Christie went on to explain how he'd convinced the state's Democratic majority leaders, against the wishes of most of their caucus, to help him slash public-sector pensions and benefits. And he drew a bead on his next major target: public-school teachers and their union. "That's where we head next," Christie said. "We need to take on the teachers' union once and for all, and we need to decide who is determining our children's future, who is running this place. Them or us? I say it's us."
He presented his accomplishments in New Jersey as a model for curing the nation's ills: "We know the answers. They're painful answers. We're going to have to reduce Medicare benefits. We're going to have to reduce Medicaid benefits. We're going to have to raise the Social Security age. We're going to have to do these things. We're going to have to cut all types of other government programs that some people in this room might like."
The speech was classic Christie, but the governor expressed his views to the Koch crowd with a candor that politicians—especially those with a reputation for having mainstream appeal—usually reserve for very select audiences: He called New Jersey Democratic legislators "stupid" for pushing for a tax on the wealthy that he'd previously rejected. He mimicked the voice of his predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine. And he boldly proclaimed that he'd been elected because "their ideas are wrong and our ideas are right."
Click icon to hear Christie's Corzine imitation.
(Complete audio and transcript is available at TheBRAD BLOG.)
The gathering, after all, was a fundraising and strategy session for what Charles Koch described as a battle "for the life or death of this country." And Christie dutifully rallied the troops. "You, the people in this room, are the modern day patriots who will save this country or let it go by the wayside. It's up to us," he intoned during his nearly hour-long address.
He wasn't the only GOP governor in attendance that weekend. White House hopeful Rick Perry of Texas spoke earlier that day—revealing his trip only after an Austin daily confronted his spokesman. Rick Scott of Florida and Bob McDonnell of Virginia made the pilgrimage too. But Christie managed to fly to Colorado and back undetected. The governor's public-relations staff provided a copy of Christie's daily schedule for June 26, which included his Meet The Press appearance, but nothing more. After we told his deputy press secretary that we wanted to talk about Christie's Colorado trip that day, nobody from his office would return our calls, despite multiple attempts.
The governor demurred, as usual, when Koch audience members called on him to join the 2012 race. But he did seem to be laying groundwork for a possible future presidential run. Koch seminars, after all, are loaded with the type of donors presidential candidates crave. And in his introduction, David Koch lauded Christie as a "true political hero."
"Five months ago we met in my New York City office and spoke, just the two of us, for about two hours on his objectives and successes in correcting many of the most serious problems of the New Jersey state government," Koch said. "At the end of our conversation, I said to myself, 'I'm really impressed and inspired by this man. He is my kind of guy.'"
Click icon to hear a portion of David Koch's introduction.
(Complete audio and transcript are available at TheBRAD BLOG.)
Koch went on to describe Christie as a "powerful voice for fiscal sanity in a state that has long been known for liberal politics, big-government policies, and its ever expanding public sector." He lauded the governor's "courage and leadership" in pushing through, days earlier, "a remarkable bill that reforms state employee health insurance and pension payments, bringing them more in line with the private sector"; the bill in question took away the right of public workers to collectively bargain for health benefits.
The crowd cheered loudly as Koch, whose estimated $22 billion personal fortune derives from his family's oil refinery empire, described Christie's unilateral withdrawal, on behalf of New Jersey, from a regional cap-and-trade market created by 10 northeastern states to curb industrial greenhouse gas emissions. (He neglected to mention that, in announcing the withdrawal in late May, Christie had acknowledged in no uncertain terms that climate change is real and that human activities contribute to it. "It's time to defer to the experts," he'd said.) There was an extended ovation when Koch, just before turning over the floor, expressed his hope of seeing Christie "on a larger stage where, God knows, he is desperately needed."
Christie wasted no time in serving up the red meat. "The opponents of what we want to try to maintain in our country are fighting harder than ever," he said.
He went on to mock President Obama's 2011 State of the Union Address, which he had watched with Andrew, his 17-year-old son. He and Andrew agreed, Christie said, that the president "had failed the fundamental test of leadership, which I believe is to tell the people who hired you the truth." He'd offered similar thoughts on Meet The Press that morning but amped up his rhetoric for the Koch crowd. On the show, he said the country had been "careening into an economic crisis." At the gathering, he declared that America was "careening towards insolvency."
It was time to tackle the "big things," he said, like "Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security systems, because they are bankrupting America." In New Jersey, the big things were to "return our budget to fiscal sanity by cutting spending and under no circumstances raising taxes"; "reform a pension and health benefit system" that was underfunded by $120 billion dollars and had New Jersey, too, "careening towards insolvency"; and "reform a broken K-12 education system…where the feelings of adults were given more respect than the needs of children."
Christie had offered similar thoughts in a February speech at the Koch-funded American Enterprise Institute in DC. But in Vail, he went further as he recalled discussing a fiscal 2009 budget shortfall with his aides shortly after taking office. He claimed to have told his aides, referring to the majority Democrats in the state Legislature:
Listen. We've got to fix this problem, but I do not want to deal with those people down the hall…
And so they told me, "If you declare a fiscal state of emergency, you can use your emergency powers as governor to impound $2.2 billion in planned spending and balance the budget. And you can do it by executive order." I said, "Man, I love this state!"
So, I went in my office, all by myself, and set up the executive order, and I signed it. But I thought it would be rude for me not to go down and tell that coequal branch of government what I had just done. [Scattered chuckles.] So I asked them for a joint session speech…I basically said this: "You left me with a $2.2 billion problem. You want me to raise taxes. I'm not going to. I just impounded the money by executive order. I fixed your problem. Thanks, have a nice day." And I walked out.
