TRENTON — Gov. Christie, whose singular personality dominated New Jersey politics for eight years, declared in his last major speech as governor Tuesday that the state was unequivocally better off than when he inherited it.
"We needed to care less about being loved and more about being respected," Christie said, explaining why he first ran for governor in 2009. He ran to "be different" and "talk bluntly," to be a governor of consequence "who did not just mark time."
He succeeded on all counts, Christie said in his final State of the State address in the ornate Assembly chamber here.
"The state of our state is very good and without question much, much better than it was eight years ago," Christie said, as his family, current and former staffers, predecessors, and hundreds of others watched, frequently interrupting to applaud.
In a nearly 90-minute speech, the Republican governor took a victory lap for everything from creating jobs to vetoing tax hikes, working to revitalize Camden and all but eliminating cash bail.
He chastised public-sector union leaders who he said "have never cared" about how the state would pay for its promises and warned his successor that it's a "short road back to the edge of disaster" if the state abandons his pro-growth policies and fiscal restraint. The underfunded pension system for nearly 800,000 public workers remains the "sword of Damocles that hangs over the head of every New Jerseyean," he said.
And, as if to underscore how difficult it can be to remember politics in New Jersey before Christie's rise, he traced the arc of his political career back to his tenure as U.S. attorney — for which he was nominated by President George W. Bush — to his chairing of President Trump's opioid commission.
Notwithstanding Christie's upbeat self-appraisal, Garden State residents seem ready for this once-in-a-generation New Jersey pol to leave office.
Just 5 percent of New Jersey adults said they would miss Christie, according to a poll released Tuesday, while nearly 10 times as many said their view of the governor was best reflected as: "Glad to see you go, don't let the door hit you on the way out."
Thirteen percent view him favorably and 19 percent approve of his job performance, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll. Those figures make him the most unpopular governor upon leaving office since Eagleton began polling five decades ago.
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs banker who is to be sworn in on Jan. 16, said Christie's "sunny picture of a state in good standing" belied a "dire state of fiscal crisis." Indeed, Christie overlooked a hobbled and cash-starved NJ Transit, which plagues commuters with delays and rising fares.
Just four years ago, Christie was a national political phenomenon, winning 60 percent of the vote in a blue state, and performing well among minorities.
He was considered among the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. But the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal dimmed his White House prospects, and out-of-state travel sunk his approval ratings at home. His 2016 campaign ended with a poor showing in New Hampshire.
In Trenton on Tuesday, Christie's fallen star seemed to matter little.
He basked in Camden's turnaround, citing a 30-year low in murders and higher graduation rates. He boasted of "booming" business in the city, citing companies he helped lure there with tax credits such as carmaker Subaru, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and the 76ers.
"The rebirth of Camden is happening," Christie said, "and not with government giveaways or tanks in the street — but with a bipartisan spirit and a can-do attitude."
He praised George E. Norcross III – the Democratic power broker, insurance executive, and chairman of Cooper University Hospital – as Camden's greatest cheerleader and investor.
"I want to tell you, none of this could have been accomplished without the relentless will of George Norcross," Christie said as he waved to Norcross in the gallery.
He singled out Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D., Camden) for his help in spearheading a restructuring of higher education and, near the end of his speech, turned away from the Assembly speaker's rostrum to shake hands with Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney.
He recalled the 2012 landfall of Hurricane Sandy: "people wet and tired and cold and scared."
"There's no blueprint they leave you in the top-desk drawer when you get this job to deal with this," he said, describing Sandy as his "greatest challenge" that "proved we were in fact stronger than the storm."
"You can sing the song to yourselves," he joked, riffing on the TV ad campaign he starred in.
Christie also wished Murphy well: "His success will be our success and I hope for him and our state nothing but blue skies ahead."