I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, February 2, 2014

David Wildstein: Before Bridgegate, Christie's Best Teacher Basher

It looks like a large portion of the pre-Super Bowl commentary this weekend has been reserved for political pundits proclaiming the death of Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign. Poor fellow: here he is, governor of the state hosting the biggest sports spectacle of the year, but forced to keep a low profile because of Friday afternoon’s bombshell:

David Wildstein – Christie’s childhood friend and personal appointee to the Port Authority -- is now claiming that Christie knew much more about last fall’s George Washington Bridge traffic jam than he originally let on. It’s a stunning, personal rebuke to the governor; while it may not lead to his impeachment here in NJ, it has almost certainly dashed any hopes the former Republican frontrunner had of winning the White House.

This weekend, in response to Wildstein, Christie’s office released an oppo-dump on the gov’s former friend, seeking to discredit him. I found this part particularly hilarious [annotation mine]:

Funny how Christie didn’t seem to mind that Wildstein, blogging as Wally Edge at PolitckerNJ, would break stories that cast Christie in a favorable light when he was the former US prosecutor working under the Bush administration.

But there’s another part of this story that needs to be told: the story of how David Wildstein -- Christie’s political hack, disguised as a journalist – helped smear educators and their unions in Christie’s first year, setting up a climate of teacher bashing that culminated in a wholesale assault on New Jersey’s excellent public education system.

Trust me on this one, folks: it’s a story that takes more than a few wild twists, but pays off in the end…

* * *

The 2009 gubernatorial election in New Jersey was not the most politically sexy affair. Jon Corzine was a mediocre governor at best, presiding over the state during the worst economic downturn the country had seen in decades. Yes, New Jersey is a blue state, chock full of Democrats. But the vast majority of party officials are hooked into powerful machines, and people were getting sick and tired of reading about the latest embarrassing mayor's or school superintendent’s shenanigans.

Corzine himself wasn’t helping: he had been one of the princes of Wall Street when he was running Goldman Sachs. Now the Occupy Wall Street movement was taking off*, pointing an accusing finger at Corzine and his ilk; it was hard for him to garner much progressive support with that kind of resume. Add to that his ethically questionable personal relationships, his weird car accident, and his anodyne campaign style, and the all pieces were in place for a politically savvy and moderate Republican to win the governor’s race.

And back in 2009, before he became a national figure, Christie sure looked moderate: another Tom Kean, Sr. Unlike the Tea Party radicals we were starting to see nightly on the cable networks, Christie seemed halfway sane: relatively moderate on social issues (emphasis on relatively), and fiscally conservative but not a slash-and-burn libertarian. The Republican candidate appeared to have a record of going after corruption and getting things done: a practical man at a time when we needed practical solutions.

No, he wasn’t going to get the outright support of labor, particularly public employee labor. But he appeared to be someone government workers – particularly teachers – could work with. How did we know? Because he told us so, and in no uncertain terms [emphasis mine]:
Here are the facts:

* I will be a strong ally for teachers in the classroom. When elected, I will make education funding a top priority and I believe we must ensure those dollars reach our children and the classroom, not the educational bureaucracy. In these tough economic times, we must ensure that the proper resources get to you, the teachers in the classroom. Despite what is said by my opponents, I would accept federal education stimulus dollars to help fund our children’s educations. Education is a priority and this money is critical to ensuring we are able to continue giving our children the education they deserve. We must also make sure that education dollars are always a priority and come from stable sources. Too often these grants or stimulus dollars are accepted for programs with no plan on how to pay for them after the money runs dry. It is time for a new era of responsibility in Trenton, and I will work to secure a steady source of funding for all education programs.

* I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. In fact, in order to ensure your retirement savings are safe, I believe we must prioritize the protection of pension fund dollars and investigate the cause of Jon Corzine’s large investment losses to our pension system. Currently there is a $34 billion deficit in the State’s pension fund, which threatens the retirement and lifeline of so many teachers. We must do better for our teachers, future teachers and retirees. As Governor, I will work to close unfunded liabilities and make sure our state lives up to its promises, unlike Jon Corzine. I will not raid your pension fund to cover budgetary shortfalls like previous governors of both parties have done. One of the changes I will bring to Trenton is responsible management, investment, and oversight of state pension dollars.
The bolded sentence remains at the top of this blog as a tribute to how utterly deceptive Chris Christie was during that campaign towards teachers and other public employees. He later claimed that he had no idea how bad the fiscal situation for New Jersey was, regarding both pension obligations and the budget. This is a demonstrable lie: everyone knew that the pensions were in horrible shape. Looking back, it’s clear that Christie was selling teachers and cops and firefighters and all other public employees a big barrel of snake oil when he told us he wouldn’t touch our pensions.

