In NJ, Major League Political Spats Over Sports Teams

Apr 24, 2012 3:08pm
ap new jersey nets devils ll 120424 wblog In NJ, Major League Political Spats Over Sports Teams

(Image Credit: Julio Cortez/AP Photo | Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Relations between New Jersey’s politicians and its sports franchises may have hit an all-time low.

As the New Jersey Nets depart for Brooklyn, Gov. Chris Christie offered some sharp parting words Monday, hours before the Nets were set to play their last game in the state he governs.

“I’m not going to the Nets game tonight, and my message to the Nets is, ‘Goodbye,’” Christie told reporters at a press conference, to applause. “You don’t want to stay, we don’t want you. I’m not going to be in the business of begging people to stay here, that’s one of the most beautiful arenas in America, they’ve had the chance to play in. It’s one of the country’s most vibrant cities.”

For the last two seasons, the Nets have played in Newark’s Prudential Center. Next year, the team will open its $1 billion Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

‘They want to leave here and go to Brooklyn?” Christie said. “Good riddance, see you later.” Christie speculated that other NBA teams may want to occupy the arena.

With Christie’s public dressing-down of the Nets, the Garden State has seen its two (debatably) highest-profile politicians lash out at sports teams this month.  Newark Mayor Cory Booker has taken his own public fight to the New Jersey Devils–a dispute that centers on the same building the Nets are leaving, Newark’s Prudential Center.

Booker lashed out on April 4 at Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek over the public-financing deal cut by Booker’s predecessor, former mayor and convicted felon Sharpe James, to use a reported $210 million of taxpayer money to construct the $375 million arena.

The Devils owner is a “Grade-A huckster” who came to Newark with “a mouthful of promises and a pocketful of lies,” Booker told reporters.

Booker’s complaint centers on the Devils’ refusal to pay Newark the agreed-upon rent for using the arena. The city, meanwhile, has refused to honor a letter signed by former Mayor James’s business administrator promising the Devils $2.7 million in yearly parking revenue. A court-appointed arbiter ruled that Newark owes the Devils several hundred thousand dollars more than the Devils owe Newark, the Associated Press reported.

Vanderbeek, responding to Booker’s comments, said earlier this month: “It’s concerning that after choosing to take the Prudential Center to court and then have the court ruling that they needed to go to arbitration, and taking it to arbitration, that after that ruling the mayor chooses to not obey the law of the land but seems to be following Booker law.”

Booker and Christie are New Jersey’s two most charismatic politicians–one a Democrat, one a Republican.

If he chooses to run, Booker could be Christie’s most formidable challenger in the governor’s 2013 reelection bid. Christie, meanwhile, is being discussed as a potential vice-presidential ticketmate for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

While Christie has shrugged off the Nets’ departure, Booker is entangled in problems of city economics. In December 2010, a month and a half after the Nets played their first home game in the Prudential Center, Moody’s downgraded Newark’s credit rating to A3, its fourth-lowest grade. This spring, Booker has wrestled with Newark’s city council over councilmembers’ salaries and city-worker layoffs.

The spats have showcased each politician’s style. In his Nets comments, Christie lived up to the reputation he’s earned for bluntly dismissing his political antagonists off the cuff. Booker, who undertook a hunger strike in 1999, and lived in a tent in front of a housing project to protest drug distribution, lived up to his own reputation for hands-on advocacy.

Despite the sports-driven animosity of their home-state politicians, New Jersey residents can at least take solace in retaining both New York City football teams, the Jets and Giants, which play in the Meadowlands Sports Complex’s MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, while declining to officially call New Jersey home.

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