EAST WINDSOR, N.J. - In a rare public thrashing of his own presumptive allies in state politics, Gov. Christie lashed out Tuesday at New Jersey's business leaders for playing "kissy face" and "footsie" with Democrats, and challenged them to step up their efforts against public-sector unions.
"You all want pro-growth policies, yet you let the public-sector unions spend you into oblivion," Christie, a Republican, said at a conference of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, referring to outside money that helped Democrats pick up four seats in November's Assembly elections.
Christie, during a brief return to the Garden State from the presidential campaign trail, essentially argued that some in the business community had taken his leadership for granted and caved to Democratic interests so as not to rupture relations with the Legislature's majority party.
During his 35-minute speech, the governor accused "members of this community" of giving "mixed messages" on issues such as increasing the gas, sales, and corporate business taxes.
"For those who have, thanks for your help," he said with sarcasm. "Because we're here fighting the good fight every day to hold those things off and to try to negotiate the very best result we can get for the people of this state and for you."
Some business leaders have advocated raising the state's tax on gasoline to replenish the near-depleted fund for road, bridge, and rail projects. However, they also have pushed for repealing the estate and inheritance taxes as part of that deal.
Christie took aim at Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who on Monday said he would push to amend the constitution to force the state to make its contributions to the pension system for public workers.
Sweeney's proposal would require the state to make payments quarterly, rather than in one lump sum at the end of the fiscal year in June. Christie has slashed state contributions to the pension system, despite having signed a 2011 law that committed the state to more funding. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled this year that the state wasn't obligated to make set annual payments.
The governor said the amendment would result in massive tax increases for New Jersey residents and businesses.
Christie said he was delivering a blunt message because he owed his friends the truth. "I love this community. You create jobs for our people," he said.
"But man, it's time to get a spine," Christie said, declaring that Sweeney had in effect declared loyalty to the state's 800,000 public workers over everyone else.
Christie himself has campaigned on his ability to work with Democrats. And in previous elections, some Republicans said Christie could have done more to help his party win legislative seats.
Christie told business leaders they could be "much more powerful" than the unions, one of which, the New Jersey Education Association, spent about $4 million to help elect Democrats in November.
"There's more of you. You make more money. You've got to decide. Because right now, given the results I see, they're cleaning your clock," Christie said.
"And when they clean your clock, their hand goes right in your pocket and takes from you and your employees and your shareholders and your investors."
The unions' goal, he said, is to secure billions in pension and health benefit funding.
Democratic candidates spent $14.1 million in the election, about 2.5 times as much as Republicans.
Christie tapped the New Jersey GOP's account to finance his out-of-state travels before he officially declared his candidacy for president.
Christie also offered fresh criticism of some of his favorite targets: "brutally liberal, ridiculous newspapers in this state," union "pigs," and "crazy" Democrats and their "idiotic" ideas.
But on Tuesday, Christie addressed his audience with a tone he typically reserves for liberal opponents.
The business community "did nothing to stop" Democrats and voters from passing a constitutional amendment in 2013 to increase the minimum wage, Christie said, noting that he had vetoed similar legislation.
Looking forward to the 2017 gubernatorial elections, Christie said businesses needed to match union spending to elect another Republican governor.
"Force must meet force," he said.
Otherwise, he said, "you will get a Democratic governor with a Democratic Legislature, and the pigs will be charging down State Street" outside the Statehouse - an apparent reference to unions.
Tom Bracken, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said his group had been "a very strong proponent of the Christie pro-business administration."
"I'm not sure who he's talking about," he said.
Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, told reporters that the state's pay-to-play laws restrict what her members can contribute to campaigns.
But she said her group was considering creating a super PAC to counter union money in elections.
Asked about Christie's tone and message Tuesday, Siekerka said, "As we know, Gov. Christie tells it like it is. And we're all adults, and we can handle it. And you know what, if someone doesn't give us the reality check every once in a while, shame on us."