Transcript: Diane Sawyer Interviews New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Calls teachers union "political thugs," says government must reach budget deal.

ByABC News
April 6, 2011, 5:35 PM

April 6, 2011— -- DIANE SAWYER: So we're looking at a year later here and somebody said once that you were like a teenager with the hands on the wheel for the first time. Still feel like that?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, I do. I still feel like every day -- like I've said to the kids that I just met in the classroom -- I feel like every day I have an opportunity to do something great. And that's what this job offers you. So, I kind of wake up every morning excited to get going and to get to work, 'cause the things that we're working on are so important. And I have a chance to actually do something -- not just talk about it but actually do it.

DIANE SAWYER: We have seen all the high-octane debate. Debate is a polite word sometimes for what's going on about education in New Jersey. I was looking up and I saw the ad running now that has been taken out, which talks about you and keeps saying, "Chris Christie is making the wrong choices for New Jersey." [Critics say] that larger class sizes put the children at risk, that cutting funding for the schools over $1 billion, in fact, is going to cost the children in what they learn.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, listen, we left $1 billion in federal funding. And I can't print money like the federal government.

DIANE SAWYER: Is it gonna cost the children in what they learn?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: I don't think so. It doesn't have to. And, you know, what I said to the teacher's union a year ago was if they had been willing to take a pay freeze for one year we wouldn't have any larger class sizes, 'cause [we] wouldn't have had to lay off teachers. But instead, they chose to continue to get their salary increases rather than be part of the shared sacrifice, Diane. And they weren't. And they say they're for the kids. They should have taken the salary freeze. They didn't. And now, you know, we had to lay teachers off.

DIANE SAWYER: Bruce Springsteen, you just told the kids here you're the number one fan of Bruce Springsteen. "Thunder Road," you talked about a savior in the streets. He has written a letter in which he says that it's simply a contradiction between your large tax cuts including for really rich people and doing things that change education for the kids that affect teachers, cut the services to those of the most dire conditions. Those cuts are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class and not just those in poverty and are likely to continue to get worse. Bruce Springsteen.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, well, listen, I don't-- I'm not s-- Are you surprised to hear that from Bruce? I mean, you know, Bruce is liberal. doesn't mean I like him any less. But you know, Bruce believes that we should be raising taxes all the time on everyone to do all the things that he'd like to see government do. That's fine, it's his point of view and he's absolutely welcome to it, and I have great respect for it, because he speaks out. And unlike other people who don't, he speaks out. That's great for him.

But here's the deal. The deal is that, first of all, I didn't cut taxes on millionaires. [Democratic ex-Gov.] John Corzine did. He let the millionaires' tax expire. And I inherited government, Diane, with a 10 percent unemployment [rate], where the top 1 percent of the taxpayers in New Jersey already pay 41 percent of the income tax. I think they're paying their fair share.

And the fact is we have to make government smaller and we have to make it smarter, and we have to rein in the costs of benefits and pensions that are bankrupting our state. Those are the things that are eating away at the edge of the middle class -- not what I'm doing.

DIANE SAWYER: But if good teachers come to you and say, "A smaller classroom is a great thing for good teaching. And I'm a good teacher and I've come to you and said this." And if you simply tax -- and I know how you feel about the businesses that are affected, take them out of it -- just tax people who make a whole lot of money a little bit more and you can keep the class size the same.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, first--

DIANE SAWYER: Wouldn't you do that? Is that not a tradeoff?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, first of all, if I could do it I might consider it. But it won't, because the tax they're talking about-- First of all, the tax they're talking about is the one that Gov. Cuomo's getting rid of in New York, the millionaire's tax, for the same reason that I don't want it back. Because the last time we had it in 2009, 50 percent of the filers on that tax were small business owners, were people who were in employing people in New Jersey. And it would only raise about $600 million. We're not talking about a tax that would solve all of the problems that these folks are talking about.

The fact is-- The fact is that, you know, we have a pension system that's $54 billion under funded, a public sector health benefit system that's $67 billion under funded because our benefits are out of whack to public employees. We need to have everybody be part of the sacrifice, not just some people.

