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Mounting 'Bridgegate' Investigations Undercut Christie’s Clout

“Even before the bridge controversy, this was always going to be a tough second term,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “Lame-duck governors always have a tougher time with the Legislature, especially when there’s not a lot of money coming in to do new projects. Whether he’s at 65 percent approval rating or 25 percent approval, New Jersey’s governor is still the most powerful in the nation, and nothing is going to get done without him."

“That being said, it will be difficult for Christie’s Republican Party agenda to get a full hearing while the cloud of these investigations hangs over New Jersey politics. A critical element of Christie’s success in his first term was his ability to mobilize public opinion through his town halls and very savvy media outreach. He will have a tougher time doing that when all the media wants to focus on is the investigations,” Dworkin said.

John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said Christie did not go into this year as a normal “lame-duck” governor, crippled because of the constitutional prohibition against running for a third term, because legislators from both parties assumed he would run for president, and have a good chance to win, so they might still have to deal with him for another four to eight years after 2016.

“That could change because of this scandal,” Weingart said. “The real question is not whether Republicans are going to begin to stand up to Christie, but how much the opposition from the Democrats is likely to grow.”

Opening up Some Distance

Murray said Sweeney’s decision yesterday to convene a special Senate investigative committee with subpoena powers chaired by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) “is an attempt to put distance between him and the governor in preparation for his own run for governor in 2017. With all the investigations underway, it’s becoming more of a liability for Sweeney to be so closely associated with Christie.”

Christie has trumpeted his bipartisan cooperation with Sweeney on groundbreaking pension and tenure legislation as a centerpiece of his speeches to Republican audiences across the country, and Christie chose not to campaign against Sweeney and other “Christiecrat” South Jersey Democrats who worked with him on critical legislation during his 2013 reelection campaign. He won by a landslide, but did not gain a single seat in the Legislature -- unlike former Gov. Kean, who carried in a Republican Assembly majority by running against “obstructionist Democrats” during his landslide 1985 reelection.

Kean Jr. defied Christie by going after Sweeney and other South Jersey Democrats because there was no other way to gain the five seats needed to recapture the majority, and Christie’s effort to unseat Kean as minority leader was seen by Republicans partly as the governor trying to do a favor for Sweeney.

So far, there is no indication that the Republican “bobble heads,” as Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) dubbed the GOP Senate and Assembly caucuses who have voted in lockstep with Christie for four years, will buck the governor now that he is weakened by Bridgegate. But the Republican members of Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee did vote unanimously last Thursday to hold David Wildstein, the Port Authority official appointed by Christie who directly ordered the lane closures, in contempt for repeatedly taking the Fifth Amendment.

More Bad News

On a day in which Sweeney launched his own investigation and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency confirmed that it was undertaking a review of the propriety of the federally funded “Stronger Than The Storm” TV ads in which Christie starred, the worst news for Christie was a new email chain showing that fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s punishment of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was not an isolated incident.

Emails obtained by news organizations from Jersey City showed that Kelly, who succeeded Stepien as Christie’s political point person in the governor’s office after he left to run the governor's reelection campaign, assiduously courted new Jersey City Democratic Mayor Steve Fulop following his election last May.

Kelly arranged a “mayor’s day” scheduled for July 23 in Jersey City that would bring a parade of Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials to Jersey City to meet with the mayor to see how they could help him. Included were Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, Economic Development Authority chief Michelle Brown, Sandy relief coordinator Marc Forzan, and Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni.

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