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Gov. Chris Christie, a UD political science alumnus, speaks at Mitchell Hall.
Homecoming was extended with the return to campus of University of Delaware alumnus and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who delivered an animated National Agenda talk on leadership, politics and the challenges facing the nation's governors before a full house Nov. 16 in Mitchell Hall.
The Republican Christie, a 1984 UD graduate who took office as New Jersey's 55th governor on Jan. 19, 2010, even commented on Snooki and the Situation from the popular television show Jersey Shore, noting that they are not from New Jersey but were "parachuted in from New York" and that he has begged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take them back.
The governor said his model in politics is the late President Ronald Reagan who believed "leaders are there to inspire," particularly in difficult times.
And, said Christie, who many had considered a possible presidential candidate earlier this year before he declined to run, these are certainly tough times.
He took office as governor of a state that was on the verge of missing payroll, that had an unemployment rate over 10 percent and that had seen taxes increased 115 times in an eight-year period. "As a leader, I had to decide what to do," Christie said.
Noting that the New Jersey governorship is constitutionally one of the most powerful governorships in the nation, Christie acted through executive order, impounding $2.2 billion in spending then asking for a joint session of the legislature at which he told representatives, "You all created this problem. I inherited it. I just fixed it, in my office, by myself. Have a nice day."
Christie said he shrugged off media commentators making comparisons to Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, and told the UD audience, "That's leadership. You don't wait in a crisis for other people to act. You act."
The governor has continued to make changes, cutting the state budget across the board, capping property taxes and making the state pension system solvent. The work can be difficult, Christie said, because he fully realizes the impact of spending cuts on real people. However, he said, New Jersey "had no future economically if we were to continue to overtax, overspend and overborrow."
Christie said he believes the people of New Jersey "elected me not because of my charm and good looks" but because "they thought a tough, plainspoken federal prosecutor might have the guts to get these things done."
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With a political style that is blunt and direct, Christie said, "I don't think people in difficult times are yearning to be lied to. I think they're yearning for the truth. During hard times you need the truth more than ever, so I think the times are suited to my personality."
Plus, he joked, as a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state, "I'm playing with house money."
Christie said it is important to "be straight with people, give them your honest opinion, act boldly, act decisively and don't worry about the political consequences."
True leaders don't follow opinion polls, he said, they change opinion polls.
He encouraged voters to cast ballots for candidates who are "courageous" and willing to be honest with the public.
'The disaster governor'
Responding to a question from the audience, Christie said he feels as if he has been "the disaster governor," given that during his tenure the state has dealt with blizzards, hurricanes, floods and an earthquake.
Keys to dealing with disasters include advance preparedness, solid real-time information on which to base decisions and communication, he said.
In an example of Christie bluntness, he grew agitated as Hurricane Irene bore down on the actual Jersey shore and he saw images on television of people on the sand putting on tanning lotion and playing in the surf, and finally told all to "get the hell off the beach."
"We evacuated 1.2 million people in 24 hours without incident," Christie said. "New Jerseyans don't understand subtleties -- if they did, they wouldn't have elected me."
Responding to an introductory comment by moderator Ralph Begleiter, director of the sponsoring UD Center for Political Communication about him flirting with a bid for the Republican nomination for president, Christie said that wasn't the case. "They were flirting with me," he joked. "I said I wasn't going to run. They wouldn't leave me alone."
Asked about media interest in a presidential bid, Christie said, "I think they would find me entertaining" as someone who wouldn't give "blow dried answers" and who has a large physical stature.
He said support for a bid came from surprising corners. "When Henry Kissinger tells you to run for president…," he said, adding, "I'm just a kid from the University of Delaware."
In the end, Christie said, the work remaining in New Jersey outweighed his interest in a presidential run. "I felt it would be wrong the leave the job I asked for," he said. "It didn't feel like now was my time."
As for a bid in 2016, Christie said there is simply no way to predict that far out.
Interest in politics
Christie said his interest in politics developed early on, at age 15, when he heard former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, then a candidate, speak. Prodded by his mother, Christie joined the campaign as a volunteer and found his calling.
That interest continued as a political science major at UD, and he told of filling out an absentee ballot for Reagan while sitting in his freshman residence hall room in Harrington E. That drew applause from students now living in Harrington and one -- senior Jessica Ma, who lives in the same room -- was called up on the stage by Christie for a photo opportunity.
Over time, Christie said, "I developed a set of core beliefs and instincts," with much of that shaped while a student at UD under the direction of beloved faculty including the late James R. Soles.
And in 2009, he was endorsed for governor by Kean.
Wednesday's talk by Christie has received national coverage, with a video available on Time's The Page and a short story in Politico. For those interested, a podcast of the presentation will be posted in the future on the UD Podcasts site.
National Agenda speaker series
Christie's talk was the last in the 2011 National Agenda speaker series, which was sponsored by the Center for Political Communication and titled "Girding for Battle: Political Movers and Shakers at the University of Delaware."
The 2012 spring semester will feature a Global Agenda series on espionage and intelligence in the digital age.