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Will the Bridgegate Scandal Change the Way Christie Governs?

John Mooney | January 10, 2014

The conversation may be about Christie's national ambitions, but he still has a job to do at home

george washington bridge

For all the talk about how the George Washington Bridge scandal is going to affect Gov. Chris Christie’s national ambitions, what about closer to home, what about the "business of the people" as it's conducted in New Jersey?

Christie gives a State of the State address next Tuesday, an inaugural address a week after that, and presents a state budget a month of that. Even after his mea culpa yesterday, is he now a weakened chief executive with an equally weakened agenda going into his second term?

Or is he even more emboldened now, more intent than ever on leading -- and changing -- the conversation?

In dramatic fashion, yesterday in Trenton kicked off with a court hearing about subpoenas, followed by Christie’s epic two-hour press conference, and ending with an equally long Assembly hearing over the scandal.

But what does all this drama mean when it comes to Christie’s agenda for his next term?

In conversations with leading legislators, lobbyists, and others who were on hand or following developments yesterday, the answers varied widely.

From both sides of the aisle, many said that it is too early to tell, given the uncertainty of future disclosures and other developments in Bridgegate, not to mention the vagaries of the media following it.

A few said they expected Christie may be more prone to compromises, while others said he may be even bolder in pressing his agenda. One leading legislator half-joked, “Maybe he’ll be a little nicer.”

Still, most agreed that the governor is sure to be distracted and the political equation has clearly been shifted, at least for now. At a minimum, Christie’s next speeches are probably already going through a rewrite, said one former governor in the Statehouse yesterday.

“I don’t see how he gets up there on Tuesday [for the State of the State] and ignores this,” said state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who served as governor after former Gov. James McGreevey’s resignation. “I have to think his speech has changed drastically from Monday to today.”

Others said there will clearly be some adjustments to make, at least as the scandal continues to dominate the public conversation. And there's a great deal on the agenda, from debates over health reform, changes in education policy in areas like charter schools and teacher quality, and deepening divisions over the administration’s environmental stance.

A Temporary Disability

Hal Bozarth, longtime executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, conceded that Christie may be temporarily damaged.

"It will take him a while to be the big Kahuna in the room again,'' he said.

Still, Bozarth does not expect a lot of changes in Christie's policies. "If had to guess, he will be exactly the same on the policy issues. He may well stay the course and he won't give in to the environmentalists,'' he said.

An early indication may emerge in how the governor deals out vetoes, conditional vetoes, and pocket vetoes over the flood of legislation expected to be approved in the lame-duck legislative session, which ends Monday, Bozarth said.

"What he does with all those bills will be interesting,'' he said.

Healthcare policy experts don't expect Christie's situation to have much of an effect on specific policy items, but some experts do see the potential for a more widespread impact on the administration's approach to policy.

New Jersey Policy Perspective senior policy analyst Raymond J. Castro said the administration may become more open to hearing proposals from outside groups, after receiving criticism for having a closed approach to governance.

"Maybe the state departments are going to be more cooperative," Castro said, noting that healthcare policy advocates have been frustrated in attempts to meet with Department of Banking and Insurance officials.

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