Richard A. Lee

Richard A. Lee, Director of Communications for the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey, has 30 years of professional experience in journalism and public relations. At the Hall Institute, he is responsible for media relations and all promotional and marketing activities. He also conducts research and writes papers for the institute, focusing on media, government and politics.

Having been in the room eight years ago when the State House Press Corps staged a mini-revolt in reaction to the McGreevey Administration’s attempt to set a new set of ground rules for a press briefing on the state’s fiscal condition, I must admit I was mildly amused to learn that history seems to have repeated itself in the early days of the Christie Administration.

Back in 2002, reporters walked out of a budget briefing when they were told they could not tape record the session nor could they quote by name the officials who would be outlining the issue and answering questions.

Fast forward to 2010 and the special address on the state’s budget crisis that Governor Christie delivered to the Legislature last week. According to Sunday’s Star-Ledger, the Governor’s staffers insisted that reporters refrain from using tape recorders and from quoting those conducting the briefing by name. The ground rules didn’t sit any better with the press corps this time around, but apparently a compromise of sorts was reached. Reporters were allowed to record the session, but still could not identify the officials giving the briefing.

What makes this case of déjà vu all the more intriguing is that Christie and McGreevey are on opposite ends of the political world – and that this is not an isolated similarity.

Shortly after he was elected in November, Christie tapped David Samson to head his transition committee — the same David Samson whom McGreevey chose as his Attorney General eight years earlier.

Then, Christie added Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac to the transition team. McCormac served as State Treasurer while McGreevey was Governor and as the Chief Financial Officer in Woodbridge for the 10 years McGreevey was the township’s Mayor.

It’s not hard to see why Christie would reach out to individuals such as Samson and McCormac. Both are well-respected and highly regarded by members of both political parties.

One can make a similar argument for Glenn Reith, who was first appointed Adjutant General of New Jersey by McGreevey and will continue to serve in that role under Christie.

Even some of Christie’s new cabinet members have ties to the McGreevey Administration. The new Governor’s first cabinet announcement was his choice of Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow as Attorney General. Dow was appointed to her county post by McGreevey in 2003.

Likewise, Christie’s choice for Community Affairs Commissioner is Lori Grifa. Grifa was Samson’s chief of staff while he served as Attorney General under McGreevey.

Aside from the people who share connections with the two Governors, I also noticed a similarity in their inaugural addresses. In their remarks after taking the oath of office, both reflected on Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 visit to New Jersey and the inspiration that his words provided at a time when the nation was “on the verge of rupture (Christie 2010)” and/or “on the verge of its greatest crisis (McGreevey 2002).”

But there is a more serious side to all of this too.

When Christie addressed the Legislature on the current budget crisis, he attributed much of the problem to tax revenue projections that turned out to be far less than anticipated. “With spiraling unemployment heading over 10 percent, with a financial system in crisis and with consumers petrified to spend, only Trenton treasury officials could certify that kind of growth,” he said.

His point is well-taken. Perhaps that is why McGreevey made a similar argument after he took office and – like Christie – had to address an immediate shortfall in the budget he inherited from his predecessor.

The numbers were not as large in 2002, but the argument was the same. As Anthony Coscia, an advisor to then-new Governor, said at the time: “The budget calls for a 7 percent increase across the board in revenues. Last spring, virtually everyone knew there was economy weakness, and all of the economists who had analyzed where the state’s position was at that point disputed the notion that a 7 percent increase in revenue was realistic.”

Faced with a large budget shortfall in the state budget he inherited, McGreevey called the Legislature into special session and outlined a plan to address the problem on February 11, 2002. Eight years later to the day, Christie took a similar path and addressed the Legislature in a special joint session.

Besides making for some interesting trivia, there is a lesson to be learned from some of the similarities in the early days of the administrations of two New Jersey Governors separated by a number of years in time and an even larger span in ideologies.

On the national, state and local levels, officials often come into power promising change. But even when it is desperately needed, change is difficult to attain – especially when it is unpopular and opposed by powerful, influential forces. The Christie Administration is still in its infancy, but ultimately our new Governor will be judged on whether he can successfully deliver the change that eluded his predecessors.