At its heart, Gov. Christie's guiding philosophy boils down to simple supply-side economics: reduce taxes and cut red tape to create more jobs and wealth.
The Republican governor has spent his first 100 days in office doggedly hewing to that principle, come what may.
Since his inauguration on Jan. 19, Christie has brawled with one of the state's most powerful unions, temporarily suspended property-tax rebates, proposed a $29.3 billion budget while facing a projected shortfall of about $10.7 billion, chopped state aid to schools and municipalities by more than $1.2 billion, and worked with the Legislature to pass changes to public employees pension and benefits.
How Christie's approach will play out over the rest of his time as governor and whether it will be good for the state remains to be seen. But political observers and lawmakers of both parties say there is no question the former U.S. attorney has succeeded in setting the agenda in Trenton.
"I think it's been a staggering 100 days where the governor has begun a transformation of the public culture of the state," said Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth), a friend of Christie's.
Conservatives around the country are paying close attention. Washington Post columnist George F. Will recently named Christie "the nation's most interesting governor." Rush Limbaugh declared he loved him. Opinion writers from the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and the National Review have chimed in with praise.
After Christie urged voters to turn down budgets if teachers in their districts declined to accept wage freezes, voters on April 20 rejected 59 percent of local school-budget proposals, a historic high. Afterward, the governor made time for a victory lap, appearing on Imus in the Morning and on Fox News' Fox & Friends.
Asked yesterday whether he was considering running for president in 2012, Christie said he had "absolutely no interest."
"Whether you agree or disagree with his policy positions, you have to give him credit for engaging the public," said Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University who said Christie singlehandedly doubled voter turnout in school-board elections. "This is a governor who you know when he says something he's going to stick with that, and he's willing to say it no matter who it offends, and that's making people take notice."
Asked during a recent news conference about reaching the 100-day mark, Christie said, "I think the fact that my administration along with the Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature inside the first 60 days were able to pass significant pension and benefit reform is probably the largest single achievement so far.
"We're also very happy with the fact that we were handed a $13 billion budget problem and we were able to take actions in fiscal year 2010 and propose a budget for fiscal year 2011 that bring that budget into balance without any new or increased taxes on the general public."
Although the governor's approval ratings have dipped from when he took office, his numbers remain relatively strong. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll released last week, 53 percent of respondents approved of the job Christie is doing. Fifty-seven percent said they had a favorable opinion of Christie just before he took office in January, according to Rasmussen.
Even Christie's political opponents seem to admire his political acumen.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Christie had succeeded in distracting people from the cuts to the state budget, drawing their attention to the New Jersey Education Association.
"He captured the anger of the people right now, and I give him a lot of credit for getting people to take their eye off the ball," Sweeney said.
Stylistically, Christie is confrontational and direct, appearing to relish every opportunity to engage in combat. The governor frequently begins his sentences by commanding his audience to "listen."
As a prosecutor, Christie showed no fear of hyperbole in describing those he put in prison, including scores of politicians. As governor, he churns out sound bites at a rapid pace, obliterating nuance in favor of snappy one-liners.
He often talks about New Jersey's being the highest-taxed state in the nation, for example. In fact, though property taxes are indeed among the highest in the country, other levies, such as income and sales taxes, are lower than in many other states.
Still, Christie's message appears to be resonating.
"I think that's New Jersey," Sweeney said. "I think that's why people are relating to him. . . . He doesn't mince his positions."
Sen. Richard Codey (D., Essex), who served as governor after the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey, said that at times, Christie's blunt way of speaking was refreshing. But other times, as when Christie said teachers were using students "like drug mules to carry information back from the classroom" to sway their parents' votes on school budgets, Codey said, he has found Christie offensive and unnecessarily combative.
"It kind of feels like when he gets up in the morning, he argues with his Cheerios," Codey said.
Christie has had his hands full since taking office.
On his first full day in office, he signed eight executive orders; to date, he has signed 25, more than twice the number Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed in the same time.
Some in the Legislature see the executive orders as proof of Christie's overbearing - some would say bullying - approach.
