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Scandals Put Christie, Governor’s Office Under Unprecedented Pressure

Overhauled Christie team juggling politics, policy, and subpoenas for governor weakened by nosedive in polls and loss of bully pulpit


For Chris Christie, his campaign team, and the top staffers in his governor’s office, the political furor and rash of investigations into Bridgegate and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations could not have come at a worse time.

Christie’s admission on January 9 that his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, ordered the George Washington Bridge lane closures didn’t just overshadow his State of the State speech and Inaugural Address, chop into his poll ratings, erode his effectiveness as Republican Governors Association chairman, and end his hard-won status as the 2016 frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Just as important in the months ahead, it put Christie, his weakened political team, and his recently reshaped governor’s office in the unprecedented position of trying to juggle politics, policy, and personal subpoenas while heading into what promises to be a fierce budget battle with Democratic leaders with a diminished governor who no longer commands the network and cable TV bully pulpit that was his greatest political asset.

“I’m surprised they’re handling the situation as well as they have,” said Carl Golden, who sat in a dozen years of closed-door meetings in the governor’s office as the trusted communications director for Republican Govs. Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman. “You know how pressure-filled the governor’s office is in normal times. It’s doubly difficult when you’re trying to do a budget, and subpoenas are flying around you like snowflakes in January.”

A Juggling Act

For Christie, what makes it particularly difficult is that “he’s got to do four things at the same time,” Dan Jones, cohost of CNN’s Crossfire said yesterday. “He’s got to run the State of New Jersey, he’s got to run the Republican Governors Association, he’s got to run for president, and deal with these investigations,” Jones noted, adding that Christie would have to be “born on Krypton” to do it all.

Superman’s cape looks a lot shorter, as the state Senate and Assembly prepare to vote today to create a joint legislative committee with subpoena power to investigate alleged abuses of power by the Christie administration, and as the U.S. Attorney’s Office -- where Christie made his reputation as corruption-buster -- continues to investigate alleged corruption by Christie’s government appointees and campaign aides.

For Christie, coming off a landslide reelection victory in November that cemented his status as the Republican presidential frontrunner, the fall has been dizzying.

The political fallout that followed Christie’s firing of Kelly and two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien and the resignations of two of his top Port Authority appointees wiped out what would have been a triumphant round of Christie appearances on morning talk shows, late night TV, and the Sunday news shows following his State of the State speech and Inaugural Address to boost his presidential aspirations and his second-term agenda in New Jersey.

Furthermore, the Bridgegate scandal and subsequent allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Sandy aid unless she pushed through a development project that the governor supported, came in the middle of a second-term shakeup in the governor’s office that left a new untested management team to handle the fallout from the two controversies.

Christie announced early last month that he would be replacing Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd and Chief Counsel Charles McKenna, who had worked closely with legislative leaders of both parties for the past two years, with a pair of relative political newcomers, Regina Egea, who had headed the Governor’s Authorities Unit, and Christopher Porrino, who had been managing the Division of Law in the Attorney General’s Office.

A Volley of Subpoenas

That was before O’Dowd, McKenna, Egea, Communications Director Maria Comella, Press Secretary Michael Drewniak, and the governor’s office itself were among the 20 targets of subpoenas issued by the Assembly Select Committee on Investigations probing the Bridgegate scandal.

“The U.S. Attorney and legislative committees keep issuing subpoenas, and all will have to be complied with,” Golden noted. “It really is hard for the people who are subjects of the subpoenas. They have to dig through their documents, emails, and phone records. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the business of government.”

O’Dowd’s nomination as Attorney General is in limbo, McKenna has already moved over to run the Schools Development Authority, and Drewniak is the focal point of questions about his work with Kelly and former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni on a press release blaming the lane closures on an apparent phantom traffic study.

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