As Atlantic City falls, Christie returns to New Jersey scrum

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — With Gov. Chris Christie back full time in New Jersey, the political gamesmanship between him and Democrats around the state is heating up. He's tussled over charter schools with the mayor of the state's largest city, while the mayor of its second largest city launched a website calling for him to resign because of his support for Donald Trump.

But it's a fight with a fellow Republican causing Christie the most immediate concern.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian warned this week that the resort town's collapsing finances will force a weekslong shutdown of nonessential government services next month if it doesn't get state aid. Christie demands that a takeover measure already passed by New Jersey's upper house be approved by the Assembly.

"They are unwilling and incapable of fixing the problem," Christie said this week. "I am no longer going to allow the taxpayers of New Jersey to be responsible."

Atlantic City's tax revenues have plunged as a result of the steep decline of the casino industry over the last decade, including the closing of four of 12 gambling halls, leaving a large hole in the municipal budget. A key sticking point in the takeover plan is whether the state should be able to tear up the city's contracts with its municipal unions.

Since ending his Republican presidential bid last month, Christie is once again making appearances to push his agenda and taking questions from the state's press corps. His return has also meant an increase in sniping from Democratic politicians who watched him fail and are now jockeying to replace him in 2017.

Seven newspapers and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop called for him to resign because of trips out of state to campaign for Trump. He was slammed by the state trooper's union for campaigning for Trump instead of attending a trooper's funeral.

He has also mixed it up with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka over charter school expansion. Responding to Christie's comment that the state will "run over" Baraka to open more charters, Baraka shot back with a reference to the bridge lane closure case that enveloped Christie's administration.

"This is Newark, not Fort Lee. You can't just stop traffic here without repercussions," Baraka said.

Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said she thinks Christie has handled the controversies well. But she said the reality of Christie going from a Republican presidential favorite to dropping out after New Hampshire has created a new dynamic in New Jersey.

"The reality is three years ago now, these kinds of actions would have been unheard of," Harrison said. "I think clearly he doesn't have the clout that he once has. And people know that so they can treat him that way."

The sniping has once again cast a light on the outsized role Christie plays in New Jersey politics. But it's the crisis in Atlantic City that is most pressing, and puts him in the middle of a fight between the state's top two Democrats and a fellow Republican.

Guardian says the shutdown can be avoided if the state comes through with aid. But Christie says the state Assembly needs to get behind a pair of measures already passed in the Senate that would strip Atlantic City of most of its power and would give the state the right to break contracts, dissolve agencies and sell off city assets and land. A separate measure would let the casinos make payments in lieu of taxes in return for not filing tax appeals with the city.

Christie appeared with Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney and Guardian to announce the plan last month, but Guardian's tentative support quickly disappeared. Guardian and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat, say the takeover bill goes too far in wresting control from city officials.

"They seem to think that playing public sector union politics will change my mind," Christie said Thursday on WPGG-AM. The state needs "authority to be able to balance the budget and make Atlantic City fiscally responsible. I'm not going to do this with one hand behind my back. ... They should not play chicken or test me.

"In this end, this isn't about personal rivalries. It's about getting the job done in the right way."