Chris Christie fell off a chair. The footage of incident surfaced on February 1 in a clip posted on Vine. The New Jersey governor confidently walks into a Philadelphia radio station, headphones in hand, and approaches the chair. “It’s great to have you with us today!” the host beams. Christie places a hand on the back of the chair and begins to sit down. “I’m—WHOA!” He falls right on his ass.
The entirety of February has been a lot like that for Christie. Bad press, more bad press, the loss of donors, and some more bad press. And things only got worse on Monday, when a judge ruled that by refusing to fully fund the state’s public employee pension system in 2014, Christie broke the law. The judge demanded the governor find a way to come up with $1.57 billion to complete the payment—something of a challenge, considering the state is not exactly rolling in it.
“Once again liberal judicial activism rears its head, with the court trying to replace its own judgment for the judgment of the people who were elected to make these decisions,” Kevin Roberts, Christie’s spokesman, said of the decision.
The timing of the news couldn’t have been worse. On Tuesday, Christie made a big trip to Trenton—an increasingly rare occurrence as he travels the country to attend to his duties previously as RGA chairman and now as a would-be nominee—for his budget address. “I know we can get this done,” he said of pension reforms. “We have proven time and again that even when we look like we’re not going to make it work and that politicos and partisan interests have won, we flip the script. We do it differently. We get it done.”
It was more a plea than a declaration of confidence.
Christie’s central achievement as governor was supposed to be a complete overhaul of the broken and bloated pension system—close to $50 billion short of funds—which had evaded government intervention for decades. He got elected partially on his promise to wake that sleeping dog, and from his first year in office on, he made efforts to “flip the script.”
He proposed doing away with cost-of-living increases and required public employees to pay more toward their pensions. While the reforms had support among both parties (New Jersey being a Democrat-controlled state where politics are transactional, that is not exactly the soaring achievement in traditional bipartisanship he has claimed) unions were furious. Christie didn’t care. Being the unions’ public enemy No. 1 was, in fact, a merit badge for him as he rose to national prominence as a no-bullshit conservative. When they complained, he responded, “Sue me.”
But in May 2014, the governor got some unexpected bad news: The state’s revenue shortfall was close to $900 million. To close the gap, Christie decided to pay just $695 million of the promised $1.58 billion to the pension system. Critics said the decision was about his future political ambitions—he would rather walk back a promise than raise taxes.
The unions sued him.
In his Tuesday budget speech, Christie did not address the judge’s decision on the alleged illegality of his partial pension payment. Instead, he touted a deal with the New Jersey Education Association to a “groundbreaking roadmap for reform…to work towards solutions on these issues moving forward.”
But ahead of the speech, the NJEA said the roadmap was not the deal Christie was trying to make it out to be. “The intricacies of pension reform policy have not been agreed to,” Edward Richardson, the group’s executive director, told NJ.com’s Matt Arco. “But we want to continue working on it.”
Without pension reform, Christie doesn’t have much of a record to show off in a Republican primary. His state’s economy is wheezing, Atlantic City is on the brink of death, and both residents and businesses are fleeing to other states.
Last Thursday Christie said, in a Washington speech, “New Jersey is hard, but it’s worth it.” He may see things a bit differently when he has to explain his own track record on the campaign trail.