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.”Christie also defended Bill Baroni, whose resignation as Port Authority deputy executive director he announced last Friday, adding that he listened to Baroni’s livecast testimony before Wisniewski’s committee. “I don’t assume people are lying, especially not people like Sen. Baroni who I have known for a very long time,” he said.
The governor insisted that not even “the most partisan folks here have charged that anything that Sen. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein has done was criminal,” and predicted that the Wall Street Journal would owe Baroni and Wildstein an apology for tying the lane closures to partisan retaliation against Sokolich.
Christie said the entire controversy was overblown, questioning how bad the traffic delays could have been if it took four days for Sokolich to reach Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye to complain. “Did he lose the phone number?” Christie asked.
Christie criticized reporters for “chasing” the Bridge-gate story instead of writing about his efforts to lower the state’s unemployment rate or reach a compromise on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, which are “more important to the people of New Jersey than a couple of cones and a couple of lanes for four days.”
Asked about Christie’s remarks, Wisniewski responded angrily that “this incident was not a traffic cone joke, it is about the abuse of power and the effort to conceal that abuse of power by the governor’s two highest-level appointments to the Port Authority, who closed traffic lanes from Fort Lee leading into the George Washington Bridge and concealed it from the executive director of the Port Authority, the mayor of Fort Lee. and the chief of police."
“In every organization, people take their cues and model their behavior after the person in charge, and it is a reflection on the governor’s leadership that the people he appointed felt at ease abusing their power,” he said.
Wisniewski disclosed that his committee has received the documents subpoenaed from the Port Authority and that he has given Baroni and Wildstein, who have retained criminal attorneys, until Monday to comply with their subpoenas. After he and his staff have reviewed the documents, Wisniewski has said he plans to subpoena their testimony under oath at another Assembly Transportation Committee hearing early in January.
He said Christie’s dismissal of the scandal as “nothing more than partisan politics” ignores the “rampant dysfunction” at the Port Authority.
“Shifting explanations for the Port Authority’s alleged traffic study, the governor’s aggressive defense of Mr. Wildstein and Mr. Baroni, and the threat to public safety resulting from their actions all raise suspicions that there is still more to be learned,” Wisniewski warned. “We will get the answers whether the governor likes it or not.”
Sweeney praised Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), whose district includes Fort Lee, for taking the lead role on the Bridge-gate investigation in New Jersey, adding that the Senate chose not to conduct its own separate committee hearings to avoid turning the issue into a “partisan circus.”
As Weinberg announced Monday, she and Wisniewski introduced Senate and Assembly resolutions yesterday asking Congress to conduct a comprehensive study of the Port Authority in the wake of a U.S. General Accounting Office report issued four months ago that criticized the agency for its lack of transparency and accountability with regard to last year’s major toll hike.
But Murray, the Monmouth University pollster, and Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics, noted that what’s happening outside New Jersey politically is as important as what’s happening inside.
“The reason this story has legs is because the national media is focusing attention on Christie as the presumptive favorite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination,” Dworkin said in an interview earlier this week. “The national Democrats also are targeting Christie, so the liberal blogosphere is taking up the cause.”The intensity of the current attacks is ironic, Dworkin said “because the fact is that national Democrats, including the national party, did very little to support Barbara Buono when she was running against Christie for governor, but clearly whatever was holding them back then is not holding them back from going after Chris Christie today.”
Murray said the web ad put out by national Democrats attacking Christie on Bridge-gate would not have been made without input from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who runs the bistate Port Authority with Christie and is a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2016.
Cuomo is playing a canny political game too, Murray said. “Cuomo said ‘I trust Christie,’ but he didn’t entirely refute whether Christie talked to him” about having Foye, the Port Authority executive director, back off on the intensity of his investigation, which now includes a probe by the Port Authority Inspector General’s Office. “Cuomo fanned the flames too,” Murray noted.
Furthermore, U.S. Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller (D-WVa), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has launched his own probe of the scandal, requesting responses from the Port Authority to a series of questions. Rockefeller also has asked the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to investigate the alleged abuses at the Port Authority, which is a bistate agency with a charter issued by Congress when it was created in 1921.
Christie yesterday said he did not know Rockefeller well enough to assess whether his investigation was politically motivated.
But for Christie, this is just the beginning, Dworkin and Murray agreed. “This is a lesson for the Christie campaign,” Murray said. “You lose control of the story when you don’t have 100 percent control of the communications apparatus, and this story is now being driven by the Democrats and by the Port Authority. The fact that this is the first story that Christie hasn’t been able to control is testimony to how airtight this administration and the people around the administration have been.
“New Jersey is easy to keep under control: You have a press corps that needs access to the governor to do its job,” he said. “But as the circle gets larger as you move out on the national stage, you lose control. And the national press corps is not as concerned with how you treat them.”
Christie, who has been one of the Republican Party’s most popular speakers and fundraisers for the past two years, will be out on the national stage even more as chairman of the Republican Governors Association for 2014.
Christie recently campaigned in Idaho, Vermont, and Massachusetts, and he announced yesterday that Bill Stepien, who managed his recent reelection campaign and previously served as a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, would be joining the Republican Governors Association as a consultant, where he will be available to work closely with Christie on trying to help Republicans win gubernatorial races next year.
That will make Christie an even more important target for national Democrats. “The attention that this bridge issue has generated is only the beginning,” Dworkin said. “We should expect to see a lot of this in the next few years, including issues that have been previously reported on and all but ignored by the public. Everything is going to get brought back up and new attention will be given to it. That is the nature of running for president in the 21st century.”