An embattled Christie finds common cause in battling drug addiction
TRENTON — In the last 17 days, Gov. Chris Christie has listed just five public events on his official schedules – all having to do with addiction-related issues, including a battery-powered candlelight vigil Wednesday evening outside the Statehouse .
The topic has been a recurring priority over Christie’s seven years as governor but in recent weeks has also represented a safe haven for a chief executive with toxic approval ratings and saddled by setbacks in the Legislature on priorities such as allowing a book deal and removing legal ads from newspapers.
“Just to let you all know that even though we stand on the steps of a place where government and politics happens every day, that there is no politics in this cause,” Christie said.
“The reason for the candles tonight is not just to honor those souls that have been extinguished but is to put a bright enough light in our capital city so that people can walk towards that light of hope,” he said.
Christie was called a hero by one speaker and was showered by some thank-you shouts after his remarks to a few hundred people.
Former Gov. James E. McGreevey, who works with a prisoner re-entry program and often teams with Christie at addiction-focused events, said the issue will be one of Christie’s top legacies.
“Gov. Christie … has done more through legislation, more through his leadership to address the tragedy and the pain and the suffering of addiction than any governor in the history of this state,” McGreevey said.
“I think the governor will be remembered, particularly by those whose lives he has transformed, for his successes and for his diligence and for the services that he has provided,” he said.
James Parauda, executive director of the New Jersey Care Management Organization (CMO) Coalition, said Christie’s creation a few years ago of a task force to study addiction services showed he’s committed to the issue.
“I think the concern is just that funding,” Parauda said. “I think they’ve done a great job on the awareness of it, and also moving to treatment services as opposed to locking people up though the Drug Court has been great. We’d also like to see some of the funding for the children’s services.”
“The recommendations from the task force certainly would help," said Parauda, executive director of the Tri-County CMO in Branchburg. "Putting together the task force was a great thing. Now they kind of need to take the next step to find out what recommendations come from the task force and support those as well.”
Parauda expects to see a sustained focus on addiction issues from Christie in his last year as governor.
“Absolutely. I think he’s made a continued stance for supporting addictions, and I certainly would like to think that he’s going to want to go out on a strong note.”
Christie will lay out his final-year agenda in the State of the State address on Jan. 10, when he’ll outline if he’ll continue to emphasize his school-aid “fairness formula,” prioritize his recent push to allow governments to self-publish legal notices or shift to more popular, fence-mending, legacy-burnishing efforts.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the next steps are up to Christie but that he hasn’t closed the door on cooperating with him.
“It depends. Look, it always depends on what the issues are. It really depends on how passionate or how important the issues are,” Sweeney said. “There’s a lot of issues the state needs to still address.”
“People say: ‘Well, you know, he’s a weakened governor. He’s this, he’s that.’ He’s still the governor, with the strongest powers of any governor in the United States of America,” Sweeney said. “So you can decide you want to try to accomplish some things, or you’re just going to fight for a year.”
One of Christie’s go-to topics for the past year has been school funding, with the governor pitching a plan to give schools equal amounts of aid for every child, regardless of the districts’ socioeconomic conditions. Right now, poorer areas get more money.
Sweeney said that proposal stalled because he opposed the plan, not because Christie is unpopular.
“School funding for me is a big issue. His school funding plan that he put out I thought was horrible. We were never going to put it up,” Sweeney said. “So it’s just a matter of what he wants to address going forward.”
Christie will take questions on New Jersey 101.5's "Ask the Governor" 7 p.m., Thursday.
Photos and video courtesy Brian McCarthy