BY DANIEL A. CIRUCCI
IT SEEMED THE MOST unlikely romance imaginable.
One, a Democrat; the other, a Republican. One a (nominal) liberal; the other a (sometimes) conservative. One a high-school grad and labor organizer; the other a successful lawyer with key contacts in the business sector. One an advocate for government; the other a tough prosecutor who sent corrupt government officials to jail. One a Phillies fan; the other a Mets fan. One from bustling North Jersey; the other from more rural South Jersey.
And yet, it seemed to work. These two certified Big Guys somehow managed to wrap their arms around one another and feel a connection. It was as if actors James Gandolfini and Kevin James had suddenly fallen in love and wanted the whole world to know about it.
But it wasn't Gandolfini and James, and these weren't characters in a movie. This was New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney.
No one is really sure how the seeds of the bromance were planted or who planted them. It might have been a close friend of one (and a sometimes ally of the other) named George Norcross.
In any event, whoever played matchmaker must've been beaming when Christie was inaugurated and promptly invited Sweeney to come to the podium, extending his hand to him.
Christie said nice things about Sweeney; Sweeney said nice things about Christie. When Christie and his lieutenant governor were out of state at the same time, Sweeney cheerfully took the reins and kept things moving according to Christie's plan. When Christie came under fire for being out of state during a blizzard, Sweeney refused to take a shot at him.
Even when the two men disagreed, they frequently managed to do so with a wink and a smile.
So Democrats and Republicans in New Jersey were not only able to adopt spending formulas but also agree on appointments and important pieces of legislation without a great deal of rancor. The grand consummation came just a month ago, when Christie signed the landmark public-employee pension and benefits-reform act that will reportedly save the state $132 billion over the next 30 years. Christie showered Sweeney with praise and added: "I'm really, really honored to be his partner and be his friend."
And then, days later amid a high-speed budget battle marred by poor communication, it all fell apart. Sweeney felt betrayed.
And he lashed out. In a widely published interview he called the governor "a punk" - and worse. He said he wanted to "punch him in his head." He compared Christie to "Mr. Potter from 'It's a Wonderful Life,' the mean old bastard who screws everybody."
The scenario was familiar and predictable. You know what happens when everyone's high-school chum is outmaneuvered by the guy who was always most likely to succeed. The chum takes it personally and seeks retribution.
But man love is complex. So there's more to the story than that. For one thing, big egos were involved.
Under New Jersey's constitution, Christie is the most powerful governor in America. And he's not afraid to use his power - including the line-item veto. Christie may acknowledge Bruce Springsteen as the Boss in the world of entertainment. But in the bare-knuckled world of the New Jersey statehouse, there's only one Boss, and he doesn't play the guitar. Although he'll listen, adapt and compromise when necessary, Christie isn't into sharing power, a situation Sweeney apparently didn't grasp.
Sweeney apparently felt he went so far out on a limb for Christie that he might lose his own base of support. He needed to show he was still his own man, still a real Democrat, still a union guy. So Sweeney played two of the oldest cards in the deck: name-calling and class warfare.
Surely Christie understood all this since he was uncharacteristically quiet during the Sweeney tsunami. Christie proved himself mindful of the adage that "All's fair in love and war." The governor knows politics is a bit of both, but more war than romance.
Now November and legislative elections beckon. There will be time enough for bromance (if necessary) next year.