And, you know, the folks from the public sector unions believe they should be exempted from what's happened in the recession. The state supreme court's gonna hear it and we'll see what happens. But I'll tell you this, I don't know that the state supreme court-- No one elected them. And I don't know that the state supreme court should be able to order how we spend and how we tax. It seems to me under the constitution that that's what you elect a governor and a legislature for. But we'll see what happens.

DIANE SAWYER: I want to ask a question about tenure because those who argue that tenure does help say, "Here, you want it black and white, here it is: In the states in which they have full tenure, many states which have full tenure have better education systems, proven better education outcome for the kids."

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Listen, I don't want to get rid of tenure. I just want to make it better. Tenure doesn't work, Diane, in a state like New Jersey, the way it's set up now when, in the last 10 years, out of over 150,000 teachers in New Jersey, 17 have been terminated for incompetence. Now, do we really believe that there are only 17 incompetent teachers in New Jersey?

DIANE SAWYER: But the union said it's willing to accommodate--

CHRIS CHRISTIE: They'll have more incompetent lawyers and--

DIANE SAWYER: The unions have said that they're willing to make some adjustments.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: No, what they said was instead of having an administrative law judge hear it, they're willing to have an arbitrator hear it but not change any of the rules.

Here's what I want to do. I know people are scared 'cause we're talking about change. But we can't allow the fear to be able to stand in the way of what we need to do for kids. I met with a teacher. I'm having small, private teacher conversations all over New Jersey, had one yesterday and the teacher said to me, "I'm willing to do whatever I need to do to help make this situation better for the kids and, governor, we need change in this system." And she's right.

What I'm saying is earn tenure after three years, that's fine, but continue to be evaluated every year. And if you're found to be ineffective, then you lose tenure and you have to earn it back. I mean, listen, it's the same thing in your business and my business, Diane. We get judged every day. Every day. And if you're judged to be ineffective, ABC's not keeping you on the air. And if I'm judged to be ineffective, New Jersey voters are gonna kick me out.

Why is it that teaching is one of the only professions left where we don't reward excellence and there are no consequences for failure? That's not what America's all about. I want to reward great teachers and pay them more. But I will not stand for incompetence in front of the classroom, 'cause that hurts kids. And that's what the unions are protecting.

DIANE SAWYER: You are a student of tone and message in public life. And I have heard teachers say, including, by the way, some at this school-- Teachers at this school say, "I just don't hear that he respects us. I know he wants. He says he's differentiating between the issues with the unions and how he feels about teachers. And my mom was a 30-year teacher, all my aunts were teachers. And to hear things as we've heard last year in town meetings, [saying] 'I have no interest in answering your question,' to a teacher that, [saying] 'Then you don't have to teach' to a teacher." Did you go too far? Did you go too tough? Do you want to apologize to the teachers if your tone seemed disrespectful to them?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, I don't want to apologize to those teachers. Because the one who I said, "I have no interest in answering your question," is [one who], after I listened to a 45-second question where she insulted me throughout and mischaracterized my record, when I began to answer she rolled her eyes, snickered and walked away.

Well, you know what, Diane? Here's the deal with me and all these tone issues. If you treat me with respect even when you disagree with me, I'll treat you with respect back. You treat me with disrespect, that's what you're gonna get back. And I ask the teachers, let me say really clearly: On election night, one of the few people I thanked on election night were my teachers from Livingston where I grew up, here in New Jersey.

DIANE SAWYER: But [what] if some of them feel bruised by, however you intended it, by what they're hearing all the time?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Here's what I say to them: that I believe that teachers in New Jersey deserve a union as good as they are and they don't have one. And they should start demanding to get a union as good as they are. Because I believe the teachers in New Jersey, in the main, are wonderful public servants that care deeply. But their union. Their union are a group of political thugs.

DIANE SAWYER: Have you seen what it is to be CC'd?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yes, I have. I have.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, listen, it's part of, you know, what we do. And we're from New Jersey. And when you're from New Jersey, what that means is you give as good as you get. And so, you know, being CC'd means that, you know, if somebody wants to take a shot, I'm gonna take a shot right back. And they're gonna hear it direct and blunt and straight. And I think people appreciate that.

