TRENTON - Thousands rallied at the Statehouse Saturday afternoon to send this message to lawmakers: Override Gov. Christie's veto of the "millionaire's tax" or we'll vote you out of office.
But they saved most of their wrath for the governor himself.
State police estimated that up to 35,000 people turned out for the rally, converging on West State Street and waving signs that demanded the elimination of Christie's proposed budget cuts and a surtax on New Jersey's wealthiest residents.
"Stop being the biggest bully in the state," urged James Harris, leader of the NAACP in New Jersey, saying Christie's budget would benefit the rich while robbing the poor.
Calling Christie's actions an assault on the middle class, Barbara Keshishian, who leads the powerful state teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, said, "If legislators remain silent, then they will share the blame."
"We have long memories," Keshishian said. "What our political leaders do today we will remember tomorrow and for a long time to come."
Yelled one protester: "Get him out! He's a loser!"
"Do the right thing! Do the right thing!" the crowd chanted as Keshishian left the lectern.
All 120 seats in the Democratic-controlled Legislature are up for election next year, and public-employee unions are the party's base. The rally, organized by unions and other groups, was held two days after Christie vetoed the "millionaire's tax" just moments after the Legislature approved it. He maintains that it would be a temporary fix, and that New Jersey has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Democrats do not have the required two-thirds majority in each house to override the veto.
The measure would have raised the tax rate on income above $1 million from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent. The tax, which applied to those earning $400,000 or more under former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, was supposed to last for only one year and expired Dec. 31. But Democrats called for renewing it in the face of a budget crisis.
After taking into account concerns that the tax would hurt small-business owners, Democrats revised their proposal so it would apply to millionaires - about 16,000 people.
Given the state's dire fiscal condition, Christie has few options but to cut. Even if the "millionaire's tax" was restored, it would not bring in enough money to reinstate all the programs his critics cited Saturday and still restore school aid to help prevent planned teacher layoffs. The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates the tax would have brought in $637 million.
But those who led the rally called on the rich, at least, to share in the sacrifice. "If we got to pay, they got to pay!" Larry Hamm, president of the People's Organization for Progress, exhorted from the lectern.
Hamm called the governor's budget an "abomination," saying it would hurt working people, homeowners, city dwellers, the middle class, and, most important, "our children. And we will not stand for a budget that hurts our children."
"We need a government that serves the many and not the few," he said.
Rally participants were upset about cuts to programs that provide health services for the poor, free and reduced-price meals for low-income children, adult education, assistance for the disabled, and after-school and other educational programs. And they expressed concern for teachers, police, and firefighters, whose jobs are at risk as school districts and towns struggle to compensate for Christie's cuts in state aid.
Isabel Nieto, 25, traveled from Hudson County to speak out against cuts that already have her reconsidering her dream of teaching. In an interview, Nieto, who attends a community college, said she had just received a letter of praise signed by Christie for winning a scholarship. With one hand he congratulates people on making something of themselves, she said, "and with the other hand he takes it away."
Herb Greenberg, who was introduced as a millionaire, told the crowd, "I'm personally willing to pay more taxes so my neighbors can have a decent standard of living."
The rally took on an angry, spirited mood. It also got personal: Some signs mocked the governor's weight; others questioned why he hated the poor.
One protester demanded, "Recall King Christie."
Chris Shelton, a vice president of the Communications Workers of America, the largest state workers union, blasted Christie's "tool kit" proposal, which would, among other things, cap annual property-tax increases at 2.5 percent. Shelton said the cap would lead to a permanent freeze on public employees' salaries. More generally, he said, Christie's actions were an attack on a middle-class lifestyle that allows people a modest home, the chance to send their children to decent schools, and decent benefits.