And it barely took any time at all after Christie won before we saw just how radical his plans really were. He started going after the pensions in his first term. He killed a “millionaires tax,” brazenly saying it was really the Democrats’ fault that the badly needed revenue was no longer there. He broke explicit promises he made to school districts, drastically slashing their state aid and decimating local budgets.

But perhaps his most astonishing idea was -- again, keep in mind he had just slashed taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens – putting the solution for New Jersey’s fiscal disaster almost solely on the backs of teachers:
CHRIS CHRISTIE: I don't think so. It doesn't have to. And, you know, what I said to the teacher's union a year ago was if they had been willing to take a pay freeze for one year we wouldn't have any larger class sizes, 'cause [we] wouldn't have had to lay off teachers. But instead, they chose to continue to get their salary increases rather than be part of the shared sacrifice, Diane. And they weren't. And they say they're for the kids. They should have taken the salary freeze. They didn't. And now, you know, we had to lay teachers off. [emphasis mine] 
This, it would turn out, was another blatant, unrepentant lie: as the Office of Legislative Services later reported, “freezing” teacher pay wouldn’t have closed even one-quarter of the gap Christie created in school state aid. And, on top of everything else, Christie was proposing an illogical tax scheme that would have barely returned any money to the districts affected.

Chris Christie was on a jihad: for some bizarre personal reason, the newly minted governor just couldn’t (and still can’t) stand teachers or their unions. This man – whose political stock-in-trade was putting on the public persona of a big, tough guy-- became a whiny, petulant brat whenever he perceived a slight on him coming from the NJEA, the state’s largest teachers union, or teachers themselves.

In hindsight, it’s obvious why: Christie was going to make teachers and their unions the bad guys in his crusade to privatize the schools, renege on his pension promises, bust the unions, and begin a corporate tax giveaway that would make his political mentor, George W. Bush, proud. Everything would be blamed on “greedy” and “self-interested” teachers; not the cops or the firefighters, mind you, but teachers.

To pull this off, Christie would have to be able to point to examples of bad teacher behavior. Someone would have to find a way to get enough of the public to believe that the people who wipe kindergartners' noses and grade scribbled essays on the War of 1812 were not worthy of the modest wages and benefits they earned.

Luckily for Christie, teachers were becoming frustrated. And it would only take a scant few, using some impolite language, to give him exactly what he needed to screw the rest of us over.

* * *

As a working teacher in 2010, I have to tell you that the reaction I sensed from my colleagues to Chris Christie’s War on Teachers was the same as my own: shock.

In the years since I started this blog, I’ve met a lot of New Jersey teachers, both in person and virtually. While everyone has his or her own reasons for going into education, I can’t recall one educator I’ve ever met who thought teaching was a good career choice because of the compensation. Sure, teachers in New Jersey do OK – but if you want to make money, there are jobs that pay much better and don’t require gallons of Purell.

So when Christie started throwing words around about us such as “greed” and “self-interest,” it was like looking out the window of an airplane and seeing a school of fish: it just couldn’t be happening. We were greedy? We were the reason the state was in a fiscal crisis? We didn’t care about our students because we wanted fair wages and decent benefits? We were spoiled because we had “Cadillac benefits” that were anything but?

How did this make any sense? Here we were, trying to provide for our middle class families, scuffling like everyone else. Our own husbands and wives and children and parents were seeing their pay cut; our students’ families were struggling through the Great Recession; we were living with this economic disaster every day. We kept hearing about all these huge raises we had been getting, but we knew that our pay hadn’t been keeping up with the private sector when times were flush. Now it was our fault that our three-year contracts -- which would be renegotiated downward soon enough -- included pay raises that were actually well in line with prevailing wage increases before the downturn?