DIANE SAWYER: Have you seen the little boy who wants to be governor?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, I'm gonna-- In fact, I'm seeing him later today.

DIANE SAWYER: You're seeing him?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, he's coming. He's coming to the statehouse later today. He wants to be governor. I'm gonna give him a shot. (laughs)

DIANE SAWYER: He may give it to you as good as he gets.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, I have no doubt from watching that video that he will give it to me as good as I give it.

DIANE SAWYER: He may just say, "It's time, step aside."

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well listen, if he does -- he makes a good case -- I'll let him sit in the chair and see what he can do.

DIANE SAWYER: All right. A couple of national questions if I can. I was scooped in the eighth grade, of course, by the question [asked earlier in the day by a New Jersey student], but you're still saying categorically not running 2012?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: No, I'm not running for president.

DIANE SAWYER: Categorically, not running?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, I mean, I don't know how else to put it, Diane. I mean, the answer is no. I'm not doing it.

DIANE SAWYER: Why not? If you see things falling apart, most people have the impulse to go in and try to save the situation.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: A good way to put it: You don't make a decision to run for president of the United States based on impulse. I don't feel ready in my heart to be president. And unless I do, I don't have any right offering myself to the people of this country. It's much too big a job. And so you have to first feel in your heart that you're ready and that you want it more than anything else.

And I don't feel that so I don't want to, you know, participate in the vanity exercise just because people ask me to do it or because people say, "You could win." Well, that's not the point. The point is: Could I do the job and do I want to do the job? And right now, this is the job I want to do.

DIANE SAWYER: And if Mitt Romney becomes president, that's great with you?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, listen, we have a number of candidates who are good. I'm not gonna focus on any one in particular. There's a number of them. I don't even know if we know the complete field yet. So let's-- So who's-- Who's in the field?

DIANE SAWYER: If Donald Trump is president, is that great with you?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Oh, Donald's a really good friend of mine. I don't know that Donald really wants to be president. I mean--

DIANE SAWYER: Does he want to be the Republican nominee?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: I don't even know that he wants that in particular. Listen, I-- I--

DIANE SAWYER: Have you asked him? Did he tell you?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: We've spoken about it, and all I can say to you is that, you know, I'll believe it when I see it. I have great respect for Donald and he's a friend. He and Melania are friends of mine and Mary Pat's. But, you know, Donald's very good.

DIANE SAWYER: Think it's a stunt?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: He's very-- No, I wouldn't call it stunt, but I think he's very outspoken and he wants, he loves to be on the stage and to express his opinions. Maybe that'll ultimately manifest itself in a political career. I don't know. But I think he likes what he does. I think he likes building things. And I think he likes being on TV. And, you know, he does that well.

DIANE SAWYER: To be CC'd and DT'd in the same room would be some row.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, that would be-- That would be quite a combination, yes.

DIANE SAWYER: As we know, it's a moving target today whether there will be a government shutdown or not. What do you think? Is it -- fill in the blank -- principled or crazy to let the government shut down on Friday because of, at this point, I think, we're talking $7 billion in difference between the two sides?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Oh listen, all I can tell you-- I don't know what they're talking about behind closed doors. But I tell you what, in New Jersey we had the same kind of situation a year ago. And I just got in the room with the Democrats in the legislature and we came to a principled agreement -- not everything I wanted and not everything they wanted. But you know, I didn't think it was in the best interest of New Jersey for the government to close down and, to their credit, neither did the Democrats in New Jersey. And so we hammered out a deal. But it's not easy.

DIANE SAWYER: So from the vantage point of New Jersey, what would you say to those Republicans holding out and saying, "Shut it down"?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: No. You know, what I would say to all of them-- And I have a particular message for the president: He should get in and lead and bring them together. I mean, I think the one thing as an executive that you have the advantage of here is in dealing with the legislature, is you've gotta lead. And he should have those people in the same room, Diane, and he should say to them, "We're not leaving here until we've resolved this issue." And I think that would have a powerful effect, if the president would do that. It certainly had a powerful effect when I did it in New Jersey. I think it would be powerful if the president did that. It's time to lead.

