Christie Failed to Pin Shutdown on Assembly Speaker

By Kate King Features Dow Jones Newswires

In the days before he was photographed on Sunday sitting on the sand of an otherwise empty New Jersey beach, Gov. Chris Christie had hoped another state official be blamed for the closure of state government.

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"This Facility is CLOSED Because of this Man," read fliers posted on New Jersey government buildings and at the entrances to state parks last weekend after a budget impasse between the governor and Democratic lawmakers prompted a shutdown of nonessential state services. The fliers, approved by Mr. Christie and paid for with government funds, displayed the photograph and phone number of the governor's chief adversary in the dispute: Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

From the beginning of the budget battle, Mr. Christie sought to cast Mr. Prieto, the mild-mannered and mustachioed Democratic leader of the Legislature's lower chamber, as responsible for the government shutdown. "All he's done is pout the last 48 hours. And sweat," Mr. Christie said Sunday at a news conference in Trenton, referring to Mr. Prieto's perspiration during a recent television interview.

In the end it was Mr. Christie who faced the most criticism after the Star-Ledger newspaper photographed him with family and friends on the beach at a state park that was closed to the public during the shutdown. Mr. Christie said he was on the beach for less than an hour and wouldn't apologize for spending time with his family.

The photo was picked up by national news outlets and mocked in memes on social media, with New Jersey-based public relations executive Karen Kessler saying the image "shifted the sands for Prieto, and suddenly the blame for the shutdown was directed at the governor."

Mr. Prieto, meanwhile, received a standing ovation from his Democratic members as they voted to finalize the budget early Tuesday morning. "The governor was trying to paint me that I was rigid, that I didn't want to compromise and that I stormed out of his office, which is really B.S.," Mr. Prieto said. "That's not my style, that's not what I do."

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The shutdown's conclusion marked a victory for Mr. Prieto as he fights to stave off a challenge from a central New Jersey assemblyman for the speakership, which is the third-most powerful elected position in New Jersey government. Mr. Prieto said he is confident he has the support of his caucus.

Ms. Kessler said she didn't believe Mr. Prieto's role in the budget fight would bolster his chances of maintaining his post. "These leadership positions are unfortunately decided by a few political bosses and there's a lot of horse trading that goes on. This will be a distant memory," she said.

A Cuban immigrant who came to the U.S. with his mother at age 10, Mr. Prieto is a former body builder who worked as a plumber before entering politics. He lives in the northern New Jersey city of Secaucus, where he is a city construction official and chairs the Hudson County Democratic Organization.

Mr. Prieto, 56 years old, gets along well with lawmakers from both parties in the state Assembly where he has presided as speaker since 2014. Jon Bramnick, who as minority leader acts as Mr. Prieto's Republican counterweight in the chamber, said, "I'm friendly with him and I like him. I think he's generally fair."

The governor has had a more contentious relationship with Mr. Prieto, including a monthslong public battle last year over the future of Atlantic City. Mr. Christie, who wanted to take over the nearly insolvent city and overhaul its finances, refused to release state aid unless lawmakers passed a bill giving him that authority.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat from southern New Jersey, supported the governor's position. But Mr. Prieto, who sided with Atlantic City officials and unions opposed the intervention, refused to advance the bill. In the end he was able to delay but not prevent the state's intervention.

In the two men's most recent showdown, Mr. Christie wanted legislation that would give the state more control over the finances of its largest insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. Mr. Prieto refused to put the bill up for a vote, saying it shouldn't be part of the state budget process.

Other Democrats in the Legislature then refused to vote to approve the budget, because Mr. Christie said he would likely line-item veto more than $300 million in additional spending for schools and social service programs without the Horizon legislation. The dispute ended late Monday, when Mr. Prieto agreed to advance a watered-down version of the legislation and the governor left the Democrats' extra funding intact.

One of Mr. Prieto's predecessors, former Assembly Speaker Joseph Doria, said he believed Mr. Prieto made the right move by resisting pressure from the governor to pass the legislation. "Instead of just folding, he said 'I think we can make it better. I think we should stand up,'" said Mr. Doria, who is also from Hudson County.

But Mr. Bramnick, leader of the Assembly GOP, said Mr. Prieto received critical support from insurance executives, business groups and union leaders opposed to the governor's proposed intervention. "I think he had a little bit more wind at his back," he said.

Ms. Kessler, the public relations expert, said no victors emerged from the three-day government shutdown, the state's first such closure since 2006. "This entire event just further eroded any respect people in New Jersey have for their public officials," she said.

Write to Kate King at Kate.King@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 06, 2017 16:30 ET (20:30 GMT)