Gov. Chris Christie is one of seven recipients of the 2011 Top American Leaders awards, bestowed by The Washington Post’s On Leadership section and the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. This year’s recipients were chosen by a selection committee convened by the Center for Public Leadership, and will be honored at Ford’s Theatre on December 5, 2011.
Visit On Leadership to see more of the winners’ profiles.
Chris Christie is not, to put it bluntly, a traditional state leader. The brash-talking former U.S. Attorney did not serve time in state congressional offices or in the lieutenant governor’s office before beating his predecessor, Jon Corzine, in 2009. He has taken on sensitive political issues, such as public-school teacher pensions, from which many politicians shy away. And his brusque, unrepentant approach—he once responded to a constituent with “it is none of her business” when asked a question and strongly defended his response—has angered voters accustomed to the more diplomatic style of his peers.
But the New Jersey Republican has also gotten much done in his short gubernatorial term, even though he’s been working with a Democratic majority in the state legislature. He has sharply reduced deficits in the state. He reached a deal with Democrats to cap property taxes. He restructured public-sector pension and healthcare benefits. And he’s working with Newark Mayor Cory Booker to turn around the struggling city’s schools, following a $100 million grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Those accomplishments have not been won without sharp acrimony and heated conflicts between parties. But they have also won him praise, sometimes even from unusual places. His no-nonsense manner was applauded by liberal bloggers when he refused to “brook the nonsense and bigotry” that sprung up following his appointment of a Muslim lawyer to the state’s bench. Local political columnists who write that Christie has “pummeled the working poor” and acted like “a vindictive creep” also admit his tough moves on healthcare and pension reform may make him “remembered as the one who made it possible to save progressive government in New Jersey.”
And an editorial page scribe of New Jersey’s second-largest daily newspaper, The Record, called the alliance between Booker and Christie over Newark’s schools “the best example of consolidation of power and services seen in New Jersey to date.” Instead of “working like two independent municipalities vying for the same resources, they are seeing value in working as a team.” Even if Christie and Booker are each doing so to meet their own political goals, such collaboration is still rare in today’s hyper-partisan world.
The loudest applause, of course, has come from high-level members of the GOP, who pleaded with Christie to join the Republican primary race as late as October. The governor, after some consideration, responded with restraint. “Now is not my time,” he said in an Oct. 4 press conference. “I have a commitment to New Jersey that I simply will not abandon.”
His decision not to run for president may have been made for other reasons, too. His leadership style—brash, blustery and blunt—may not have played well on the national stage. His willingness to wield the power of his bully pulpit to fight teachers’ unions and cut thousands of public sector jobs has likewise earned him as many enemies as it has friends. But on one mark of leadership, at least, Christie is likely to win mostly fans. “Leadership, today in America, has to be about doing the big things,” he told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in February. And unlike many of his peers, Christie has not shied away from doing just that.