Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An Unfortunate Comment, A Worse Response

As with most states, New Jersey has a considerable budget shortfall. The new governor, Chris Christie, has decided to make cuts throughout the budget while proposing not to renew the increase in the tax rate for the wealthiest 2% of his state's residents. As the Philadelphia Inquirer fairly generously describes it

Christie has proposed cutting $820 million in state aid to public schools as part of an effort to close an $11 billion budget hole in a total budget of about $29 billion. Some districts would lose all of their state aid as a result of the cuts, if the governor's budget is approved by the Legislature.

The governor has aimed his rhetoric squarely at the teachers union, calling for school districts to reopen contracts with teachers to negotiate wage freezes and other concessions to save money.

The Governor could choose, amid applause from the Democratic-controlled legislature, to renew the increase in the income tax rate of the wealthiest 2% of New Jerseyans. Or he could suspend state payments to charter schools instead of increasing them. But he has chosen not to do so, while the bargaining position of the New Jersey Education Association was somewhat weakened when news came of a memorandum from one of its county units to its locals in which was included:

Dear Lord this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays. I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor.

A bad joke in bad taste. The union official, Joseph Coppola apologized while Christie blasted the remark. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian requested a meeting with the Governor to apologize personally.

Always ready to seek common ground with his adversaries, the Governor used the hours before the meeting to call publicly for voters in New Jersey municipalities to reject the school budgets they will be voting on later this spring. When Keshishian and the Governor met, the latter called on Keshishian to fire Coppola, a move the state union official noted she did not have the authority to make.

This was probably a little difficult for the Governor of New Jersey, in whom the state constitution grants more power than any chief executive of any state, to understand. This also appeared to mystify the governor's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, who

said that if a student had made similar comments about a principal, he or she would undoubtedly be suspended and investigated by police.

"Do we think it was a threat? No, but it was a wish," Drewniak said.

The mind reels. Could it be that the Governor's office does not understand the difference between the two situations? Let's compare: in one case, a threat is made by a student- a juvenile- against a teacher, who acts in loco parentis. In such a case, the comments understandably would not be interpreted as a joke, but rather as a threat of violence against a private citizen.

A union official including this "prayer" at the tail end of a memo is not threatening- as the governor's spokesman admitted- a private individual, but is expressing his hope as pertains to a public official. It is tasteless and reprehensible but the writer clearly is protected by the First Amendment. (And he is also expressing a sentiment others have about the Governor, the President, and many public officials.)

Misunderstanding seems to abound in the Governor's office, in which

Drewniak called the refusal to ax Coppola “a ridiculous double standard. If anyone on the governor’s staff had done what he did they would have been shown the door in an instant,” he said. “If you can’t do that than how can we have a civil dialogue.”

The spokesman claims to believe that "if anyone on the governor's staff had done what he did they would have been" fired immediately. This is curious: first, it's unlikely that anyone on the governor's staff would have publicly wished the governor dead.

Presumably, Drewniak was not referring to that individual wishing the Governor dead. But who would have been the subject of the remark? the local official? the state official? He apparently did not bother to say. This is not insignificant. It would not only be tasteless and inappropriate for someone on the governor's staff to make that remark about a union official, it also would be, well, strange. What actual power does that union official have- expecially as compared to that of the Governor of the State of New Jersey? Why would the staff member even be concerned about the union official?

But there is a more fundamental misunderstanding here. The union official is elected by the membership, serves the membership, and is paid by the membership. A member of the governor's staff is paid by the taxpayers of New Jersey- and, depending on the position, serves not the Governor but ultimately the people of New Jersey. For the governor to suggest that the labor official be fired- not even repudiated or voted out, but fired- is beyond overreaching.

Any other governor attempting to impose his/her will by making precipitous, radical changes to his state (as the N.J. governor is doing) would be said to be "throwing his weight around." Alas, that would bring more whining from the Republican mainstream media. So let's not say that he is throwing his weight around. Or that he is a beligerent extremist intent on destroying the teachers' union and the public school system in New Jersey. That would be rude and uncivil.


Dan said...

I think rather than belittle the Christie administration for there "lack of understanding", you might want to look at yourself a bit and ask if you are failing to understand the situation and reaching to great lengths to justify the Union's actions.

First of all, the state President not having direct firing power on paper ignores reality. In the real world, she could have easily asked him for his resignation for the good of the Union. Let's say he refuses to do this (which is highly unlikely), she still could publicly call for his resignation, effectively using her position to place pressure on him. Instead, she has refused to do either and has stated on WNYC that she will not ask him to leave.

You focus completely on Christie, rather than on the Union. If the Union placed any value on accountability or believed that inappropriate rhetoric e-mailed to 17,000 people should not be tolerated, they would push for this guy's removal. But no: he stays, sorry, but it's no big deal.

Let's focus on Christie now. What did he do? When Keshishian came to apologize, he said that if you are sorry you should get rid of this guy. She says no and leaves. Christie said nothing inappropriate; it wasn't a massive power grab. He said what he believes and what many believe the Union would do if it was sorry and wanted to show itself to be accountable. Christie also hasn't been talking this as much as you make it sound. The press ASKS him about it, and that's what he says. Ironically enough, it's the Unions fault this got in the press.

I'm confident that if the same joke prayer was sent by a Christie official and refered to the Union President dying (why would a staff member care about her? well she is fighting their policies, bringing down Christie's poll numbers, making things difficult), you'd be all over it and calling for his resignation. If we as a society want to stop ridiculous and grotesque rhetoric by all officials, maybe we should push for them to be fired for it rather than just let them say "oops". Half your blog is about such rhetoric, but apparently when it's someone on your side of the political isle, it's no big deal and we should move on. Rather than focus on the e-mail and the response, you can't even get through the whole post without trying to tie in Christie's budget cuts and how vehemently he's attacking schools.

Greg said...

Since when was complete removal from a job the answer for a bad joke?

To say it's only the NJEA's fault that it got to the press is an oversimplification. The NJEA made a bad joke, Christie escalated it and the NJEA had to respond.

You say, "I'm confident that if the same joke prayer was sent by a Christie official and refered to the Union President dying (why would a staff member care about her? well she is fighting their policies, bringing down Christie's poll numbers, making things difficult), you'd be all over it and calling for his resignation."

Comparing Chris Christie's recognition to Bergen County teachers union head Joe Coppola is unfair. Joe Coppola is not a well-known public figure in the same way that Christie is. Coppola isn't the head of the entire NJEA and doesn't speak for the NJEA. Coppola apologized and the President of the NJEA apologized. They didn't say that "it's no big deal." Christie immaturely rejected it.

Mentioning Christie's cuts to public education helps readers see what prompted the comments.

It was a bad joke. Turning our state's public schools into a joke is worse.

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