New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is fond of saying that his preferred method of dealing with bullies is to “punch them in the face”. It is the sort of “tough guy” talk that has served him up to this point of his political career and which used to earn him legions of fans who delighted in his outbursts of temper aimed at critics. On Sunday of this week, he appeared on Jake Tapper’s “State of the Union” show on CNN, and when the host asked him “At the national level, who deserves a punch in the face?” he did not hesitate for a moment before saying “The national teachers’ union.”
(Mr. Tapper followed up this statement by a really hard hitting question asking Governor Christie why he was now saying his favorite New Jersey Musician is Jon Bon Jovi over Bruce Springsteen.)
So there you are — the very first people or entity that Governor Chris Christie thinks of when he contemplates a national level “punch in the face” are teachers and the union made up of millions of them. Not the near historically ineffective legislative branch. Not K Street’s infamous lobbying industry where former law makers go to get rich. Not even the national press, attacks against whom have been red meat for conservative voters for decades. The “national teachers’ union” which Chris Christie calls “the single most destructive force in public education in America.”
Observers of Governor Christie are hardly surprised by this as the governor, in his words, has been “saying this since 2009” when he sought the Governor’s office in New Jersey, and he has not let up his assault on the Garden State’s teachers since then. In a New Hampshire Town Hall in June, Governor Christie gave a laugh line where he said that our national education system was a threat to the country equal to ISIS, and he went on to insult the work of the teachers he just compared to a fanatical terrorist organization:
“It’s the same as it was in the 1800s, for God’s sake. It’s a row of desks. Facing forward to a blackboard or a whiteboard. A person standing in the front of the room talking to the people in the desks. And they do so from roughly 8:30 to roughly 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and they’re off four months a year…We don’t have it (a longer school year) because the teachers’ union likes to be off 4 to 5 months a year. They like to get a full time salary for a part time job.”
Governor Christie may have tried to give himself wiggle room by saying “teachers union,” but there is no doubt that he meant “teachers” – who make up the union membership, elect the union leaders, and about whose work he offered the most foul and disrespectful caricature this side of Bart Simpson’s relationship with Mrs. Krabappel. Chris Christie has zero respect for teachers whose work he thinks consists of talking at students for 6 hours a day and lazing around for a quarter of the year with nothing to do.
New Jersey teacher and researcher Mark Weber offers this definitive catalog of how often Governor Christie has used his office to denigrate teachers. Amidst the outrageous accusations, such as saying teachers used students as “drug mules” for a social studies assignment, an interesting pattern stands out that also explains why the governor feels the need so often to punch people who offer public criticism. Namely, famous “tough guy” who is always “telling it like it is” can dish out the punches, but he certainly cannot take them. Consider Governor Christie’s assertion that the New Jersey Education Association said that he “hates children and loves millionaires.” This was obviously in reference to a billboard campaign urging people to “Tell Governor Christie to protect our schools; not millionaires.” Direct, but hardly an accusation that he hates children. Further consider Weber’s documentation of Governor Christie claiming that NJEA officials prayed for his death when the “prayer” in question was a moderately tasteless joke.
More recently, Governor Christie has demanded that union leaders and rank and file “get realistic” over New Jersey’s ability to keep its pension system afloat, and accused those calling for him to abide by the 2011 pension reform plan that he himself championed – and then abjectly refused to fund – of “gluttony.” This is an astonishing effort to portray himself as the victim in the pension fight when he won the legislative fix he sought, refused to make the promised payments into the pension system, simultaneously gave management of huge portions of it to hedge funds that increased the state’s management payments to over $1.6 million a day, and is now crying poverty when unions and law makers demand that he keep his promises.
At the heart of Chris Christie’s most bellicose moments — with teachers and with others — is this same pattern: outrage at being challenged, portrayal of himself as the victim of others’ attacks, and using anger and energy to hide the fact that he has no real answer for the challenge presented. Even while asserting that as President the first people to get a “punch in the face” will be unionized teachers, he claims that he has “got the scars to show” that the unions are “the single most destructive force in public education.”
Any scars Governor Christie has are, in fact, self inflicted. Pushing through and touting a pension reform plan that the NJEA accepted without threats of labor actions but then saw the Governor refuse to fund? Self inflicted. Repeated encounters with professional teachers that show just how much Governor Christie enjoys punching down on those far less powerful than he is? Self inflicted. Pandering to primary voters at the expense of every school in the state that has been working overtime to keep up with the pace of reform demands in Trenton? Self inflicted.
Who has the real scars in New Jersey? Teachers trying to work in schools that remain underfunded, and who are subject to performance evaluations based on ill thought out and invalid methods. Students whose educations are being distorted by a confusing and punishing system of high stakes evaluations that incentivize teachers and school districts to teach to the test. Families, and indeed entire cities, subjected to poorly and callously planned school “choice” plans that separate siblings and unleash chaos on schools without sufficient benefits.
That Governor Christie continues to portray himself as a “victim” in a drama where he is the main antagonist is no longer surprising. What is hopeful is how few people seem to be buying it either in New Jersey or nationally.