Chris Christie a Far Cry From NJ Governors of Yore

In an early edition of The Governors of New Jersey the editor reminds readers that "Even under weak constitutions a strong leader could exert influence; and even under a strong governor constitution, a weakling can fail."

Today New Jersey has a strong governor constitution and a strong governor, but one who appears destined to fail. It was quite different in 1776 when we issued our Declaration of Independence. Does this executive need to be reined in? Will it take a constitutional amendment to do it? 

In the recently revised The Governors of New Jersey:

"In Colonial times the governor was the agent of an autocratic, external power. Under the constitution of 1776 he was meant to be a figurehead. His scope increased under the constitution of 1844, but the legislative branch remained stronger than the executive. It was under the constitution of 1947 that the governor gained new tools and opportunities for the exercise of vigorous leadership."

The 1776 NJ constitution called for the governor to be elected annually by the legislature. Beginning in 1776 William Livingston served for almost 14 full terms, dying in office. "He offered organization and leadership. He was particularly influential because of his lineage, his talents, and his stature in in the revolutionary movement. Even so, his influence over the legislature diminished enough the last years of his tenure to make him doubt at times whether he would be reelected."

So immediately following our declaration of independence, New Jersey started with a strong leader. One who could exert influence, even under weak constitutional powers. Almost fourteen years in office is too long for one governor, having to be elected on an annual basis allows no foundation for even medium-term planning, and having to be elected by the Legislature provided no separation of powers. Nonetheless, history has judged Livingston as a successful executive.

Jump ahead to today – under the current 1947 constitution, we have a governor who appoints his Lieutenant Governor, all his cabinet members and the state judges, prosecutors, public defender and police leadership, and most members of commissions and other authorities. Such permits a vast amount of patronage and a staff more committed to the governor than the people. He has line item budget veto and can conditionally veto or outright veto bills passed by the legislature which require a two-third vote to override.

A governor today has an enormous amount of power. Chris Christie has not been afraid to use it - sometimes for good, but far too frequently for ill.  

Thomas Jefferson wrote that, "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Today the "governed" have less to say in our state when faced by an over-powerful governor who has the tools, patronage, boss connections, media resources, and war chest to wield his way. Jefferson also proclaimed, "Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."

Amending our constitution is a difficult, laborious and time consuming effort but one worth thinking about today as we ponder the meaning of independence.

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