Make public workers pay much more for pension and health benefits and persuade leaders of the union-friendly Democratic Party to go along with it. Do it with legislation, not at the bargaining table. In New Jersey no less.
Christie insiders say they decided the battle would be won with a multi-pronged attack — and that the governor’s closest advisers, a group known as “the triumvirate,” would play the most important roles.
While the governor spent months publicly beating up the Legislature, the triumvirate worked the back channels.
Richard Bagger, his chief of staff, crafted the policy. Jeff Chiesa, the governor’s counsel, drafted the legislation and explored any possible legal challenges. Kevin O’Dowd, his point man with the Legislature, spent months trying to win over key lawmakers.
The successful orchestration of the benefits battle shows how Christie’s team of insiders — considered the most disciplined and tightly controlled in recent Statehouse history — helps him get what he wants from a Legislature run by the other party.
“It’s an extremely tight ship,” said Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a former governor who has been at the Statehouse for nearly four decades. “The tightest that I can remember. No question about it.”
Christie, who has made his brand as someone who sticks to his decisions and refuses to compromise, relies on a fiercely loyal cadre of confidants who aren’t afraid to tell him what they think behind closed doors.
At the same time, they live by a Christie credo: Whatever you say in the backroom stays in the backroom.
“He engages the whole team where we can have the open discussion and debate to bring out all the different aspects of an issue leading up to making a decision,” Bagger said in an interview with The Star-Ledger. “He expects people to say what they feel, to disagree with each other. It’s not uncommon for him to go around the table and ask for everyone’s view.”Maria Comella, Christie’s communications director, said the governor “encourages healthy discussion,” adding that his advisers are “a group of individuals who feel the best place to have our conversations is in our office and not in the press.”
Insiders say there is no doubt Christie is in charge, but his staff plays a large behind-the-scenes role in shaping what he does. Like the management style he used as U.S. attorney, Christie allows debate, takes insiders’ opinions seriously — then makes the final decision.
“It’s not singular voice, ‘My way or the highway,’ ” Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said in an interview last month. “It’s singular voice in that, we all come to the table and discuss policy. The governor makes the call and then we implement the policy.”
For example, in the weeks before Christie’s announcement that he would withdraw the state from a regional pollution control program, Board of Public Utilities President Lee Solomon and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Martin disagreed on the role global warming should play in policy decisions.
But on the day of the announcement, both Solomon and Martin flanked the governor as he announced his decision.
While they can disagree in private, those who don’t maintain such a united front face consequences, even if they are cabinet stars.
Former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler was fired after he openly disagreed with the governor during last year’s failed attempt to get federal Race to the Top money. The quick ouster sent a message to the rest of the cabinet, said Michael Murphy, a Democratic lobbyist who once ran for governor.
“The people closest to him help write the songbook,” Murphy said. “If you’re not on the same page, if you’re not in the same songbook as the governor, it’s not going to be well-received.”
Christie, who keeps a full public schedule and travels out of state frequently, depends on his key staff members to keep government running.
The governor jokes it’s Chiesa, his chief counsel, who decides which bills he will sign. Meticulous by nature and described as someone who works “below the radar,” Chiesa, 45, led the Public Protection unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and oversaw the prosecution of politicians. He has worked with Christie for 18 years, and has the governor’s ear more than anyone in the office.
O’Dowd, 38, is in charge of dealing with the Legislature. He served as chief of the Securities and Healthcare Fraud unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and has a close personal bond with the governor. Christie recently named O’Dowd’s wife, Mary, as health commissioner.Legislative staffers describe O’Dowd as straight-forward, affable and the kind of person who can take a joke. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said O’Dowd is accessible and easy to get along with. Chiesa and O’Dowd interact with lawmakers the most, said Codey.
Bagger, 51, a former state lawmaker and the most political of the three, oversees the day-to-day operations of government, a role insiders say the governor doesn’t particularly enjoy. Bagger relishes in the policy, and his personal views on government are most closely aligned with Christie’s.
Bagger said when tackling the “big things” in the governor’s agenda, every staffer is involved in reaching the goal.
“Everybody pulls together to a degree that I haven’t seen fairly often in my prior experiences,” he said. “It’s a group of people who enjoy each other’s company. It’s fairly helpful in a high-intensity job.”
Harold Hodes, a lobbyist who served as former Gov. Brendan Byrne’s chief of staff and has been part of the inner workings of New Jersey government for more than two decades, said anyone wanting Christie’s attention must reach out to the triumvirate. “Everyone knows that the final decisions are going to occur within those … individuals,” he said. “You have to cover your bases there, and that’s clear.”
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) said while this is one of the most efficient administrations he’s ever seen, Christie is also the only governor he’s worked with who doesn’t give staff the liberty to make decisions.
On more than one occasion, Lesniak said staffers have indicated he and Christie were on the same page, only to learn otherwise once they checked with the governor.
“I find that troubling because you can have the rug pulled out from under you at the last minute,” Lesniak said. “With all of the previous administrations, you could rely on their chief of staff or their general counsel to be speaking for the governor when they speak.”
Christie’s team includes a large contingent from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including Michele Brown, who handles all of the governor’s appointments, and Deborah Gramiccioni, who combs through the minutes of the state’s boards and commissions looking for wasteful spending.
There are seasoned state government veterans such as Wayne Hasenbalg, who oversees policy decisions, and Lou Goetting, who balances budget negotiations. And a handful have political backgrounds, like Comella, who worked on Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid and for Sarah Palin in 2008, and Bill Stepien, who ran the governor’s 2009 campaign and now works on strategy.
Guadagno, herself a former prosecutor, said the team works seamlessly together but noted their legal backgrounds can fuel some heated debates.
“You can imagine how fun that seat (at the table) is with all those federal prosecutors sitting at it,” Guadagno joked.
But Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) said advocates supporting more sensitive subjects, like medical marijuana, can’t get face time with the advisers who sit at the governor’s table. Advocates for other causes privately confirm this.
“A lot of people in the front office have no prior government experience so they don’t tend to think of the Legislature as a co-equal branch,” Gusciora said. “Advocates have complained that they had no access.”
Christie’s circle of insiders extends beyond Trenton. He also keeps in regular contact with a pair of keen political strategists: William Palatucci and Mike DuHaime. Together, they help hone the governor’s national image as he continues to be a Republican Party star.
When Christie went to speak at Harvard University about education in April, Palatucci was watching from the back row of the auditorium. When the speech was over, the two went to a Boston Harbor hotel for a fundraiser orchestrated by Palatucci.
Republicans and Democrats who know Christie, however, say he has his own sharp sense of politics.
“He is the most impressive political strategist we’ve ever had sitting in the governor’s chair,” said Murphy.