Just How Nice Do We Want Chris Christie To Be?

The latest “bullying” story about Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) involves Carl Lewis, a nine-time Olympic Gold Medal winner and would-be Democratic candidate for a New Jersey State Senate seat in 2011.

Lewis told Yahoo! Sports that Christie tried to talk him out of running. “I’m going to come after you,” Lewis says Christie told him. He also says the governor cancelled plans to appoint him as New Jersey’s “physical fitness ambassador” because of his planned run.

In 2011, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak denied the governor had tried to push Lewis out of the race. Ultimately, Lewis dropped his run amid a challenge over whether he met the four-year residency requirement to run.

Let’s say Lewis’s allegations are all true. So what?

Isn’t it perfectly ordinary and appropriate for a governor to (1) discourage high-profile candidates from seeking office on an opposing party line, (2) warn that he will work to defeat those candidates and (3) withhold honorary titles from opposing party candidates? There are certain matters governors shouldn’t politicize, but legislative elections aren’t on that list.

For the last four years, a lot of political observers (including many Democrats and an adoring media) have praised Christie for “bringing people together” and “getting things done.” What, exactly, do they think that process has entailed?

Coalition-building is partly about choosing popular policy stances and listening to diverse constituency groups, and Christie has (mostly) done well at those things. But it’s also about making people feel they will be better off standing with you than against you. It’s about having conversations exactly like the one Lewis says happened: If you run against my ally, I won’t make you a fitness ambassador.

For four years, Christie’s administration has used a variety of sticks and carrots to keep both Republicans and Democrats in line. Through this process he’s built a remarkably strong working relationship with the Democrats who hold a majority in his state legislature. Arguably too strong — one reason Christie is reputed to have sought the ouster of Tom Kean (R) as Senate Minority Leader is that Kean violated an electoral non-aggression pact Christie had with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D).

It’s now clear that the sticks and carrots have gotten out of hand. Closing local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge was an egregious and stupid abuse of power. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (D) has also made troubling allegations about Hurricane Sandy relief funds, though at present I’m sceptical the city would have gotten more funding absent any beef between Zimmer and Christie.

But some other Christie actions that show up in discussions of his heavy-handedness (like elbowing Lewis out of a State Senate race, or disinviting then-state Sen. Sean Kean from a campaign rally) are ordinary and acceptable politics. And some, like allegedly getting Port Authority commissioners to cancel a raft of meetings with the Mayor of Jersey City, fall somewhere in between.

So Christie’s administration should be somewhat less ruthless and punitive, such that it doesn’t repeat incidents like Bridgegate. But how much less ruthless and punitive? How many of the sticks and carrots should the governor put away?

To find an example of a government where low-level lawmakers aren’t pushed around through non-ideological punishment-and-reward politics, you only have to look to Washington — where President Barack Obama lacks much power to punish disfavored legislators in either party, and the end of earmarks has greatly reduced leadership’s ability to buy votes from rank-and-file members.

This dynamic has in fact made members of Congress more ideological and less money-grubbing. It has also led to a semi-permanent economic policy crisis, as legislators are left with little reason to enter into bipartisan compromises.

I’ve seen a lot of “shocked, shocked” interviews with New Jersey politicians over the last few weeks, in which they are stunned to discover that political support for the governor might influence where a DMV office gets located or whose calls get returned. But those rewards and punishments are tools a smart executive uses to build legislative coalitions, pass budgets and policy reforms, and keep the state running smoothly. They are how Republicans and Democrats can work together effectively.

New Jersey residents shouldn’t want a governor whose staff causes traffic jams on purpose. But they shouldn’t want a governor who doesn’t try to instill favour in his allies and fear in his opponents — unless they want an end to bipartisanship.

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