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Mounting 'Bridgegate' Investigations Undercut Christie’s Clout

This year, chastened governor can’t use State of the State to urge Washington to be more like New Jersey

chris christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Today, as embattled Gov. Chris Christie prepares to deliver his fourth State of the State speech to a packed Assembly Chamber, the state of the state is severely troubled, and the charismatic, hard-charging governor’s political clout and ability to punish his enemies will most likely never be the same.

A week ago, Christie was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, poised to declare New Jersey’s record of bipartisanship a model for a bitterly divided nation in his State of the State speech. He was set to celebrate his immigrant roots at Ellis Island at his made-for-a-campaign-ad second Inaugural, and pop in for a celebrity interview at the Super Bowl at Giants-Jets Stadium where air time is $8 million a minute.

Today, it’s all different.

Today, when Christie gives his speech, “it will be mostly the same speech he was going to do -- a call for a tax cut, job creation, Sandy recovery, getting New Jersey back on track -- but without the bravado about teaching Washington to be more like New Jersey,” said Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray.

That's not a likely lesson when his administration is facing investigations into Bridgegate by two legislative committees armed with subpoena powers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Port Authority Inspector-General’s Office, a U.S. Senate committee, and possibly the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. A federal agency is probing the propriety of the $25 million federally funded “Stronger Than The Storm” Sandy ad campaign in which he starred, and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office is deciding whether to find the first of his aides to testify in Bridgegate to be in contempt of an Assembly committee for taking the Fifth Amendment more than 30 times.

Today, as Christie takes the podium, he will stand in front of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), his erstwhile ally who has launched an investigation into why Christie’s top aides engaged in partisan retaliation against a mayor who refused to endorse him by closing George Washington Bridge access lanes from Fort Lee, and new Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), who announced the appointment of a special investigative committee to dig into Bridgegate.

Incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto at a press conference to announce the formation of a Bridgegate "supercommittee" to build on the "great work" done by the Transportation Committee.

Near the front below the podium to his right, Christie will see Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), whom he unsuccessfully attempted to oust for the sin of trying to win enough Republican seats to gain control of the Senate, even if it meant going after Christie’s South Jersey Democratic allies. Kean still says all the right things, but his father, the revered former governor and 911 Commission chair, has been telling everyone that Christie’s aggressive take-no-prisoners approach to governing raises doubts about his fitness for the presidency.

Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the Democrat whose investigation has already the ended the career of four top Christie appointees, including his political right arm, campaign manager Bill Stepien, will be on the aisle four rows up. And as Christie lifts his eyes to scan the front row of the Assembly Gallery, he has to wonder how many more of his top aides will no longer have seats when the various investigations finally wrap up months into the future.

He will see the gallery packed with the national media whose attention he used to covet, and as he looks into the cameras and reads from the two Teleprompters flanking him, he will be calibrating his second nationally televised apology in five days not only for the citizens of New Jersey, but also for the elite Republican party officials and fundraisers around the country who hold in their hands the future of his presidential ambitions.

For Christie, who has the disastrous timing of serving as chairman of the Republican Governors Association this year, “the question is whether he can still move the ball for the Republican Party heading into 2016,” Murray said. “He has to acknowledge to the Republican National Committee in his speech that he knows his effort is in danger. If he doesn’t, they’re going to think he’s delusional. At the end of the day, it’s the party insiders who are going to decide if he is finished or not.”

Christie’s not finished in New Jersey, even if voters no longer believe him, political experts agreed. A Monmouth University Poll released yesterday showed Christie holding onto a 59 percent approval rating, even though 64 percent of voters believe the bridge lanes were closed for political retaliation, 51 percent do not believe Christie was completely truthful, and 52 percent believe he knew about his staff’s involvement before the bombshell release of subpoenaed documents.

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