For Gov. Chris Christie, as always, the best defense is the attack.
Facing the first real political scandal of his administration, Christie yesterday lashed out at the press and Democratic critics, dismissed the secret lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that snarled traffic in Fort Lee as inconsequential, and stood up for his political appointees who were forced to resign their high-paying Port Authority posts in the wake of Bridge-gate.
“I know you guys are obsessed with this,” Christie chided the assembled press corps at a Statehouse news conference. “I’m really not, it’s not that big of a deal. Just because the press runs around and writes about it both here and nationally, I know why that is and so do you, so let’s not pretend that it’s because of the gravity of the issue. It’s because I am a national figure.”
For Christie, a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 coming off his landslide reelection victory in November, the stakes are high.
“This is the first time anything close to the governor even resembled a scandal,” said Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray. “That’s why the Democrats are all over it.”
Not all Democrats, though.
While Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who has been chairing the Bridge-gate investigation, and Democratic National Committee spokesman Ian Sams were quick to criticize Christie yesterday for downplaying the scandal, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) vouched for the governor’s integrity.
“I’ve said this is important, and something’s not right,” Sweeney said when asked why he had been relatively silent on the issue, but quickly added, “None of us can imagine the governor ordered this. It’s stupidity.”
He compared the furor over the George Washington Bridge lane closings that led to the resignations of two trusted Christie political allies to his own experience running Gloucester County government with its 1,600 employees. “Unfortunately,” he said, “when they do something stupid, you’re responsible.”
Sweeney’s remarks came two days after Christie got a pass from South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross III -- like Sweeney, a key on-again, off-again Christie ally on the pension and tenure overhaul legislation that Christie has touted as his major bipartisan accomplishments on the national campaign trail.
Asked about Norcross’s comments to the Washington Post that national Democrats should be concentrating on their own candidates and their own problems with the implementation of Obamacare instead of worrying about Christie, Sweeney asked incredulously, “You want me to criticize George? George speaks for George, Steve speaks for Steve.”
Christie, as usual, had no trouble speaking for himself yesterday. The governor dismissed allegations that David Wildstein, a former high school classmate who resigned two weeks ago as the Port Authority’s director of interstate capital projects, had closed two Fort Lee entry lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge as retaliation against Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to join more than 50 other Democratic officials in endorsing him for reelection.
“I don’t ever remember even meeting the mayor,” Christie said, adding that he was never “on our radar screen” as a potential public supporter. “That’s why none of this makes any sense to me, and I think in the end that it will be shown to be rank speculation from folks who want to play political games.”