Click icon to hear Christie tell the story.
(Complete audio and transcript are available at TheBRAD BLOG.)
The money Christie impounded had been slated, among other things, for local school districts, hospitals, and the state's commuter-rail system, as well as colleges and universities.
Christie went on to detail his fight to close what he described as a $11 billion gap in the following year's $29 billion state budget:
[The Democrats] were gonna raise what, in New Jersey, we call "the Millionaires' Tax."…But the New Jersey "Millionaires' Tax" applies to anyone, individual or business, who makes over $400,000 a year. That's called New Jersey math. [Laughter.] And, what's great, I say to people all over the country: "If you're not a millionaire but you want to feel like one [More laughter], come to New Jersey! We'll tax you like a millionaire even if you're not one!"…
So what happened? They send me the tax, and that Senate president I told you about, Steve Sweeney, he walked it down to me, with the cameras following him.…And I looked at him and I said: "Steve, stand here for one second. This isn't gonna take long. Sit down." So he sat down; the cameras are all going, and I just sat down in a chair right down in the outer office and I took out this pen and I vetoed it, and I handed it right back to him. And I said, "Take this back where it came from, 'cause I ain't signing it." And that was it. That was the end of it. [Applause.]
In the end, Christie's budget, which he said the Democrats had initially viewed as "dead on arrival," was passed "with 99.8 percent of the line-items exactly as I had presented it to them in March.…And we balanced the budget without any new or increased taxes."
At this point, Christie promised to tell a "good" story about Sweeney, his Democratic partner/rival in the state Senate. It involved the state's recent overhaul of public employees' pensions and health benefits to close what Christie described as a $54 billion deficit in the fund. By day, he said, he would go "out on the stump and beat the bejeezus out of" Sweeney, a former union leader. Then they would negotiate privately in Christie's office "late in the afternoon or evening." According to Christie, Sweeney told him: "I'm going to be your partner on this. We're going to fix it. And we're going to fix it the right way."
The Assembly speaker, also a Democrat, got involved in the talks. "Most of the Democrats in the Legislature wanted to have nothing to do with this bill," Christie said. But "these two leaders stood firm." The Senate passed the bill 24-15, with 16 Republicans and only 8 Democrats voting aye. In the Assembly, Christie managed to bring all of the Republicans on board, and enough Dems to get it passed.
This "true bipartisan coming together," as Christie described the deal, would be short-lived. Just days after the Colorado shindig, the governor would again face off with legislators, this time over the fiscal 2012 budget. "I'm gonna get on a plane and go back to New Jersey and fight the next four days over the budget that we need to pass between now and June 30," he told the crowd. "They're proposing the Millionaires' Tax again. You know, I cannot believe how stupid these people are, I really can't. They keep…Like, you saw this movie last year! You know how it's gonna end!"
Indeed, just days after the Koch soiree, the Legislature delivered a prenegotiated budget to the governor. Christie—who, according to the Star-Ledger, had promised to work out last-minute details with Sweeney—instead used his line-item veto to make what Sweeney called vindictive cuts targeting people and institutions who had sided against the governor during the negotiations.
In one instance, Christie cut a fellowship program run by a Rutgers University professor who had served as a referee in the state's contentious redistricting fight. He also "mowed down a series of Democratic add-ons, including $45 million in tax credits for the working poor, $9 million in health care for the working poor, $8 million for women's health care, another $8 million in AIDS funding and $9 million in mental-health services," wrote Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran. "But the governor added $150 million in school aid for the suburbs, including the wealthiest towns in the state. That is enough to restore all the cuts just listed."
In response, Sweeney went nuclear on Christie, claiming he "wanted to punch him in his head" and comparing the governor to "Mr. Potter from 'It's a Wonderful Life,' the mean old bastard who screws everybody," according to the paper. "Don't be vindictive and punish innocent people," he ranted. "These people didn't do anything to him. It's like a bank robber taking hostages. And now he's starting to shoot people." For good measure he called Christie "a cruel man," "mean-spirited," and "a rotten prick."
At the Koch gathering, Christie preached an inspirational tone. "Everybody who's here for this weekend is here because they know that the opportunity that was presented to us as Americans is one of the most special gifts that will ever, ever be given," he said. "We want that same thing for our children and for our grandchildren," he added. "And we're here because we know that it is no longer a sure thing if it ever was.…In fact, under this administration, it is at greater risk than it has been in my lifetime."
During the Q&A, one of the questioners wondered what Christie had learned in New Jersey that might be applied to the nation. His answer was direct: "This is not hard. We spend too much. We borrow too much. We tax too much. It is time to turn those three things around."
"Now, pain will be inflicted when we change that," he went on. "People are going to do with less. People who are used to having entitlement at a certain level will not have them at that level anymore. That's the story." Christie cited Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's "courageous" and "thoughtful plan" to "fix those systems" by replacing Medicare with a voucher program.
Just before the Kochs' guests retired to sip complimentary after-dinner cordials and plot Obama's downfall at the resort's Buffalo Bar, Christie delivered this closer: "Please, if you leave with just one message from me, if only one message sticks: This is a huge moment of crisis and opportunity for our country. All of you are the people who are going to lead us back to American greatness. If you care enough to do it."
From the sound of the ovation, the Koch brothers' patrons cared plenty.