this.
Sweeney has underscored certain items that fell prey to Christie’s veto pen.
Take the $250,000 cut to the Office of Legislative Services. That’s the same office that contradicted the Christie administration on just how much revenue the state can expect this fiscal year. The OLS figure was some $400 million more than the administration’s figure. That not good for a governor who keeps arguing that the state simply can’t afford certain spending programs.
The OLS gave the Democrats a reasonable basis to add items to the budget.
Take the slashing of a program run by Alan Rosenthal, the Rutgers professor who cast the deciding vote in the redrawn legislative district map. Christie had been personally involved in drafting the Republican plan rejected by Rosenthal.
Take the $139 million hatchet job Christie did on aid to cities. He cut the program to just $10 million leaving cities facing a real financial crisis.
All that spending, by the way, was in Christie’s original budget so he had no problem with allocating that money. The only reason for the cuts was to get even.
Of course there is more. Christie also eliminated some add-ons Democrats made to the budget. For example he erased $45 million in tax cuts for the poor. He eliminated $9 million for health care for the working poor and a similar amount for mental health services.
His argument that the state simply can’t afford that spending doesn’t hold up this time because he transferred that money to the surplus, which is significantly higher in July than it was in March under Christie’s original budget.
While Sweeney has been venting, Christie has been uncharacteristically silent. He’s away on vacation and maybe that accounts for it. But maybe the governor didn’t realize just how mad Sweeney would be at all this and now he doesn’t know what to say.
I doubt that. I’ve said before that Christie is the best politician the state has seen in a generation. This is one time when he seems to have let his get-even persona trump his political savvy.
When you get past all the name calling what you have is the Senate president painting an ugly portrait of the governor.
What’s unfortunate for Christie is the resemblance Sweeney’s painting has to the chief executive.
It’s one voters can easily recognize.
Josh McMahon is a former member of The Star-Ledger’s editorial board.