It was surreal. But once the shock wore off, some of us started getting angry. We knew this governor was pulling a con on the parents of our students when he blamed us for the state’s woes. We knew that many in the press weren’t challenging him on some of the most basic facts about teacher pay and school funding. And we were getting frustrated that the few who were questioning this massive wave of lies weren’t getting a forum to make their case.

Some teachers started expressing their frustrations in our society’s new town square: social media. Facebook is a particular favorite of teachers, although many also tweet and blog. Yours truly, in fact, started this blog back in 2010 in direct response to the nonsense I heard and read during Christie’s war; it seemed to be a better outlet than writing letters to the editor that never got published, or waiting for a chance to talk on Gearhart’s show for 20 seconds before he cut away for a commercial.

Around the same time, however, another voice for New Jersey’s teachers bubbled up: Stop The Freeze New Jersey (currently known as Defend NJ Education), a Facebook page that allowed teachers to comment on stories and posts about Christie and his increasingly out-of-control fight with educators. In a little more than a month, STFNJ had gathered up more than 60,000 followers, an amazing showing for a page that did nothing more than present a forum for New Jersey’s teachers to fight back.

Let me interject a personal note: this blog never really took off until STFNJ started reposting my stuff. To this day, any time my work shows up on the page, I am guaranteed a huge bump in traffic. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that without STFNJ, you probably wouldn’t be reading Jersey Jazzman right now; for that, I am deeply appreciative (others may hold a different opinion…).

Now, there are some governors who may not have cared much about a social media phenomenon like STFNJ – but Chris Christie wasn’t one of them. This governor is as hip to the political potential of social media as any other politician in the country; as STFNJ would show later, Christie would even engage in personal Twitter battles with his critics when he was so inclined.

So when STFNJ started to gain momentum, you can be sure there were those within the governor’s office who figured they needed to put a stop to its growth as quickly as possible. Late in February of 2010, Facebook actually shut the page down for a bit, claiming a violation of its terms of contract; only an uproar from the page’s many followers allowed it to continue. How then, could STFNJ be contained?

Enter David Wildstein.

* * *

Wildstein was more than a simple “anonymous blogger.” Under the pseudonym Wally Edge, this childhood friend of Chris Christie’s had become arguably the hottest political columnist in Jersey. His anonymity was certainly part of the column's appeal, but so was his ability to break hot political stories -- and, a decade ago, many of those stories had their source in the US Attorney's office, which was under the direction of Chris Christie.

This isn't mere speculation; just today, former PolitickerNJ reporter Brian Murphy tells the story of his days working for Wildstein/Edge, and how he and Christie managed their symbiotic relationship: 

And finally, let me point something out: Christie goes out of his way to knock David Wildstein for being “an anonymous blogger known as Wally Edge.”

I worked for Wally Edge. I discussed it yesterday morning on MSNBC.

I enjoyed working for him. He was a fiercely loyal editor and advocate, and a very skilled observer of all things political. It is true I did not know at the time that Wally Edge was David Wildstein, but I took the job as a professional journalist, with a sense of the ethical obligations I had to sources and readers. It was better for me not to know Wally’s true identity so I would not have to lie to sources when they asked if I knew. And at some point the question just wasn’t very interesting anymore. He knew things. He had good sources. He was at least as fair as most other editors I’d worked with. He pushed back against people who gave me a hard time. He put me in a job where I was a daily reporter in one of the most politically cutthroat states in the federal union, and he helped me make it my own while I was there. And he never lied to me. So, yes, I liked Wally Edge. And it’s disappointing to me that we are where we are today.

But you know who else liked Wally Edge back then?

Chris Christie. The same man who earlier today denounced Wildstein for being an “anonymous blogger.”

I don’t have my email records from 2002, but if I did I am sure I could produce emails to and from the U.S. Attorney’s office. Almost everyone leaks in political reporting, but some of my biggest scoops came from leaks from Christie’s office, either to Wally or to both of us.

And Chris Christie loved the product of our work. When I covered the Newark mayoral race in 2002 I spent part of the day looking at polling sites where Cory Booker supporters were being intimidated or harassed. From the back of an SUV I would type up a story with photos, file it over a dial-up connection, and wait 15 minutes until federal election monitors were dispatched to the site by Christie’s office, where Christie was reading PoliticsNJ.com himself and reloading the page every few minutes.

