If you leave New Jersey for a weekend, be ready for people to ask you about Gov. Chris Christie.
He's the hottest property in American politics and the most compelling personality the state has produced since Tony Soprano. Polls say he is now the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
But if they ask, be sure to tell them this as well: He is the most overrated governor in America.
Yes, he's a skilled politician and a talented deal-maker who, for his first two years in office, got nearly everything he wanted from the Democratic Legislature.
But it hasn't worked. New Jersey's economy is a mess, even compared with its neighbors. The property tax burden is up sharply. Poverty is rising. And the state's credit rating has dropped on Christie's watch as the long-range outlook deteriorates. His successor will inherit a bigger mess than he did.
Crime is spiking in several of New Jersey's hard-pressed cities, where loss of state aid has forced massive police layoffs. The state's home foreclosure rate is the second highest in the nation and Christie fumbled a federal aid program intended to soften the blow. Yet he tried to raid a fund earmarked for affordable housing until the courts stopped him.
The list goes on. The state's open space program is essentially dead, with no money and no ideas from the governor on how to fix it. The transportation trust fund is broke as well, so the governor has financed projects mostly by borrowing and by scavenging money that former Gov. Jon Corzine had set aside for the Hudson River tunnel project, which Christie canceled.
Could he turn this around in a second term? Maybe. But it's not likely because he's moving rightward to appeal to voters in the 2016 presidential primaries, shrinking the common ground with Democrats. Christie hasn't discussed his agenda for a second term, but the era of big bipartisan deals in Trenton may be over.
He rejected sensible gun control legislation, slow-footed the medical marijuana program, and is sticking to his vetoes of the minimum wage hike and the millionaires tax. The standoff on gay marriage continues. And he is stuck in Washington-style gridlock over the state Supreme Court, unable to fill two vacant seats and unwilling to strike a deal.
"He's looking to leave, but we're still here," says Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the governor's go-to bargaining partner. "I'm always willing to get things done. But if there is no compromise, there is no legislation."
None of this seems to bother voters much. Christie's approval ratings skyrocketed after Hurricane Sandy hit, scaring off the big-name Democratic challengers, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker. The nomination went by default to Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who trails by 20 points.
For the Christie lovers out there, please don't misunderstand: This is not an argument that he's been a failure as governor. He's done well on education, the most important job for any governor. He won tenure reform and is pushing promising efforts in cities such as Newark and Camden. He has slowed the growth of government spending and held the line on taxes.
But dozens of states have trimmed benefits for public workers and reformed tenure laws. And even Corzine cut state spending during his final two years, when the recession hit.
The argument here is that Christie is a better politician than he is a governor, that his fame is based on his personality, not his performance, and that his failure to fix the state's biggest problems is something that can be measured.
Let's take a closer look:
The political mystery of the year is how Christie can be so popular when the state's economy is so rotten. Only 11 percent of New Jerseyans say they are better off than when he took office.
No wonder. Employment is up just 2.2 percent since he swore his oath, the sixth-lowest job growth in the nation during that period, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News.
Incomes are stagnant as well. New Jersey ranks near the bottom of the nation again, tied with Rhode Island for the third-smallest income growth in the country.
Home prices are down 6.7 percent, putting New Jersey in the bottom quartile. Only Florida has a higher rate of foreclosure. And mortgage delinquencies have increased in New Jersey under Christie more than in any other state in the country.
When Bloomberg put all its indicators in one basket, New Jersey ranked 45th among the states, behind all its neighbors.
In fairness, Christie inherited an economy that was already sputtering. The few jobs it produced in the decade before he arrived were almost all in the public sector.
Christie's economic philosophy is a simple one: Cut taxes and they will come. So he sharply increased the broad-based business tax cuts signed by Corzine, bringing the total to about $600 million a year over the next three years. Subsidies targeted to specific projects jumped as well, to $2.1 billion over the past three years, more than the prior 10 years combined.
To put it plainly, the strategy failed. The tax cuts forced even deeper austerity than the recession demanded, leading to significant layoffs of teachers, police and town hall workers.
Private sector job growth has picked up, and Christie's team points to data from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve showing an encouraging uptick in overall economic activity, but it hasn't been enough to lift New Jersey's economy out of the national basement.
As for the housing crisis, Christie has not only failed to offer a remedy, he has aggravated it by trying to dismantle the state's affordable housing program and raid an affordable housing fund that was established long before he arrived. When the federal government granted the state $300 million to ease the foreclosure crisis, the money went unused for so long that Christie was forced to concede his administration blew it.
"Government doesn't always work the way it's supposed to," he said.
Christie claims this as a big win, given that property tax rate increases have slowed dramatically. The average rose just 1.4 percent last year, and 2.4 percent the year before.
But that success is a mirage, because Christie also deeply cut property tax rebates that were focused on elderly and middle-class homeowners, breaking a central promise he made during the 2009 campaign.
And as it turns out, the rebate cuts have had a much larger effect on the average family.
