I've seen it hundreds of times in various contexts: A television show or a business group will bring together two politicians from different parties, hoping that sparks (if not fists) will fly. And often they do, at least while the camera is rolling. But behind the scenes, the public antagonism typically is, well, not very antagonistic. Green rooms are more likely to host conversations about cooperation on policy issues, common friends or a daughter's academic success than the finger-pointing and head shaking that audiences tend to love.
I am guessing that was not the case in Morristown last week, when two legislative leaders - state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, met at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
On the face of it, the rivalry was grounded in policy differences. Kean knocked Sweeney for the Democrats' failure to pass an ethics reform package proposed by Gov. Chris Christie. He said Democrats are wasting taxpayer money by not revamping the laws that allow municipal employees to get sick-time payouts when they retire. And perhaps most egregiously, Kean argued, Senate Democrats have failed to consider Christie's nominations of Dave Bauman and Bob Hanna for the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Sweeney counterpunched, reminding Kean's that Christie is touting his record of working with Democrats in the Legislature to accomplish many of his policy priorities, including state-employee pension and benefit reform. Sweeney stated that while he supported sick leave reform, there were objections to the plan in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. Sweeney also chastised the governor for breaking with historic precedent and failing to renominate Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, who had been the only African-American sitting on the state Supreme Court.
So are these guys so concerned over the people's business that it is causing antagonism among the ranks of the professional politicians?
The cause of the antagonism: Kean knows that if he is to one day follow in his father's footsteps and rule the roost at Drumthwacket (or perhaps become the junior U.S. senator from New Jersey) he must distinguish himself from a crowded field of potential nominees. To do that, he has hatched a scheme for Republicans to take control of the state Senate, so that he can become the Senate president.
Kean looked at the new map of legislative districts and realized that three districts can be marginally considered "competitive." These districts (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) are the southernmost districts in the state, and each has a Democrat serving in the Senate: Jeff Van Drew in the 1st, Jim Whelan in the 2nd and Sweeney in the 3rd.
But in hatching this power-grab, Kean is violating one of the unspoken agreements among legislative leaders: You stay out of my district, I'll stay out of yours. Typically, opposition targeting involves junior legislators with less clout and fewer connections.
But Kean had better be careful.
He is banking on the popularity of Christie to result in significant coattails that will sweep Republicans into office. And that may well happen. But where he is targeting his efforts is the backyard of one of the state's most powerful Democratic bosses - George Norcross.
Norcross facilitated a Christie win in 2009 by sitting on his hands, thus squelching voter participation in Camden, Gloucester and Atlantic counties. He did this because he wanted to see Jon Corzine out of office.
Since then, a strange-bedfellows mutually beneficial alliance between Christie and Norcross has emerged. Norcross gets policies that he wants enacted and provides Christie with Democratic support in the Legislature through Sweeney's leadership. And there is the understanding that Norcross will again sit on his hands and allow another Christie win.
But Kean is threatening to upset the apple cart. If he targets the 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts, Norcross will have no choice but to respond by protecting his incumbents, thus ratcheting up campaigning, spending and voter mobilization. The result? Increased Democratic turnout, which, while probably not threatening a Christie win, might erode his margin of victory. Kean's maneuver also has the ability to anger Norcross, who then might convince other party leaders to mobilize their forces.
How does this affect Christie? He gets a smaller margin of victory (he wants a double-digit win if he is to seek the Republican nomination for president); he gets a Republican-controlled Senate (eliminating his ability to govern in a bipartisan fashion and removing a foil to blame when he can't); and he gets a competitor for headlines in his own party.
Among New York Rangers fans, when a rogue fan does something stupid like getting up during play, the regulars will yell to a blue-shirter sitting near the rogue to "control your section!"
Governor, control your section.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, of Galloway Township, is a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. A version of this column first appeared in The Record.