When Chris Christie gave a press conference that afternoon in the U.S. Attorney’s office in the federal building in Newark, he was holding a rolled up piece of paper in his hand as he stood at the lectern and took questions. The piece of paper was one of my stories. When I went to speak with him afterwards, he unfurled it and told me how much he loved the work I was doing.

I don’t know if Chris Christie knew the true identity of Wally Edge back then. But he certainly did by the time he appointed David Wildstein to the Port Authority. And by then he had to know that the coverage David (and I, and Steve, and our fellow alums) had given to his prosecutions had played at least a small part in helping him become governor. [emphasis mine]
So Christie and Wildstein, friends from childhood, had already established a mutually beneficial relationship well before the 2009 election. But that turned out to be just the warm-up.

In 2010, almost immediately after his election, Christie started slashing state aid to schools -- and he used teachers as his scapegoats. Those same teachers, shocked that they were being targeted by the governor, started fighting back on social media. If the public became sympathetic to their cause, and started taking sides with the NJEA and against Christie, it would not only jeopardize Christie's plans -- it might hurt him politically. How could Christie begin to get enough of the public to lose their respect for teachers, enabling him to make his school aid cuts and set up his union-busting schemes?

Once again, Christie's childhood friend would come to his rescue. Late in March of 2010, David Wildstein did what he did best: wrote a story, as Wally Edge, that played perfectly into Chris Christie's anti-teacher strategy:
By Wally Edge | March 29th, 2010 - 9:27am
XXX, a basic skills and remedial English teacher at XXX Elementary School in XXX, has some advice for his fellow educators as they prepare to fight Gov. Christopher Christie’s proposed state budget: “Never trust a fat fuck.”

That’s what XXX posted on a Facebook group called New Jersey Teachers United Against Governor Chris Christie’s Pay Freeze, which has more than 57,000 fans -- a powerful grass roots tool as the teachers union fights Christie’s proposed state budget.

But comments posted on the social networking site – most of them during school hours -- often get personal as they exercise their first amendment rights.

“How do you spell Asshole? C-H-R-I-S C-H-R-I-S-T-I-E,” wrote XXX XXX, the XXX at XXX High School.  “To those of you who voted for this fat piece of shit, shame on you!”

XXX, who makes $83,000 a year as an XXX in XXX, calls Christie's budget cuts "rediculous" (sic).

A XXX elementary school teacher wants her colleagues to encourage students to write protest letters to Christie. “My XXX will be writing,” said XXX.
And so on. I've "XXX"d out the names and positions because I don't want to make things more difficult for the teachers smeared here than they may well have been after this piece of yellow journalism was published.

Understand exactly what Wildstein did in this piece: he didn't just repost some mean things said about Chris Christie. No, he actually published the salaries, schools and positions of these teachers. He then implicated some of them in posting during school hours (which, by the way, is a perfectly acceptable thing to do on a break using your own phone or other internet connection; and don't try to tell me posting on Facebook isn't done all the time in the private sector during business hours).

Predictably, the local press had a field day with Wildstein's story; however, it also got picked up by the national press. The Associated PressThe Huffington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh, and The Daily Beast were among the outlets to follow up on Wildstein's report; interestingly, none cited the original Wally Edge report, although his byline predated every other one I could find. Some of the reports, in fact, cite many of the same quotes Wildstein/Edge had used in the original post.

Keep in mind that Wildstein/Edge used only about a dozen quotes from a page that had over 60,000 followers. Were they over the top? Of course -- but that didn't mean they were representative. And what was the point of publishing names and salaries and assignments if only to intimidate teachers and suppress future criticism of Christie?

But it didn't end there. At some point, one or more posters at STFNJ put up a variation on a joke that had been circulating around the internet for some time before:
Dear Lord.... 
I just want you to know that in the past year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farah Fawcett, my favorite musician Michael Jackson, my favorite salesman, Billy Mays and my favorite athlete, Chris Henry. I just wanted to let you know that my favorite President is Barrack Obama.

