Benjamin Franklin once noted that New Jersey was a keg tapped at both ends. He expressed the common wisdom that the state would always be an extension of the two major cities that bordered it – Philadelphia and New York. Despite his genius in reframing the local and regional identities of the states into a national idea of American citizenship, Franklin could have never imagined the cultural impact of the industrial revolution and its ripples in metropolitan suburbanization. No recent national political figure better represents these tensions and transitions than current New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.
Christie surged into office in 2009 by capitalizing on the perceived weaknesses of then-Governor Jon Corzine who had lost the public trust after an accident speeding on the Garden State Parkway. Corzine, and the Democrats generally, had become synonymous with the dozens of small, urban municipalities of northern New Jersey. In the wake of the shattering scandals of Democrat Jim McGreevey, Christie tapped into the public desire for a no-nonsense leadership style. His conservative principles were less important than his bellicose rhetoric that combined elements of Tony Soprano and Eric Cartman.
Governor Christie’s coalition relied on the resentment of a range of southern New Jersey constituents and politicians. These hard feelings stretch back decades, especially surrounding the decline of regional urban centers like Atlantic City and Camden. While the expansive munificence of New York City fueled demographic and economic expansion in places like Paterson, Jersey City, and Montclair, Cherry Hill, Deptford, and Toms River relied on private financing related to the mortgage interest tax credit to create massive suburban enclaves unrelated to Philadelphia. The fragmentation of municipalities against each other on issues from school districts to law enforcement multiplied local tax burdens, even as thousands of families flooded into neighborhoods built around cul-de-sacs. Divisive rage manifested in a candidate who promised to lower taxes and produce jobs by breaking the public employees’ unions across the state.
The unspoken hearts of the Governor’s electoral success are the bursting counties at the heart of the state – Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean. These locations have defined the character of the suburbs nationwide in feature films like “Dogma” and “Chasing Amy.” Tea Party organizations have deep roots that stretch back to the rural Democrats that held Ku Klux Klan meetings in places like Howell, Manalapan, and Colts Neck. Governor Christie’s implicit appeal to states’ rights, despite aggressively applying executive authority in patterns that have yielded allegations of abuse in BridgeGate and the Sandy funding scandal, mobilized many white-collar professional husbands and their suburban, soccer wives to sustain his two successful campaigns. They became the tip of his spear, giving voice to the rage in southern and central New Jersey against the urban Democrats of northern New Jersey and their allies in various labor unions.
Unlike the Obama coalition that relied on hope as the galvanizing force to confront the politics of fear that followed the federal response to the 9/11 attacks, the Christie campaign deftly tapped that vein of terror twice. First, Governor Christie turned it into rage for communities like Middletown that suffered horrific losses on September 11, 2001 and wanted their voices to become deciding factors in homeland security discussions across the state. Second, the destruction visited on shore towns like Deal, Sea Bright, and Long Branch during Superstorm Sandy presented a new range of fears that invited the campaign promises of a “Jersey Strong” recovery. Under the cover of achieving results aggressively, Governor Christie hoped the public would turn a blind eye to the specifics of his governance.
The depth and breadth of the investigations he now faces have ended that possibility. Even the future of the rural-suburban coalition he built on generations of rage and fear is in jeopardy.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Executive Director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).