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.”
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.
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.Meanwhile, it is Egea who is in the crosshairs of investigators who want to know whether she told O’Dowd, Christie, or other officials in the governor’s office about Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s September 13 email -- forwarded to her that day by Baroni -- charging that the George Washington Bridge lane closures violated the law. And if she did not report it up the line, investigators will want to know why not.
The flurry of investigations and subpoenas will put Egea’s decision and other internal workings of Christie’s governor’s office on public display. Perhaps in anticipation of that outcome, Randy Mastro, the high-profile lawyer Christie brought in to handle his administration’s response to the flood of subpoenas, also has been charged by Christie with analyzing the “information flow” within his office.
Comella, Drewniak, and press spokesman Colin Reed yesterday failed to respond to emailed requests for comment.
To Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who has been leading the legislative investigation, the Bridgegate scandal and its coverup is a question of the culture Christie engenders among his inner circle.
In announcing the appointments of Egea and Porrino on December 2, Christie declared, “I’ve said all along in these jobs you’re only as good as the people around you,” adding that he valued two qualities above all others. “You can’t teach smart and you can’t teach loyal.”
It is the conflict between “smart” and “loyal” in the Christie administration that puzzles those who have served in high-level posts under previous Republican and Democratic governors. To them, the key question is why no one in Christie’s governor’s office – an office in which at least seven staffers knew there were questions being raised about the propriety of the George Washington Bridge lane closures -- felt comfortable enough to tell Christie that they had doubts about the closures or that they could cause future problems for the administration. Christie insists he was “blindsided” when he read the Kelly email on January 8.
“Each governor’s office is different. But there’s a perception out there that no one in this governor’s office can walk into the governor’s private office, shut the door behind him, and tell the governor no,” said one former high-ranking official who asked not to be identified. “The inner circle in a governor’s office is a small group, and the chiefs, the deputy chiefs, and top communications people meet together and talk all the time.
“You have to be able to rely on the people sitting outside your door 12 to 14 hours a day,” the former official said. “They need to be able to tell you you’ve made a mistake or that other people you trust may have made a mistake. Ultimately, it’s a question of protecting the governor, and that didn’t happen here.”
That responsibility for protecting the governor now falls on Egea, whose handling of the September 13 Foye memo is a focal point of the legislative probe and whose new role as Christie’s chief of staff makes her the governor’s gatekeeper.
“It has to be especially hard for Egea dealing with a new job plus dealing with all of this,” said David Rousseau, who was serving as state treasurer when Gov. Jon Corzine’s near-fatal auto accident incapacitated him for several months.
“We were luckier on the timing than Christie because Jon had already given his budget speech, he was able to turn over the duties of serving as interim governor to Dick Codey, who had already been acting governor, and Jon got back by the time we had to finalize the budget.”
As to Christie’s selection of Egea, “I was actually surprised when she was named chief of staff, because she’s doesn’t have the political background you would want in a chief of staff going into a presidential election,” Rousseau said. “Obviously, he was bringing her in more as a manager, with the idea that (longtime Christie political advisers) Bill Palatucci, Mike DuHaime, and Bob Grady would be calling the political shots.”
While Palatucci, DuHaime, and Grady will handle the long-range political strategy for Christie, it’s unclear who will take over as the governor’s political point man on a day-to-day basis -- the role filled by Stepien, the 35-year-old Karl Rove-in-waiting whom Christie decided to sever ties with on January 9, the same day he fired Kelly.
Stepien served as Christie’s political right arm as campaign manager for both his 2009 and 2013 races, and as deputy chief of staff for legislative relations and intergovernmental affairs in the governor’s office for more than three years in between. Christie had already hired him as consultant for the Republican Governors Association and had just nominated him to serve as the chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party two days before he fired him.
With Stepien running the state GOP and directing Christie’s Republican Governors Association fundraising efforts heading into 2016, Stepien’s protégé, Kelly, had been filling Stepien’s chair as the deputy chief of staff running Christie’s political operations out of the governor’s office. But now Kelly, too, is gone, and the position she and Stepien occupied over the past four years remains unfilled.Compounding Christie’s difficulty as he tries to juggle his national duties as chairman of the Republican Governors Association with upcoming fundraising trips to Texas, Utah, Illinois, Georgia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts is the allegation against Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who fills in as governor when Christie is out of state.
Guadagno may soon be facing subpoenas of her own based on Zimmer’s allegation -- which Guadagno has denied -- that she passed on a direct message from Christie threatening to withhold Sandy aid from Hoboken unless Zimmer pushed through a high-rise development proposed by the Rockefeller Group and represented by the law firm of David Samson, Christie’s appointee as Port Authority chairman.
Ironically, Christie’s first trip as Republican Governors Association chairman took him out of state to Florida the weekend that Zimmer’s charge hit the national airwaves on MSNBC and CNN. Republican Gov. Rick Scott had already cancelled a planned public appearance with Christie because of the Bridgegate scandal, and the governor spent the weekend avoiding the national media at a series of closed fundraisers.
With Christie away, it took almost three days for the Christie administration to put together a press conference by Guadagno and a public response by other administration officials to the Zimmer allegations -- a critical delay that ceded the airwaves to Zimmer and Democratic legislative leaders to chip away at the governor’s credibility.
Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable also denied Zimmer’s allegation that he pressured her to support the Rockefeller Group development, but Constable is now under fire for failing to tell a legislative committee under direct questioning that the Christie administration had fired one of its major Sandy reconstruction contractors.
The subpoenas issued by the Assembly Select Committee on Investigations on January 16, which demand the return of all relevant materials by February 3, are broad in scope, calling not only for documents relating to Bridgegate and its coverup, but also to any abuses of power or coverups of abuses of power by the Christie administration, its reelection campaign, and the Port Authority.
Whether the Christie administration will comply fully with such a broad request from the Legislature or claim some level of executive privilege -- whether outright or through extensive redaction of emails, texts and other documents -- may very well be the next legal battleground.
The governor has twice pledged to comply “with the U.S. Attorney inquiry and other appropriate inquiries and requests for information,” leaving legislators to question whether he regards their investigation as “appropriate.”