National Spotlight on Christie Misses a State Full of Troubles

TRENTON — New Jersey’s Big Man has peered into the right-wing abyss that is the Republican presidential primary and stepped away.

Fair enough.

Gotham Extra

Michael Powell on government and politics.

That he will remain a formidable presence is beyond argument. He’s rolled unions, won pension givebacks, and his ratings in this Blue State sometimes look Red State friendly.

With his Jersey Guy spiel, he’s described as unscripted, which is Lesson 433 in the eternal gullibility of journalists. He writes the script to appear unscripted — and his staff posts evidence of his “spontaneity” on YouTube.

It’s all great theater. As the governor acknowledged Tuesday afternoon, he is left to wrestle with the prosaic reality of governing in a recession. “It just never felt right to me to leave now,” he said.

In fact, Mr. Christie has presided over nothing like a New Jersey Miracle.

Income and jobs in this middle-class state are tumbling downward. Mr. Christie’s chief economist regularly claims to discern rays of sunshine, but private-sector jobs shrank last month, and the unemployment rate is higher than a year ago. Tax receipts are comatose.

And New Jersey’s cities remain aggressively forgotten by the governor.

In Trenton Friday, I stepped out of a State House hot with presidential fever, crossed State Street, and walked a block north. A gentleman offered to sell me a “nickel bag” of pot. I apologized that the timing was all wrong, and continued down a tenement block to Calhoun Street.

There, seven young black men commanded a corner in their best gang-color strut, with that melancholy adolescent admixture of menace and fear. A mother with a daughter and a tiny woman pushing a laundry cart gave them wide berth.

Trenton’s mayor, Tony Mack, recently let go a third of his police force. He knows this is demented public policy, but state aid cuts have left him with a doughnut-size $27 million hole in his budget.

Mr. Mack occupies a City Hall where the white marble is stained green and crumbling. Weeds are conducting hostile takeovers of flower beds. “It’s a pretty dismal picture right now,” he says.

The violent crime rate in Trenton is twice that of New York City, and it has, per capita, a third fewer cops. How will that play out, I ask?

“Well, I mean, I hope it won’t have a drastic effect,” the mayor replies.

Is the governor any help?

Mr. Mack’s voice falls. “There’s dialogue, but revenue hasn’t followed our conversation,” he says.

Does that bother you?

“The governor is governing,” he says, “according to his thought processes.”

New Jersey’s politics rarely are more dispiriting than when you search for a mayor with outrage to spare.

Camden’s mayor all but hides in her office, for fear she will utter a word that displeases her political boss, George Norcross III, a Democrat who has cut handsome deals with Mr. Christie.

Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, is the Stanford-and-Yale-educated darling of the hedge fund set, and a considerable step up from the wily old crook who preceded him. But his staff’s strangled silence about state cuts is impressive. Newark sits in Essex County, which is run by Joe DiVincenzo, a Democrat who also plays well with the governor and perhaps presidential candidate someday.

The state is hamstrung by these county political warlords.

Jon Corzine, a Democrat who served as governor, cut deals with these fellows, and Mr. Christie might argue that he simply plays the game with more panache. Although, given that Mr. Christie was a United States attorney charged with investigating the generous levels of corruption here, you might hike an eyebrow at his explanation.

In 2002, just before the primary election, United States Attorney Christie issued a letter stating that Mr. DiVincenzo, who was a candidate, was not under federal investigation; this highly unusual move reportedly left Mr. DiVincenzo greatly touched.

These bosses could perhaps prevail upon Governor Christie to open the spigots and let aid flow into their cities. But help for now remains a dry streambed.

Last week in Trenton thugs shot up a popular restaurant. Another fellow emptied a semi-automatic pistol into parked cars. Cops collected 61 bullet shells.

You walk Paul Avenue in Trenton, and in the shadow of a sycamore, a middle-age fellow wearing shorts swings his 5-iron to laughs from a porch full of gang-bangers.

Barbara Cameron, a wiry, 30-year resident, peers out her door. “The bangers don’t pull junk on this block, but don’t go around the corner, no, no,” she says.

Ask about the governor’s presidential reverie, and she shakes her head.

“You could just say we’re forgotten here, but don’t we live in New Jersey, too?”

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