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What the Harris Defeat Means for Christie

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney sent Gov. Chris Christie a very clear message yesterday.  It wasn’t about the defeated Supreme Court nominee Bruce Harris or even the Court itself.  It was about the balance of power within the State House.

Ever since the calendar turned to 2012, legislative Democrats – specifically the leadership who worked closely with the Republican governor in his first two years – have looked for every opportunity to make life uncomfortable for Chris Christie.

Part of this has to do with turning their attention to their own political ambitions – be it a run for Governor in 2013 or U.S. Senate in 2014.  Indeed, the governor himself has clearly switched to re-election mode, with Exhibit A being a tax cut proposal based on projected revenue growth that would have to outpace the Chinese economy.

While the next election is certainly a driving force in the Democrats’ increasing opposition to Christie, there is something more basic at work.  They’re ticked off at what they see as shabby treatment by the governor.

There are only so many times the governor can take the rhetorical bat out on you before it sticks.  Senator Sweeney’s final straw came last year when the governor caught his legislative compadre unawares on line-item vetoes.  The sense was that the governor understood the Democrats needed to pass their own alternative budget to save political face.  And that the leadership would be given the opportunity, behind closed doors, to protect specific items from the red pen, while the governor could still claim to have sliced the Democrats’ budget.  Christie was having none of that.

So this year, the Democrats embarked on a new tactic, forcing the governor to go on the record with a gay marriage veto and pushing for their own version(s) of a tax cut.  They made it clear that they would not approve Phillip Kwon’s nomination in March and let the governor know it.  That gave Christie the opportunity to rail that “the fix was in” before the process even started and that it was the Democrats, not him, who had politicized the process.

With the Harris nominations, the Democrats appear to have closed ranks and did not inform the governor beforehand.  They did not want to give him the same ammunition, even though it was clear to anyone at the hearing that the die had already been cast.  In fact, Senator Sweeney’s presence throughout the hearing sent the clear message that he was fully behind what transpired.

At the end of the hearing, a number of Democratic Judiciary Committee members said that their decision was about partisan balance – the unwritten tradition that no more than four members of the Supreme Court belong to the same party.

But it wasn’t really about partisan balance on the Court, it was about “Christie balance” between the executive and legislative branches.  Ever since the governor announced his choice of Kwon as the first Asian-American nominee and Harris as the first openly gay nominee, there was a palpable sense in Trenton that Christie was daring the legislature to shoot them down.  Well, they did.  Both sides played partisan politics.

By the way, if Governor Christie truly wants to challenge the Democrats, how about nominating two sitting judges with clear records of jurisprudence, who just happen to be Republicans?  I disagree with the Democrats’ view that Justice Jaynee LaVecchia should be “counted” as a Republican.  But putting up two known, well-qualified judges would make it clear that a refusal to approve would be purely partisan on the Democrats’ part.

During the hearing, Sen. Jen Beck remarked that Harris’s bond experience would bring some fresh perspective to the bench. Wouldn’t appointing Justices with a track record of appellate rulings bring an equally fresh perspective to the current Court?  Just a thought.

At the end of the day, all this intrigue is “inside Trenton” stuff.  The public doesn’t follow Supreme Court nominations and so it will have no direct impact on the governor’s positive approval rating.  However, the message that the Harris vote sends is that the Democratic leadership grows more and more willing to take on the Governor.  This could have a major public impact if this new approach continues throughout the budget process.

Gov. Christie still has very powerful tools on his side, namely the bully pulpit and the veto pen.  You still have to give him the edge in a battle of wills with the legislature.  But Sen. Sweeney and his fellow Democrats are finding ways to make life increasingly difficult.