By CHARLES STILE
A day after routing Jon Corzine in 2009, Republican Governor-elect Chris Christie placed a call to the Democratic mayor of Woodbridge, John McCormac, inviting him to join his transition team.
McCormac, a state treasurer under Gov. James E. McGreevey who continues to be a fixture in the state Democratic Party, was happy to sign on.
It proved to be a wise move for McCormac and his town. Three years later, Christie returned the favor, using his political muscle to help approve a 700-megawatt power plant for Woodbridge, a project expected to generate jobs and revenue for decades.
“After elections, it doesn’t matter what party” people are in, McCormac said. “We all have to work together for the benefit of our citizens.”
The “I’ll help you, you help me” alliance with McCormac, made within hours of Christie’s victory four years ago, illustrates an overlooked tactic that propelled his win Tuesday over Democrat Barbara Buono, a longtime state senator from Middlesex County.
Christie’s bold leadership during Superstorm Sandy, the shrewd marketing of his Jersey tough guy persona and several important legislative accomplishments are indeed important factors in the strong support for his reelection. But while the public was seeing all of that, Christie discreetly and methodically courted Democrats with every lever of power at his disposal. By the end, many of those Democrats would supply the manpower, money or simply the photo ops for his campaign.
Long before Buono entered a race that no other Democratic contender wanted to come near, Christie had already won the campaign. While the cameras and the social-media feeds and the political pundits focused on Christie’s forceful personality, his often over-the-top comments and his welcoming embrace of President Obama after Sandy, Christie was planting the seeds for his own reelection, Democratic mayor by Democratic mayor, Democratic boss by Democratic boss, Democratic union leader by Democratic union leader. As the ancient Chinese military tome “The Art of War” noted, “Every battle is won before it is fought.”
Christie won the unofficial support — and admiration — of George Norcross, the South Jersey insurance executive and the state’s most powerful Democrat, by carrying out an overhaul of the state’s higher education system that poured more money into that region. He wooed Democratic-allied construction unions by financing massive transportation projects and backing tax incentives for long-dormant mega-projects in Atlantic City and the Meadowlands. He used his clout to secure approvals for large Port Authority of New York and New Jersey projects in Democratic towns.
By the end of this campaign, Democrats not only endorsed Christie, they lavished him with praise, eager to demonstrate their fealty and well aware that the chances of intraparty punishment were nil. Union City Mayor Brian Stack, who is also a state senator, gave Christie a hero’s welcome — and a parade. Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura took the unusual step of vigorously defending Christie’s debate performance.
And although Cory Booker formally endorsed Buono, Booker, the state’s most popular Democrat, publicly praised Christie during a Newark supermarket groundbreaking. It was Booker’s first public event after winning the U.S. Senate seat last month. Events with Buono would have to wait.
But Christie’s early, old-school “outreach” worked to divide, conquer and dilute the power of the state’s ruling Democrats. Despite the party’s power on paper — 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans and majority control of both houses of the Legislature — Christie’s strategy exploited its divisions and realized its vaunted machinery put power and self-preservation ahead of partisan loyalty.
Christie revived the transactional, political dynamic that vanished during the rocky tenure of Corzine, his predecessor. Legislators and mayors — who care more about obtaining environmental permits and road project funding and financing for community clubhouses — fumed at Corzine’s clumsy deal-making and his CEO-like aloofness.
Christie recognized the post-Corzine hunger among the political class for a governor’s office willing to listen and deal. It made many officials easy prey for Christie’s entreaties.
“Jon Corzine continues to haunt the Democratic Party,” said state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Union County Democrat.
Christie reopened the governor’s office, but with an implied “you’re either with me or against me” ethos. Those who worked with him — by keeping a low profile, voting for parts of his agenda or even endorsing his reelection — could count on getting their phone calls returned and their needs addressed. Those who criticized risked being locked out.
For some Democrats, it was an easy decision. They saw no advantage in tangling with a governor whose popularity only seemed to soar with every attack on sewerage authority bureaucrats, teacher union leaders and the occasional mayor, like Atlantic City’s Lorenzo Langford, one of the few big-city mayors who openly clashed with Christie.
“Mayors now feel they have a voice in Trenton,” said one Democratic mayor, who declined to be identified for fear of alienating some intraparty allies. “Why did we want to change that?”
Christie forged ties with Democrats for symbolic as well as strategic reasons. He secured the endorsement of Michael Blunt, the African-American mayor of Chesilhurst in Camden County, one of only three small towns that former Gov. Thomas H. Kean did not carry in his 1985 reelection landslide.
Blunt said he was impressed with Christie’s forthright style and the help the town received from the Department of Community Affairs in getting the town’s finances in order. And that help was boosted by a $200,000 special state aid package for economically distressed towns in 2011.
“We received transitional aid when a lot of other towns didn’t receive any,” Blunt said.
