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This story appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
I will always remember the first time I saw Governor Chris Christie verbally abuse a teacher.
It was September of 2010, and it was becoming increasingly clear that New Jersey’s first-year governor was not the friend of public education he had pretended to be during his campaign. Christie had presented himself as a moderate Republican, in the mold of former Governor Tom Kean. This meant, for many, that Christie might still be a friend to the public schools, long considered one of the best statewide systems in the nation.
But schools need money, and Christie was not about to raise taxes to make up for a severe and growing gap in education funding. To the contrary, in one of his first acts as governor, Christie refused to renew a “millionaire’s tax” on the state’s wealthiest citizens, making New Jersey’s fiscal problems even worse.
Lack of funds meant education spending had to be cut. In just his first year, Christie slashed state aid to schools by more than $1 billion. At the same time, he instituted a property tax cap that kept the wealthier suburban districts—his political base—from making up the difference with local revenues.
While many of his suburban constituents initially applauded this effort, the opening of the school year brought rumblings of discontent. New Jersey’s suburban schools are the crown jewels of the state, consistently producing results that are the envy of the nation. Now, thanks to Christie’s meddling, class sizes were increasing, extracurricular activities and electives were threatened, and student support services were being slashed.
New Jersey’s suburban voters pay big money to buy homes in towns where the schools are considered world-class; Christie’s cuts threatened their investment by degrading the education their children were receiving. It didn’t matter much to Christie’s political future that his budget cuts had hit the poorer cities, reliant on state aid, even harder; the people living there were never going to vote for him anyway. What really concerned the governor’s political apparatus was the possibility of losing the suburban soccer moms and dads who had put him in office in the first place.
What Chris Christie needed more than anything was a scapegoat. He couldn’t admit he had cut state aid so he could keep tax rates on the wealthy low and give more than $4 billion in subsidies to corporations. He had to make a case, instead, that school spending was out of control, and that he was forcing it back to reasonable levels.
And so, on that warm September day, in front of a sympathetic crowd at one of his highly scripted “town halls,” Christie fully committed to his war on teachers.
Christie had been battling with the teachers’ union for some time before. Abetted by a punditocracy that had always held the New Jersey Education Association in disdain, Christie painted a cartoonish picture of a union that had somehow duped its members—college-educated professionals, mind you—into working against their own best interests.
Yet even as he tried to sell the case that he had a problem with teachers’ unions and not with their members, Christie’s own words would continue to betray him: “I love the public schools but the fact of the matter is there is excess and greed there,” he told CNBC. That’s the schools, not the union offices.
He accused teachers of “using the students like drug mules to carry information back to the classroom.” He claimed teachers were “standing in front of classrooms, and lying about and excoriating the governor.” He told a group of Trenton high school students that if their teachers cared about learning, they wouldn’t be at the annual teachers’ convention.
In May of 2010, 35,000 teachers and other stakeholders came to Trenton for a rally to protest the Christie budget cuts; it was one of the largest protests the state had ever seen. Christie later called it “the ‘me first’ rally,” and said it was his job to “shine a bright light on greed and self-interest.”
So a direct confrontation between Christie and an actual teacher had been a long time coming when Marie Corfield, an art teacher from Flemington, New Jersey (who has since become a good friend of mine), crossed the street from her school while on lunch break and confronted Christie.
Why was he cutting funding to education while blaming the state’s fiscal problems on middle-class teachers, she asked him?
Why was he bad-mouthing the state’s schools when they were consistently at the top of the nation?
Video of Christie’s reaction became the first big YouTube sensation for a governor whose staff prides itself on its social media savvy. When Corfield dared to roll her eyes at Christie’s response, he stopped in midsentence and upbraided her—without the slightest trace of irony—for wanting to “put on a show.” He then proceeded to blame teachers for the state’s fiscal woes, claiming that if they had only taken a one-year pay freeze, he could have plugged the budget hole.
