Gustavson Column: Hey, who are you calling a fat @!#$?

Have you heard the one about the overweight governor and the overweight Senate majority leader? I have, thanks to a college buddy of mine who happened to be in the room when New Jersey’s Senate majority leader, Democrat Stephen Sweeney, picked up the phone a while back to call New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, to complain that he (Christie) had unfairly and publicly maligned President Obama when New Jersey failed to get a $400 million education grant it had expected to receive.

I was reminded of this exchange most recently due, of course, to the little (no, big!) kerfuffle surrounding the apparently politically motivated closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. It’s not my intention to comment on that matter here, other than to say if Christie didn’t know about it in advance, his aides must have had good reason to think he would not object to their dirty trick.

Until it was publicly exposed, of course.

According to my friend, the conversation over funding of education promptly deteriorated when Christie, who has struggled with his weight throughout his adult life, called Sweeney “a fat [expletive deleted].”

Sweeney, a rough and tumble former iron workers’ union leader, reportedly retorted, “Who are you calling a fat [expletive deleted], you fat [expletive deleted]?” Or words to that effect. And the convo went downhill from there … until, in short order, they hung up on each other.

Some relevant background: It turns out, according to The New York Times, that “a clerical error by a midlevel [state] official … had caused [New Jersey’s] Race to the Top grant application to fall short of the 10-member winner’s circle by just three points. The mistake … resulted from a failure to correctly read a straightforward question worth not quite 5 of the competition’s 500 points. The application asked states vying for billions in federal funds to compare their 2008 and 2009 school budgets to illustrate their commitment to education financing. Instead, a New Jersey official, whom the governor would not identify, compared the state’s 2010 and 2011 financing, thus forfeiting the points.”

Christie took ultimate responsibility for the error, according to The Times, but then proceeded to slam the Obama administration for not calling or checking the state’s web site “when it discovered the error, which was on just one page of a 1,000-page application.”

“That’s the stuff that drives people nuts about government, and that’s what the Obama administration should answer for,” Gov. Christie was quoted as saying in The Times. “When the president comes back to New Jersey, he is going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he is depriving them of $400 million that this application earned them, because one of his bureaucrats in Washington couldn’t pick up the phone and ask a question.”

That’s where the “fat [expletive deleted]” exchange came in. But it’s not the end of the story, according to my college buddy. That came less than a minute after the angry hang-up, when Sweeney looked at my wide-eyed friend and said: “Wait a moment, just wait.” And then his phone rang. It was Gov. Christie calling back to share a belly laugh (what else?) with his friend, the leader of the state Senate.

The salient point, according to my friend, was that even though politicians from opposite sides of the aisle disagreed, even vehemently, they did so without permanently severing lines of communication or creating enemies lists. Too often in the current political climate, my friend says, those with opposing points of view talk at each other, not to each other, and governance is the worse for it.

But that was before Bridgegate, of course. Let’s see how the Christie-Sweeney relationship survives this mess.

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