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Analysis: What's Wrong With Chris Christie's Government?

Constable increased the New Jersey Home-Keeper staff from six to 41, but even after 15 months, only $42 million had been distributed. But while Constable took credit for fixing the foreclosure problem, it is on his watch that only $25 million had been awarded and another $112 million obligated as of last month out of $600 million federal fund for storm damage repair related to superstorm Sandy -- an issue that Constable failed to appear at a Senate Legislative Oversight Committee hearing to address last month, although he promised to do so in the future.

For Grifa and Constable as incoming commissioners, one problem was that the Community Affairs Department they inherited, like most other state agencies, had lost much of its career upper management in a wave of downsizings. An assistant commissioner, two bureau chiefs, and the agency’s deputy attorney general all took Corzine’s 2007 early retirement offer, and other top personnel soon followed, resulting in a loss of institutional memory and expertise at DCA and other agencies.

Another perhaps more critical problem was that the governor’s deputy chiefs of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, Stepien and his protégé Bridget Kelly, took over much of the direct liaison and problem-solving for mayors as part of a concerted effort to win endorsements for the governor’s reelection. Not only did Stepien’s and Kelly’s heavyhanded political approach make it clear that politics trumped policy in the governor’s office – an attitude that would ultimately lead to Bridgegate – but it also made it clear to local government officials that the Community Affairs commissioner ranked beneath the governor’s office’s second-level operatives -- not above them, as would typically be the case for Cabinet officers.

Following the chain of command is something Grifa and Constable would have been used to as former prosecutors.

“In the U.S. Attorney’s Office, everything that is going on has to go up the chain of command, and that’s what Gov. Christie and so many of his appointees are used to,” Golden said. “But in government, there’s a risk if you try to concentrate too much power in authority in one person or office. There’s a balance between the need to let the governor’s office knows what’s going on vs. the need to get every decision approved by the governor’s office.

“That leads to delay in decision-making, and contributes to the perception that the Cabinet is 15 people who are there only because the Constitution says you have to have a Cabinet,” he quipped.

Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said “every administration has a management tone set by the governor and it starts with the organization of the front office, who gets access to the governor, how small is the inner circle, and how much of a gatekeeper it is.

“Sometimes it’s a team of rivals, sometimes it’s filled with true believers. But how an administration organizes itself is predicated on the governor’s personality and management style,” he said, then added, “it doesn’t matter which style it is, there are going to be problems. The question is how you handle them.”

Unlike Christie, governors like Kean, Whitman, and Democrat Brendan Byrne vested considerable authority in their Cabinet to make policy. Kean, for example, recruited national experts like Drew Altman and Molly Coye to run Human Services and Health and gave them considerable freedom to enact innovative programs that reflected their overall principles.

They also recruited experienced teams to run their governor’s offices: Judy Shaw, a former Chief of Staff in three Cabinet agencies under Kean; Jane Kenny, Kean’s former Cabinet secretary, and Golden, Kean’s Communications Director, served as Chief of Staff, Chief of Policy and Planning, and Communications Director under Whitman, giving her substantial prior experience in three of the top four posts in her governor’s office.

“It makes a difference if the governor brings you in because of what you can bring to the job and because the governor needs you,” said one longtime lobbyist. “When that’s the case, you have the ability to go in and tell the governor what he needs to know, whether he wants to hear it or not. It’s different when your whole career is dependent on the guy at the top, which is the case with everybody there now. The only exception was (former Senator) Rich Bagger, and he left as chief of staff at the end of the second year.”

Let’s Not Make a Deal

The biggest name in Christie’s original Cabinet -- and the one most likely to push the envelope on policy -- was Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, the former Jersey City mayor who had been the losing Republican candidate for governor in 2001.

Schundler said he kept Bagger informed when he was negotiating a significant compromise with the New Jersey Education Association on merit pay and teacher tenure rules in order to put the state in line for a $400 million Race to the Top grant from the Obama administration in May of Christie’s first year -- only to have Christie undo the deal after New Jersey 101.5-FM, the talk radio station that fervently supported Christie’s candidacy, criticized Christie for negotiating with the hated NJEA the day after it was announced.

Subpoenaed by the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, Schundler testified that Christie, who was becoming a national Republican celebrity and YouTube star with his video smackdowns of the teachers union, called and told him “he was not going through the fire, with all the attacks on him, merely to cave into the union” and that “the money was not worth it.”

The governor’s office rewrote the application without the NJEA compromise, including a merit pay plan very similar to the one Christie would praise two years later when Newark adopted it. When New Jersey missed out on the $400 million by just a few points, Christie blamed Schundler for not catching a clerical error -- an error that would not have mattered if the NJEA compromises had stayed in the application -- and fired him.

“The Schundler thing had a chilling effect on the rest of the Cabinet,” said one Trenton insider with friends inside the Christie administration. “The governor didn’t just call him on the carpet, he fired him. Everybody knew from that point on: You don’t do anything unless you’re absolutely sure it’s what the governor wants, and that it’s what he wants that week, and you have the written approval in your hand.”

That modus operandi became more and more pronounced as Christie was being urged to run for president in the fall of 2011, emerged as a leading vice presidential candidate in the spring of 2012, delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention that August, and entered his 2013 reelection campaign as the likely frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

“The bigger Christie got, the more paralyzed the government became,” the Trenton insider said. “Because this governor’s office is very controlling, because they micro-manage and because everything has to go through the governor’s office, they’ve created a culture where people say, ‘We know what to do, but let’s check,’ and that creates a logjam in the bureaucracy because everybody’s waiting for approval. Nobody takes initiative on their own because they’re afraid they’ll get blamed for it. And that’s when everything gets fouled up.”

What is inexplicable to veteran government-watchers, especially considering Christie’s 2016 presidential ambitions, is the failure of the Christie administration to make sure that the governmental operations on which the governor will be judged go smoothly.

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