NEW YORK (Reuters) - While partisan polarization has brought the U.S. government to a grinding halt, voters in New Jersey are throwing their support behind two politicians who wear bipartisan cooperation as a badge of honor and even claim an across-the-aisle friendship.
Republican Governor Chris Christie, a tough talking fiscal conservative, has a wide lead to win re-election in November, while polls show Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a charismatic liberal who has been touted as the next Barack Obama, is expected to win an open U.S. Senate seat in next week’s special election.
Stars of their respective parties nationally, their status as local heroes has a lot to do with the perception that they put partisan differences aside for the good of their state.
Christie’s popularity soared after he joined forces with Democratic president Barack Obama to speed his state’s recovery after superstorm Sandy, while Booker frequently invokes his close working relationship with Christie.
“In some states, they’d just as well shut the government down. New Jersey isn’t one of those states,” said David Redlawsk, a Rutgers University professor. “In a state like New Jersey, saying we want to work together is appealing.”
Discussions are now under way in Washington to end an 11-day government shutdown, triggered when Congress failed to reach a spending agreement over implementation of Obama’s healthcare plan. New Jersey offers a stark contrast to the national polarization.
Booker’s first run for mayor was documented in the Oscar-nominated film “Street Fight,” and he is known for rubbing shoulders with celebrities. He points to his ability to work well with Christie as a positive credential.
“The truth is he and I disagree on most everything...” Booker said in August, in response to charges by Democratic rivals that he was too close to the governor.
“But, despite our differences, I am the mayor of the largest city in the state, I’ve got to work with the governor to get things done,” said Booker, who is running to fill the seat that became available after the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg.
In his first term as governor, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has built a national reputation for realizing conservative priorities - namely a state pension overhaul - with the support of the Democrat-controlled state legislature.
His enormous popularity among New Jerseyans, now 63 percent, was cemented by his response to Sandy, which last year laid waste to the shoreline, tearing up boardwalks and destroying homes.
National Republicans faulted Christie for boosting Obama’s re-election chances by his enthusiastic embrace of the president’s storm response just days ahead of the election, while New Jersey voters applauded him for putting the state’s interests ahead of politics.
Christie leads Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, two to one, a Quinnipiac poll found on Thursday.
“You wonder if bipartisanship works or not? Look around you,” Christie said at a recent event, echoing what has become a familiar refrain at press conferences and on the campaign trail.
In the Senate race, Booker’s opponent, Steve Lonegan, is an unabashed conservative who has repeatedly praised congressional Republicans for standing their ground against Obamacare. A Quinnipiac poll this week found Booker leading 53 to 41 percent.
Christie and Booker have worked together to bring businesses to Newark as well as expanding access to charter schools, which are funded with tax dollars but privately run.
“On a different number of levels, we kind of understood each other as outsiders and tried, as best we could, despite obvious political and philosophical differences we have, to be able to forge a productive relationship,” Christie told the New York Times newspaper in July.
Last year, they teamed up to make a video poking fun at Christie’s penchant for bombastic Town Hall speeches that became instant hits on YouTube and Booker’s reputation as a prolific Twitter user who responds directly to emergencies he hears about on social media.
“Clearly, they’re grown up guys who can behave like grown ups,” said Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute.
Still, at least in Booker’s case, Carroll said there might be an element of political pragmatism: “In New Jersey, it’s not a good thing to be anti-Christie.”
Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Gunna Dickson