That's dated 1/12/10; keep in mind that STFNJ started on 2/18/10. At some point after the page launched, someone took this joke and changed "Barrack Obama" [sic] to "Chris Christie," then posted it at STFNJ. A county level NJEA official then copied the joke and sent it out in a memo to his locals, admittedly a dumb move. This was exactly the opening Christie needed. Shamelessly mischaracterizing the joke as an actual "prayer," Christie excoriated the NJEA, claiming the higher moral ground.

Thus began the New Jersey Teacher Wars of 2010. Christie publicly upbraided teachers who dared to question him at his phony “town halls,” then released the videos afterward (one of those teachers has gone on to be a political thorn in Christie’s side, a spokesperson for teachers throughout New Jersey, and my dear personal friend and hero: Marie Corfield). He leveled outrageous insults at teachers and their unions, at one point comparing us to drug dealers. He actually told students their teachers didn’t care about learning.

The only reason Christie got away with this unprecedented assault on teachers was that the impolite "tone" a few teachers took against him was wildly overstated, both by Christie and by the press. And that wild overstatement all began with Wally Edge, aka David Wildstein.

We all know now what happened next to Wildstein: he took the Port Authority job to be Christie's "eyes and ears," and Rand Paul's future soon looked much brighter. But there was also a fallout for public schools in New Jersey: using teacher "greed" as his excuse, Christie slashed state aid to schools; only a lawsuit in 2011 stopped the hemorrhaging. Teacher and other public employee pensions were degraded, breaking Christie's explicit promise to teachers. An "Educator Effectiveness Task Force" was convened with only one working teacher, and no representatives of the NJEA; their embarrassingly inept report lead to AchieveNJ, a teacher evaluation system so poorly conceived I've code-named it Operation Hindenburg.

A very good case can be made that none of this would have happened without David Wildstein's help: Wally Edge was New Jersey's first, and arguably its best, teacher basher. But he ultimately found out what we Jersey teachers already knew: Chris Christie will say anything, do anything, and blame anyone to get what he wants.

I look forward, in the coming weeks and months, to reminding all of you New Jersey "reformers" just what sort of man you have allied yourself with. I'm afraid you are going to see, in nauseating detail, just what sort of "friend" you have in Chris Christie.

* A reader points out the Zuccotti Park protests didn't start until 2011. It's a good point, and I should have been more clear: the sentiment of OWS was certainly rising, but it hadn't yet coalesced into the protests. Political observers did make the point during the 2009 campaign that this growing outrage at Wall Street was a liability for Corzine. Thanks for the correction, G.

Also made a few more edits for clarity; such is the life of the blogger who acts as his own editor...


G. Gales said...

Jazzman, Thanks for all your amazing work on behalf of public education. A slight correction: Occupy was not yet underway in '09.

Duke said...

G, that's a very good point - thanks for the correction. I would say certainly that the sentiment of OWS was on the rise at that time, and that did affect Corzine's campaign. Correction added.

Anonymous said...

This is what gets me, Chris Christie claims he knew nothing about the lane closures yet he was able to find a personal E-mail from a county union representative, he was able to find a 3rd(?) grade teachers assignment for his classroom students.

He had all these "spys" out there feeding him information, YET he knew nothing about the lane closures in Fort Lee!

That is a tough one to swallow!

Giuseppe said...

Excellent summary of what has been going in the past few years in NJ, the vicious war against NJ teachers and the NJEA. Corzine had all the charisma of a whoopee cushion but he really was not as bad as he seemed ( he was governor during the worst recession or mini depression in over 70 years) and he did a decent job as senator. He certainly was an arrogant twit, as evidenced by the fact that he nearly killed himself by not buckling up in that terrible car accident. I'm sure he told the driver to speed it up. Just think, if Corzine had won a 2nd term, he probably would not have gotten in trouble with the law. Post his governorship, Corzine morphed into a hedge fund vampire and thug. Not a pretty sight.

Mary said...

Thank you for your excellent blog, Jazzman.

Elaine Sedan said...

Thank you!

Saffron said...

Again, thanks for your excellent blog. I understand Christie's mother was a school secretary. Some school secretary's are not too fond of teachers for various reasons. I am not a teacher but a medical professional who the secretaries often complained to about the amount of work they had, and it seems teachers took the brunt of their gripes. Just sayin'.