DIANE SAWYER: If they shut it down, is it a failure?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: It's a failure of everybody -- everybody, including the president. Because in the end we're here to stand up for principles, to say the things that we believe in, but we're also here to lead and run a government. And so what I'd say to folks is, "Listen, you can stand up for your principles and there are rooms, room to compromise in order to continue to say you're standing for those principles." So it would be a failure of everyone involved, the Congress and the president, if they don't get this done.

DIANE SAWYER: Governor, thank you so much. I know you've got a funeral, I'm sorry to say.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, yeah. Thank you.


OFF-MIC FEMALE VOICE: The only question I had was I know that you said, "I don't want to eliminate tenure." But didn't you actually use that exact phrase in your state of the--, that the time to eliminate tenure is now?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: What I said was time to eliminate tenure now, the tenure system we have, which doesn't allow us to be able to reward the best teachers and get rid of the incompetent ones. That forces us to do last in [having to abide by the policy of] first out, where no matter how good you are, if there are layoffs, that the youngest teachers have to go. There has to be a system that replaces that, that protects against arbitrary firing, retaliatory firing.

DIANE SAWYER: But tenure. Tenure -- isn't it in a yearly review or a five year review, isn't tenure?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: No, sure, you can have tenure protections as long as you continue to be a competent teacher in the classroom. But every year, you should be evaluated. And if you do not evaluate as effective, then you should have an opportunity to make yourself better. It doesn't mean you get fired.

DIANE SAWYER: But isn't tenure not having to prove yourself anymore because it's given?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, if that's what tenure is, Diane, then tenure is failing our students. Because I don't know what other profession in the world you don't have to prove yourself every day. You get on TV and prove yourself every night, and if you don't you're gone. And I'm gonna have to prove myself every day as governor or I'll be gone.

Why is it that we have one profession where it says after three years-- I mean, you can't tell me that you're not a better reporter today than you were if you'd been doing it for three years. But it's not a given. It's not a given. You could be worse. And if you are, you don't belong on the air in the same [way] that I don't belong as governor just because I won once.

I mean, that sounds like Francisco Franco to me, you know? You win once and you're there for life? I don't think so, but that's what teaching has become. After three years, you're there for life whether you're good or not. It's not a given, and you know it and I know it. And so let's stop pretending. So let's say, "Earn it." As long as you're doing a good job at the front of the classroom, you have complete protection.

But when you don't, you have an opportunity then to improve yourself. And if you don't improve yourself, you need to go. And you know why? Here's why: 'Cause I've got a daughter in the second grade. She's only got one year in the second grade. And if she has a lousy teacher at the front of that classroom, she's gonna be behind in third grade, in fourth grade, in fifth grade, in sixth grade.

DIANE SAWYER: Are you so confident it's possible through all these measures, whether it's observation or test outcomes or some other intuition, to know who is a really good teacher?


DIANE SAWYER: Are you that confident?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Of course. I mean, let me as the question: Do-- You know, you talk to any parent who has children in a school. Within weeks, they know if they have a good teacher or a bad teacher. Within weeks. And the rumor mill in the school tells them, too. "Oh, you got Mrs. Smith for third grade, uh-oh, not good. Yeah, 'cause she's not good, you know. Stay away from her." Or, "You got Mrs. Jones. She's fabulous. You're kid's gonna have a great year."

We know how to do it. It shouldn't just be about test scores, but student performance has to play a part in it. And then teaching, I still believe, is a craft, and so you have to also have teachers reviewing other teachers to say, "Are you staying up on your craft of being a person in front of the classroom who children are listening to and learning from?"

It's not a science, it's an art, as well. And both things should be part of the evaluation. But don't tell me that this is the only profession in the world where we can't effectively evaluate people. It's just impossible for me to believe that, especially because I've had four children in the schools. And I know when he has, when my children have a good teacher or a bad teacher. And, you know, so does everybody else who's listening to this. They know. We can figure it out.

And the people who don't want us to figure it out are the union leaders who just want to protect the worst of the worst and preserve their political power. That's what it's about. It's about power. That's what it's about. It's about power. Let's put that aside. Let's make a system that puts children's interest ahead of the feelings of adults. And that's what we're really doing now. We have an opposite.

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