Christie won the endorsement of Harrison Mayor Ray McDonough after the governor secured approval from the Port Authority for a $250 million PATH transit hub for the downtown. Harrison was also the beneficiary of a $2 million state aid award in 2012.
Christie also attracted mayors with the promise of access and assistance in the future.
River Edge Mayor Sandy Moscaritolo, who endorsed Christie last month, was part of a group of Democratic mayors Christie invited to Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton.
He said “I understand the political position you are in,” Moscaritolo said. “But if you can support me, I would really appreciate it.”
Some Democratic donors also helped Christie with their checkbooks. He received $6,300 from lawyers at DeCotiis, FitzPatrick and Cole of Teaneck. Listed among the donors is Al DeCotiis, a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee and a fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Michael DeCotiis, who served as chief counsel to McGreevey.
Buono received nothing from the firm. The DeCotiis family members were unavailable for comment, said William Murray, a spokesman.
Several lobbyists, who declined to be identified, said many traditional donors didn’t want to waste money investing on a long shot like Buono. One veteran lobbyist said he didn’t want to put his career or his clients in “harm’s way” — meaning they didn’t want to risk being cut off by Christie if their names appeared on Buono’s donor lists.
Political veterans say Christie is simply following an “outreach” path hewn by his mentor, Kean, who fostered generally warm relations with urban Democrats in the 1980s. But Christie adapted the approach in his own aggressive style.
While he brought down Democratic Party bosses across the state during his seven-year turn as U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Christie as governor eagerly collaborated with those who still retained their grip on the political machinery.
His relationship with Norcross began with quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations that evolved into a warm partnership publicly celebrated at news conferences.
Norcross and his allies, particularly Democratic state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, delivered crucial Democratic votes on the key Christie achievements, such as legislation forcing public employees to pay more for health and pension benefits or a law limiting annual property-tax hikes to 2 percent.
Christie also relied on his relationship with Democratic Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, which some say took root in 2002, when then-U.S. Attorney Christie took the unusual step of writing a letter declaring that DiVincenzo was not a target of a federal grand jury investigation into Essex County government.
When Christie was pushing for stricter rules on arbitration awards for police and fire union contracts, Christie turned DiVincenzo into a de facto lobbyist. During a heated legislative session, DiVincenzo persuaded Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver — who is also DiVincenzo’s underling in her job as an assistant Essex County administrator — to withdraw a weaker version of the bill.
Christie rewarded DiVincenzo with influence and largess — a new senior center in Belleville, $4 million to finance a new technology wing at the Essex County Vocational Center, $7 million in Port Authority aid for a new waterfront park in Newark.
DiVincenzo returned the favor by publicly endorsing Christie’s reelection. Christie praised DiVincenzo as a bold bipartisan leader and refused to distance himself from DiVincenzo after the state Election Law Enforcement Commission charged him with using his campaign account for personal items such as trips to Puerto Rico and gym memberships. His lawyer denies that they were personal expenses.
“The person who controls the budget is the governor,” DiVincenzo said in April, distilling the bottom-line dynamic of their relationship. “When you want to get things done, you go to the governor.”
Christie’s relationship with these two Democratic leaders effectively doomed Buono’s chances. DiVincenzo deployed the Essex campaign machinery for Christie. Norcross, Sweeney and the Democratic allies focused almost entirely on the legislative races. And their vaunted fundraising machine produced only token support for Buono.
Christie’s legendary clashes with teachers and other public employee unions helped make him a hero among Republican audiences, but he also quietly courted trade unions, including those who backed Corzine in the 2009 race.
Only a few months after Christie took office, in mid-2010, a group of labor leaders found themselves at the governor’s mansion in Princeton, listening to the new Republican governor deliver his pitch.
“He said he wants to be our friend,” said Ray Pocino, the powerful leader of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, recalling Christie’s overture. “You know of any legislation that is important to you? You tell me what the reasons are and I’ll do what I can to make it happen.”
Christie’s biggest prize was Pocino’s Laborers Union of 20,000 members. Christie grabbed the endorsement last December — even before the Democrats had settled on a nominee.
Shortly after Christie’s election, Pocino, who serves as a commissioner on both the Turnpike and Port Authority boards, publicly criticized Christie for canceling construction on a long-planned second rail tunnel under the Hudson River in 2011.
But that disappointment was smoothed over by Christie’s decision to spend money dedicated to the project to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which finances road and rail projects, and other large-scale projects, such as the raising of the Bayonne Bridge and repairs to the Pulaski Skyway.
“That’s going to create a hell of a lot more jobs,” Pocino said. And Christie’s support for tax incentives to revive the American Dream mall in the Meadowlands and the stalled Revel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City also won labor support.
The Laborers signaled that they intend to invest in Christie’s future — they donated $300,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie is set to lead next year.
Pocino’s members comprise the hard-hat crews on construction sites. For this election, the Laborers and scores of Democrats from city halls to the State House helped pave the road for Christie’s reelection and his future. It is a road paved with the tried-and-true political macadam of horse-trading and alliances of convenience.