I have had nothing but the greatest respect for Chris Christie, the straight-shooting Republican governor of New Jersey. A true conservative who is tough, gifted and relatable, Christie could always be counted on to walk the walk, to do what may be unpopular to get what he believes is best for New Jersey.
Additionally, Mr. Christie has never been a panderer to the hard-right faction of the Republican Party. He supported, at least in principle, the use of medical marijuana. He has been a staunch defender of American Muslims. He has come out to say that being an illegal immigrant is “not a crime.”
Which is why it came as a great disappointment to me that Mr. Christie rejected the State Assembly’s bipartisan bill legalizing gay marriage on Friday, calling for a statewide referendum on the issue. The veto itself was a disappointment, if predictable. But his call for a referendum was a surprising display of cowardice from a man I have grown to expect far more from.
There is one overarching problem with this half-veto that goes beyond the petty politics of liberal and conservative — Mr. Christie has now pitted New Jerseyan against New Jerseyan, fracturing a state and, if a referendum were to be called, flooding it with special interest money and voter passion.
Organizations are already pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat same-sex marriage in Washington, where it was made legal two weeks ago. In 2010, out-of-state money flooded into Iowa judicial races as a result of the Iowa Supreme Court upholding gay marriage. All three justices on the ballot lost, the first time any Iowa judge has lost in a retention vote. And of course, the last time same-sex marriage was put on the ballot, $83 million was spent in California in the most expensive electoral fight over a social issue in state history.
Mr. Christie has always been a governor who has been willing to take political flak for his decisions. So it comes as a genuine surprise that he has passed the buck on to voters, dividing neighbors and colleagues from Camden to Clifton.
He had the opportunity to unite the state for equality; instead, he has not only spurned equality but endorsed a referendum that would spurn unity as well.
I have always personally respected Governor Christie for his straight-ahead attitude. You will always know where he stands on the issues, and he will always take responsibility for his actions. In many ways, he is a perfect microcosm of the New Jersey identity: no-nonsense, blue-collar, honest and straight-shooting.
But his referendum will hurt the people of his state — not only gays, but also everyone who will be bombarded with fiery rhetoric, misleading advertising and neighborhood tensions. And for what? So that he can escape the brunt of liberals’ wrath, who will doubtlessly use marriage equality as a rallying cry? So that he can protest his innocence to the virulently anti-gay extreme right of the Republican Party when he seeks their nomination in 2016 or 2020?
So that he will not be judged in the eyes of New Jersey’s children as the one man who stood on the wrong side of history?
If gay marriage is put on the ballot in a New Jersey statewide referendum, Mr. Christie would have successfully shielded himself from all the anger that stems from this volatile issue — from the left, from the right, from the future. He will have absolved himself of all responsibility.
I have come to expect this cowardly dodging of accountability from most politicians. I have come to know that they are selfishly willing to hurt the people they represent for their own political gain. But I once believed that Mr. Christie was above this brand of politics. And I once respected him greatly for it.
On Friday, Mr. Christie disappointed an honest, responsible leader who was poised to take our politics in a new direction. This leader once urged, “Now is the time when we must all resist the traditional, selfish call to protect [our] own turf at the cost of our state. It is time to leave the corner, join the sacrifice…and be a part of the solution.”
The speaker was, of course — say it with me — one Christopher James Christie of New Jersey.
Any other bubbles that need bursting? Ed wants to hear from you. Email him at edngai “at” stanford “dot” edu or tweet him @edngai.