Tensions between governors and state legislators, even of the same party, are not unusual in Trenton.
Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) said it was unfortunate that Christie had "set a rather combative tone with the Legislature."
She cited as an example his speech to a joint session on Feb. 11 in which he announced he would freeze state aid to schools for the current fiscal year to close the $2.2 billion state budget gap.
"The defenders of the status quo will start chattering as soon as I leave this chamber," Christie said in the speech. "They'll say, 'The problems are not that bad; listen to me, I can spare you the pain and sacrifice.' We know this is simply not true. New Jersey has been steaming toward financial disaster for years due to that kind of attitude."
Buono said such rhetoric was not productive.
"We can disagree on issues, but what I object to is being reduced to a political punch line, and that's what he did in that speech," Buono said.
Christie has also clashed with fellow Republicans, including Sens. Robert Singer of Ocean County and Christopher "Kip" Bateman of Somerset County.
During an interview with a reporter, Singer, a former mayor, raised questions about Christie's proposal to cap local property-tax increases at 2.5 percent. Not long after, Singer's office received word that he should not have publicly criticized the governor's proposal.
Singer declined to talk about the matter, but he did say he appreciated Christie's open-door policy with the Legislature. He said he and other Republican senators had met with Christie at least three times at Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton.
"This governor has absolutely said, 'I want to meet,' " Singer said. "That's a positive."
Bateman did not return a call for comment; he was reportedly chastised after voting in committee against Christie's nominee to lead the Department of Children and Families, Janet Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig ultimately withdrew from consideration after questions were raised about her work for a group of sex educators and scientists.
Christie's first 100 days have not been without missteps.
After the governor's Feb. 11 speech to the Legislature, administration officials said Christie did not need the Legislature's cooperation to close the budget gap. Christie later acknowledged he needed legislative approval to transfer the frozen school funding.
Early in his term, Christie said he would not be bound by the contract Corzine negotiated with state worker unions, which calls for no layoffs before January 2011. Christie later said his lawyers had determined that he was wrong and that he could not order layoffs without setting off costly pay raises.
In March, Christie rescinded a controversial executive order ordering the state Council on Affordable Housing to stop its work. The executive order was challenged in court, but oral arguments were adjourned after Christie rescinded the order.
Christie said he did so because the affordable-housing task force he established had completed its work, not because of the legal challenge.
Critics of Christie's budget have tried to draw attention to his proposed cuts to property-tax rebates and NJ Transit, among others. Many argue that his cuts to schools and municipalities will lead to property-tax increases.
Some Democratic lawmakers have aligned with a few conservatives to point out that the proposed budget would cut about 5 percent of total budgets for most schools, which means 100 percent of state aid for the wealthiest districts. That means a greater proportion of state aid would go to so-called Abbott schools than to middle-class and suburban districts.
Despite promising to end the fiscal gimmicks that helped put the state in its current financial condition, Christie does not plan to contribute one cent to the $3 billion pension obligation the state owes to public employees this year. Democratic leaders are calling for Christie to restore the so-called millionaire's tax to generate more revenue, but no legislation has been introduced.
Some conservatives argue that Christie hasn't cut enough state spending. When former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan looks at Christie's budget proposal, he sees a "massive shift of funding into Abbott districts, massive expansion of nursery schools," and "almost all the money taken out of suburban school districts."
Despite the criticism, Christie has managed to keep the public's attention focused squarely on the NJEA.
Behind the scenes, while working on the budget proposal, one staffer suggested to Christie that he might not want to propose a controversial measure because it could lead to protests outside the Statehouse, according to an administration official familiar with the budget discussions who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the budget process. The governor responded that he did not come to Trenton to make the same decisions as in the past and that he was not scared of protests and complaints.
Throughout the budget discussions, the official said, Christie often directed staffers to present to him all the options that made sense. Christie said he would figure out whether they could work politically.
- Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University
"My view is that Chris has started to address and discuss the very, very difficult issues impacting the day in New Jersey in a very, very positive way."
- Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union)
- Ingrid Reed, New Jersey project director at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics
- New Jersey Education Association president Barbara Keshishian