A Tale of Two Governors

It was quite a week for governors on both sides of the Hudson.

First, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo achieved one of his most important goals when the New York Legislature mustered the votes needed to approve a same-sex marriage bill, which he promptly signed into law. Less than seven days later, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie scored a major victory of his own when the New Jersey Legislature passed a landmark measure reforming the state’s public pension and benefit system, which he signed promptly into law.

Cuomo and Christie are different governors from different states and different parties, and the goals they achieved this past week addressed vastly different issues. Still, there are a few similarities in the circumstances surrounding each governor’s success.

Both bills passed after hard-fought battles; both issues had been priorities for the two governors, and previous attempts to legalize same sex marriage in New York and to significantly reform public pensions and benefits in New Jersey had failed.

As with any major initiative, several factors were responsible for the successes Cuomo and Christie achieved last week. These include their strong personalities, changing attitudes on social issues, and the current fiscal crunch which is forcing cuts in government services and programs.

But for two governors who have prided themselves on changing the status quo in their respective states, it was old fashioned politics – money and power – that played a critical role in getting the job done.

As New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro explained in his account of the strategy behind Cuomo’s success with the same sex marriage bill, the New York Governor’s work with “a group of super-rich Republican donors” helped deliver the votes needed to pass the measure. According to Barbaro, the GOP donors “had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure” and ultimately provided $1 million to a lobbying campaign in support of the bill.

In New Jersey, an alliance between the Governor and powerbrokers from the opposing political party also proved critical in getting pension and benefit reform through the Legislature.

Republican lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, but since Democrats hold majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, the measure would not have passed without support from a handful of Democrats. By and large, the Democrats who supported the bill are closely aligned with Steve Adubato Sr., a powerful North Jersey Democratic leader, and George Norcross, who wields substantial power and influence in South Jersey Democratic circles. As The Record’s Charles Stile wrote in a column about the pension bill, Christie has “carefully cultivated” Adubato and Norcross, turning them into “de facto get-out-the-vote ward leaders for the Republican governor’s agenda.”

Additional evidence of the unusual dynamics between the Republican governor and Democratic powerbrokers was on display later in the week when the state Senate failed to provide ample votes to block Christie’s proposal to transfer operation on New Jersey Network (NJN) to WNET. Republicans sided with the Governor and voted against blocking the plan, but again a few Democratic votes were needed, and again they came from a familiar group of lawmakers. “On the public employee benefits and public television votes this past week, just about all of the Democratic defections can be linked to the Norcross and Adubato camps,” Salon news editor Steve Kornacki wrote after the NJN vote took place.

The whirlwind pace of politics, which last week produced historic action in New York and New Jersey, is about to slow down for the summer. It will be an opportune time for Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie to revel in the success of some major achievements in their relatively brief gubernatorial careers. But one of the ironic side effects of their successes has been to make the political bosses in their states even more powerful.

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