TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Republican Gov. Chris Christie may have "prayed" for Superstorm Sandy because it has provided political cover for his failed economic policies, the Democratic leader of the state Senate said Monday.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the state's most powerful elected Democrat and a possible contender for his party's nomination for governor, said Christie's jobs plan before the late October storm was a disaster and now the reconstruction will provide an economic boost through thousands of new construction jobs.
He said Sandy, which killed people in 10 states but hit New York and New Jersey the hardest, flooding neighborhoods, knocking out power and destroying homes, helped hide the failings of Christie's first term, including persistently high unemployment and housing foreclosures.
"His jobs package is a hurricane," Sweeney said during a press conference on Monday, the day before Christie was set to deliver his State of the State message. "I guess he prayed a lot and got lucky because a storm came."
Sweeney immediately apologized for the remark.
The governor's office and leading Republicans pounced on Sweeney anyway.
"No one prayed for what New Jersey has endured," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said. "This is politics at its worst."
The storm, formed when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems, is the worst natural disaster in New Jersey, where it has racked up $36.9 billion in damage, mitigation and prevention costs. Christie, who lauded President Barack Obama for offering assistance and then openly criticized Congress for delaying funding, has been catapulted to record-high popularity for his handling of the storm, and he is now considered a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Public opinion polls after the Oct. 29 storm showed Christie had won over virtually every voting constituency in the Democratic-leaning state, even women and minorities, who had not supported him in the past.
Sweeney said Monday evening his remark about praying for a storm was a "misstatement," but he maintained his point.
"The governor is using the storm to paper over his failure to lead on issues like job creation, economic growth, women's issues, health care and housing," Sweeney said in a statement. "He has already said the storm `erased the blackboard,' meaning he is going to use it as an excuse to ignore every other issue in New Jersey."
Christie, in an interview last week, said so much time in the next year will be spent recovering from Sandy that his administration won't have time to do most other things.
"This has come to supersede most of the rest of the first-term agenda," Christie said.
The governor announced his intent to run for re-election in part for the chance to lead the state through the post-storm rebuilding.
Only one Democrat, state Sen. Barbara Buono, of Metuchen, has declared an intent to challenge Christie, but she doesn't have the support of the party's bosses. Sweeney on Monday said he was looking to recruit another candidate and might run himself.
Sweeney predicted the governor would use the State of the State speech to paint a rosier picture than reality suggests: increased poverty, 9.6 percent unemployment and the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country.
A budget snapshot presented last week by the Legislature's fiscal expert concluded that Sandy has had little impact on revenue collections, which have missed the Christie administration's targets for each of the past seven months and may force midyear budget cuts.
Sweeney was joined by Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, of Bergen County, who said six family planning centers have closed and countless others have seen their hours reduced since Christie failed to fund them. Democratic Sen. Nia Gill, of Essex County, criticized the governor for vetoing legislation that would have allowed the state to set up its own health care exchange to comply with Obama's health care overhaul.
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