It wasn’t true: The state’s Office of Legislative Services later released an analysis that showed a teacher pay freeze wouldn’t have come close to filling the budget gap. But the truth was never Chris Christie’s top priority; what mattered was that he had found his villains. Teachers, not millionaires and corporations benefitting from Christie’s tax giveaways, were the problem. Cutting pay and benefits for educators was the solution.
Looking back at the video more than four years later, it’s astonishing to see how little Chris Christie has changed. Some politicians mature in office, softening their tone as they come to understand the responsibilities that come with positions of authority. Not Christie: The open contempt he showed toward Corfield that day has resurfaced every time his critics have publicly confronted him.
A high school student from Newark, an ex-Navy Seal in Roebling, a former Asbury Park councilman—all have withstood the withering sneers of their governor. In 2012, Christie even chased after a heckler who made a passing comment one night on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
You would think a few years in office would have made Chris Christie’s skin thicken a bit. And you would think a sitting governor who was already being talked up as a possible Presidential candidate would show some restraint.
But it’s clear to many of us New Jerseyans, after years of observing Chris Christie, that the man craves these conflicts—especially with women. He once told the press they should “take the bat out” on State Senator Loretta Weinberg, a seventy-nine-year-old grandmother and one of the most respected figures in Trenton. He called Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle a “jerk” and former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver a liar.
Christie takes particular glee in railing against teachers, a field where three-quarters of professionals are women. Last November, just before his reelection, Christie held a substantial lead over his opponent, Barbara Buono. The smart move would have been to keep his head down and coast to victory.
But on the Saturday before the election, Christie was confronted by Melissa Tomlinson, a teacher and activist who brought a sign criticizing the governor to one of his rallies. As he was walking out, she asked him: “Why do you portray our schools as failure factories?” His reply: “Because they are!” He added: “I am tired of you people. What do you want?”
Teachers quickly passed around a picture of Christie wagging his finger at Tomlinson on Facebook; it perfectly captured the contempt with which he had treated them for years. Christie, of course, still won the election. But the recklessness of that attack speaks volumes. When it comes to teachers, Chris Christie just can’t help himself.
There is some evidence, however, that Christie’s shtick has started to grow old. His approval ratings are the lowest they’ve been since he embraced President Obama on the Jersey Shore following Hurricane Sandy. Under Christie, the Garden State has seen its credit ratings crash while its long-term unemployment rates remain some of the highest in the nation.
Christie claimed he “saved” public pensions back in 2011 when he jacked up employee contributions and cut benefit payments. But he stopped following his own plan to increase state contributions, and now the state is heading toward a fiscal meltdown. It hasn’t helped Christie’s image that reports continue to surface about mismanagement of the pension funds by firms tied to some of his largest campaign contributors.
And Christie’s education “reform” efforts are turning into nightmares. New Jersey used to be a leader in education-funding equity, moving state aid to the districts with the largest concentrations of students who are economically disadvantaged. Over Christie’s term, however, the state has turned its back on its poorest students, and urban districts are struggling mightily to maintain their programs.
It’s become difficult for Christie to continue to blame all of this on teachers and their unions; and yet, like a reflex, he falls back on teacher-bashing whenever he senses he’s in trouble. When the furor around the infamous Bridgegate story reached new heights last January, Christie introduced a proposal to lengthen the school year, an obvious ploy to distract the media away from growing scandal.
But when the proposal inevitably stalled because it hadn’t been properly thought out, Christie immediately blamed teachers: “They don’t want a longer school year; they like having the summer off.” In Christie’s mind, the problem wasn’t that he didn’t have a proposal to raise the revenues needed to add air conditioning to thousands of schools across the state. The problem, as always, was those greedy, self-serving teachers.
Given the depth of Chris Christie’s failures in New Jersey, it’s hard to see teacher-bashing as a winning strategy for him in the Republican Presidential primaries. His opponents are going to be able to tar him with his own miserable record; blaming teachers won’t save him this time.
For many New Jersey educators, it will be a great moment: Finally, the man who has been bullying and denigrating us for years will have to defend himself. But if his years as governor tell us anything, Chris Christie will inevitably point the finger of blame elsewhere.