The bottom line: The burden grew by 18.6 percent on a family earning the median income, living in a house of median value. That's more than triple the rate of increase during Corzine's final three years, according to an analysis from NJ Spotlight, the online news source.
The governor, true to form, attacked the author of the study but did not rebut its conclusions or methods.
For wealthier homeowners who were ineligible for rebates in the first place, Christie's reforms have been a ringing success, because he did nothing to diminish the relief they claim by deducting property taxes on their income tax forms.
Christie's cost-cutting reforms were sensible and, in the long run, will help middle-class taxpayers. He capped tax increases at 2 percent, revamped the rules on contract talks that had been tilted in favor of unions, and trimmed pension and health benefits.
The problem is, he pushed on the other side of the scale as well. By diminishing state aid, he took back most of the savings local governments enjoyed from lower pension costs. And by cutting rebates, he sharply increased the real burden on average families.
Every year during his triumphant budget address, the governor claims he has cleaned up the mess he inherited from Democrats. Not even close.
State spending dropped in Corzine's final two years, and then again in Christie's first year. It has crept upward since then, but mostly because Christie, to his credit, has increased pension payments more than any previous governor. Still, state spending is lower today than it was at its pre-recession peak.
So far, so good. The problem is that to reach these numbers, Christie has been playing an old bipartisan game by pushing gigantic costs into the future. The big-ticket item is the pension reform, the landmark achievement of Christie's first year in office.
The reform did two things: It reduced benefits to public workers, and it required both workers and the state government to contribute more to the depleted pension funds.
The trick was this: Workers had to make their full contribution right away. But the state, which had been delinquent for years, was allowed to phase in its payments over seven years to soften the blow.
Christie has made the payments during the first two years. But the reform back-loaded the biggest payments. This year's was $1.7 billion. In 2018, the number jumps to $5.5 billion.
On top of that, the state will have to come up with a way to fund transportation and open space. A blue-ribbon commission headed by Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, added up the long-term costs, including pension and health benefits and infrastructure, and put the total at $200 billion.
Does that mean New Jersey will have to raise taxes after Christie leaves as part of a solution?
"That is the implication," Volcker said. "That is a reasonable reading of this report."
You can understand why Wall Street is nervous and has downgraded New Jersey debt. We have a huge stack of bills to pay, no plan to cover the costs and a governor whose political ambitions rule out a tax hike.
The math is daunting. And one thing is clear: Christie has not cleaned up this mess, not by a long shot.
THE FAKE MODERATE
When Christie hugged President Obama after Sandy, New Jersey swooned. When he unleashed his famous fury on fellow Republicans in the House who dithered over disaster relief, he seemed to rise above the partisan tribalism that has paralyzed Washington.
And that fit a narrative that is both true and compelling: Christie is a Republican who will compromise to get things done. He did so on pension reform, tenure reform and nearly everything else. He's a grown-up.
But don't mistake him as a moderate. The more that Republican primary voters learn about him, the more they will like him.
He favors the rich over the poor and middle class every time. In his first budget, he scaled back the earned-income tax credit that lifts millions of low-wage families out of poverty. The veto of the minimum wage hike added to the insult, as did his attempt to grab $164 million from funds earmarked for affordable housing.
Faced with rising poverty, he has ignored the problem. He left federal money on the table that could have helped enroll the uninsured in health plans under the Affordable Care Act. And despite rising college tuitions, he has frozen operating funds to higher education. If he gets his way on the Supreme Court, he says he will cut spending on urban schools and kill the state's major affordable housing program.
For the wealthy, he vetoed a tax hike on incomes greater than $1 million, handed out unprecedented business tax cuts and tried to cut the income tax, a move that would have given 40 percent of its benefits to the richest 1 percent of families.
On the environment, he's been a catastrophe. He's raided nearly $1 billion from clean-energy funds, most of which are financed with surcharges on electric bills. He withdrew from the regional treaty on climate change, abandoned another regional effort to force a comprehensive clean-up of Midwest coal plants and broke a promise to finance open space purchases.
On social issues, he checks all the key boxes. Abortion rights, gay marriage, Planned Parenthood.
And the governor who speaks his mind will not touch the Supreme Court's decision gutting the Voting Rights Act.
So be careful about the hug. Even hard-core conservatives appreciate some presidential love during a time of need.
So if Christie is overrated, does that mean Buono is the better choice? Not so fast. Just because the bar is low does not mean she can clear it. She has her own weaknesses.
And she faces a political puzzle that seems impossible to solve: Voters agree with her that Christie has failed to tackle the state's biggest problems, but they love him anyway. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Friday showed that most people disapprove of his handling of the economy, taxes and education. But he still received 60 percent approval overall.
"It has to do with his style, it really does," says Patrick Murray, who runs the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "He's the first person to come in and say, 'I'm going to do something drastic' and people give him credit for that."
At town hall meetings, Christie is relaxed, funny and persuasive. He usually looks to pick a fight at the end, like an entertainer singing the crowd favorite as an encore. It's compelling stuff.
But it's thin gruel, in the end. Because the substance doesn't remotely measure up to the spin.
This post first appeared on The Star-Ledger