LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie's summertime talks with residents in beach communities starting Tuesday come with a theme that has some of his biggest critics riled up anew.
The possible 2016 Republican presidential contender is calling his talks "No Pain, No Gain," and he's sounding alarms — as he has for much of the year — that the state's promised pension and health benefits for public sector workers are becoming unaffordable. He offers the bankruptcy of Detroit as a warning sign for his state.
Unions and political advocates for those workers already are ramping up their protests even before Christie offers his proposed solution — something he says he will do this summer after weighing options on requiring workers to contribute more, raising retirement ages and cutting benefits. At an event Tuesday in Long Beach Township, he assured a retired police officer that the only threat his pension faces is if the state's system goes bankrupt. But he did suggest that employees who have been on the job 10 years or less would have the ability to adapt to a new system.
"There have always been major fights with this governor around the issue of pension and benefits," said Hetty Rosenstein, the New Jersey director for Communications Workers of New Jersey, the state's largest union of state government employees. "He is launching a new attack, and so I'm sure there will be an equally tense response."
Eddie Donnelly, president of the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, said his union is launching a website and plans to be at all of Christie's summer town hall meetings.
"We're going to take it to social media, we're going to take it to television, we're going to take it to the newspaper. We're going to take it to anybody that will listen," he said.
Without a specific pension proposal to discuss yet, Christie's critics are targeting the governor's style and symbolism.
Hundreds of police and firefighters were at Christie's talk Tuesday on the shore in a silent protest. William Lavin, a former firefighters union president, said the protest was aimed at Christie's choice of location for the event.
He said it was an affront to them that he is hosting a gathering suggesting pension changes at a gazebo adjacent to a playground that teachers, police and firefighters volunteered to build in memory of a teacher who died in the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Lavin said the governor was being "divisive" by appearing there.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the choice of venue was not meant to offend. "They're connecting the dots as something more political than anything else," he said. He did not elaborate, saying, "I don't want to inflame them."
Last week, Christie's office released a movie trailer-style video promoting his talks and casting himself as a hero fighting rising government costs.
The New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups and other left-leaning organizations, responded with a spoof of that video lambasting Christie for taking on pensions and benefits for workers while his administration extends corporate tax credits as incentives for companies.
In his talk Tuesday, Christie had a bit less bravado, talking first about the two police officers' funerals he has attended in the last week and casting himself as a leader who needs to tell an unwelcome truth that pensions are not sustainable. "Government has made promises to people across the state that they had no idea how they were going to pay for," he lamented. He also warned that special interests would oppose his plan.
The unions are taking one concrete step on pensions, though. They plan to file legal papers in coming months to try to force the governor to make a full payment to their pension funds in this fiscal year. Christie cut the payments for both fiscal 2014 and 2015 after the state's revenue came in lower than expected in April.
In June, a judge ruled that the state is contractually bound to make payments Christie agreed to during rounds of pension and benefit overhauls in 2010 and 2011, but she said that the budget crunch in fiscal 2014 left him with no option but to pay less to the funds.
The unions point out that their members have been paying a greater share of their benefit costs as part of the deals earlier this decade.
That, they say, makes them distrustful of any new proposal Christie makes calling for sacrifice for workers.
"He passed and signed his own law to make a pension payment and when he doesn't make the payment, he comes out with a movie trailer mocking us," said Patrick Colligan, the president of the State Policeman's Benevolent Association. "Why are we even going to entertain anything if he hasn't held up his side of the bargain from 2011?"