On Monday afternoon in the atrium of the law school on the Newark, N.J. campus of Rutgers University, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would no longer allow most federal agencies to ask job applicants about their criminal backgrounds during the early stages of the federal hiring process. That change, called ‘ban the box’ by growing ranks of supporters, was announced by the president following a visit to a residential drug rehabilitation center and a roundtable with several former inmates who had been assisted by judges, prosecutors, and parole officers in making transitions to more stable circumstances.
For the crowd of about 150 who had been mingling in the room for several hours before the president’s late afternoon remarks, the ‘ban the box’ portion of the speech may have been Mr. Obama’s best line. As Donald Trump would have noticed, it got the biggest applause. That’s not surprising given that some of the New Jersey state legislators in the room had supported a state-level law banning inquires into many public and private sector job applicants’ criminal records. Signed in 2014 by N.J. Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, the law took effect earlier this year.
Not long ago, Gov. Christie, a former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, seemed like he would not have wanted to be outdone or upstaged on the kinds of reforms announced by the president. After all, while fellow GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ron Paul and Ted Cruz have staked out more ambitious campaign positions on incarceration and prosecutorial reform, Christie is one of the few who can say he’s signed a law on the subject. In earlier visits to Newark drug rehabilitation programs, Christie praised special ‘drug courts’ as alternative ways to punish and rehabilitate nonviolent drug offenders, and he said that he understood drug addiction to be disease rather than a moral failing.
But just months later, that version of Chris Christie now seems nowhere to be found. During his sputtering campaign, the governor has gone out of his way to signal that as president he’d prosecute marijuana use and move against states where the drug is considered legal. And today, rather than highlight his own record in the state on sentencing reform, Christie used the president’s visit as an excuse to travel to Camden, a city where the county government’s sheriff’s department took over policing three years ago. There, he did something he has ridiculed in the past: he signed an executive order declaring a day of appreciation for a particular constituency. Because of Christie’s actions, Thursday November 5 will now be Law Enforcement Appreciation Day in the Garden State.
Why did the governor’s office on Friday hastily schedule a Monday event to announce a ceremonial action?
Counter-programming of course. Christie took the opportunity to press what is in many ways a lock-em-up, tough-on-crime agenda just as politicians across the ideological spectrum are deciding that mass incarceration has gone too far.
On Monday the Internet homepage for the governor’s office – an official, publicly-funded website – featured tweets, statements, and videos claiming that President Obama deserved no credit for drug sentencing reform policies in New Jersey and that Obama has contributed to mistrust between police and policed communities by rhetorically failing to support law enforcement following high-profile deadly encounters between police and unarmed civilians.
For Christie, this isn’t the first time he has tried to inject this issue into his campaign. In September, the governor used a bizarre appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to criticize New York City mayor Bill deBlasio’s relationship with officers in the New York Police Department and to question whether the city’s official crime statistics were legitimate. In that interview, Christie said he did not personally feel safe in midtown Manhattan and blamed “liberal policies in this city” for leading to “the lawlessness encouraged by the President of the United States.”
Signing an executive order creating Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, then, gave Christie a chance to continue a theme he’s been working to develop in recent months.
What was interesting, however, was how little anyone in the room today with Obama seemed to care. Christie, after all, is trailing in a Republican primary as he launches attack after attack on a president who will not be on the ballot in 2016. It is hard to imagine that strategy being anything but an HOV lane to irrelevancy.
But more than that, there was a sense today that the state’s political leadership – particularly the Democrats angling to succeed Christie – have simply moved on.
Watching professional politicians work a room of their peers is interesting. There’s a posturing that goes on that is reminiscent of high school, but in this case we’re dealing with adults who have taken an afternoon off to spend hours waiting to watch a twenty minute address from someone whose political skills have been refined on a higher plane and whose office has a cache all its own.
N.J. Gov. James McGreevey, who now works with recovering addicts in Newark and has done public events alongside Christie, was all smiles and criss-crossing the room to shake hands. Two state senators, one of them the president of that house, seemed to try to show each other up in throwing out knowing winks and fist bumps. Mayors, other elected officials, a Congressman – all were occupying the same space with hours on their hands.
They all knew Christie had been in Camden doing his own event. At one point, one of them asked the press if any of us had considered covering that instead. Before there was an answer, he just laughed.
Of course not.
Two years ago these were people scared to cross Christie in public. Now none of them care.
He’s old news, and this crowd is only interested in figuring out which one of them will get the job in 2017.
Brian Murphy is a TPM contributing editor and Baruch College history professor who writes about the intersection of money and politics. He is the author of Building the Empire State: Political Economy in Early America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter @Burrite.