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

“It’s the Sandy aid and the Super Bowl problem I can’t understand,” said one veteran lobbyist. “Christie’s whole state and national reputation is tied into how he handled Sandy, so you would think they would do whatever it takes to get it right. And the governor knows the whole country is watching how New Jersey hosts the Super Bowl. How can he say he doesn’t have the time to check into whether NJ Transit’s mass transit preparations are adequate, or whether they have a backup plan?”

The problem, one former top state official said, is that there isn’t enough backup. It isn’t just the exodus of hundreds of upper and middle managers in the wake of the 2007 Corzine early retirement buyout and Christie’s antigovernment rhetoric and pension and benefit cuts, but also Christie’s continuing focus on cutting the state government payroll. “It’s great to brag to conservative audiences that you cut 6,000 state government jobs, but when something like Sandy hits, you can’t handle it. State government can still handle routine everyday functions, but not much else,” said one former state official.

Contracting Without Oversight

Contracting out the Sandy aid disbursement -- which is paid for out of federal Sandy aid -- to private firms instead of hiring temporary state employees keeps the state government headcount down, but private firms have an incentive to maximize profit by hiring as few employees as possible. Neither the governor’s office nor the Department of Community Affairs hired or assigned enough people to adequately oversee the tens of millions of dollars paid to private management firms, a Rutgers study found.

What's more, the administration failed until recently to hire the integrity monitors required by a law Christie signed last spring.

The Christie administration decided to pay out $68 million to Hammerman & Gainer, Inc., a private management firm, to handle the $600 million Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program that was the state’s biggest Sandy homeowner relief effort, even though the company had been criticized in Louisiana for its work after Hurricane Katrina.

Constable terminated the firm’s contract in December after numerous complaints from displaced families and after the Fair Share Housing Center obtained state documents proving that 80 percent of the families rejected by HGI were actually eligible for assistance, but he kept the firing secret from a legislative committee when he was called in to testify on problems with the Sandy aid program.

“The mistake was not in hiring somebody who did not do the job right on Sandy relief. The mistake was hiding it and not owning up to it publicly, like Kean did,” said Murray, the Monmouth University political scientist.

Kean’s defusing of a second-term motor vehicle inspection scandal by holding an immediate impromptu press conference in a Statehouse hallway to denounce the private contractor and pledge to implement major reforms is still regarded as the gold standard of Statehouse crisis management, the political equivalent of Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol crisis.

“It’s the lack of transparency and the inability to admit mistakes that hurts Christie,” he said. “Mistakes get magnified when they’re hidden and the press corps has to dig them up.”

Murray said he watched Christie set the stage for his strategy of bypassing the New Jersey press corps to make his pitch directly to a national audience on cable TV and through YouTube when he ignored requests for followup interviews from the Statehouse press to do an NBC interview the day he announced his candidacy for governor in January 2009.

It’s not just Christie who ignores the Statehouse press corps at a level unheard of in previous administrations. Guadagno refused interviews even during the reelection campaign, his press aides routinely ignore requests for comment, and Christie’s Cabinet – with the exception of former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf – has been virtually invisible outside the annual budget process.

“As a division director, I could talk to reporters whenever I wanted, and if something happened, I had relationships I could call upon to defuse the story,” recalled one former state official who served under three governors. “But Christie’s cabinet isn’t allowed to talk the press, so they don’t have any ability to spin stories. They just go into a foxhole and wait for the bombardment to end.”

The Christie administration’s relationship with the media is mirrored by its relationship with the Legislature. Christie’s record number of first-term vetoes -- including the vetoes of a large number of uncontroversial bills that passed both houses of the Legislature with overwhelming Republican and Democratic support -- is a consequence of the administration’s failure to send its officials in to testify on legislation while it is still being shaped in committee.

Similarly, Christie administration officials, particularly members of the governor’s office, routinely refuse invitations from legislative committees to testify. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, was just the latest legislative leader to voice frustration yesterday after New Jersey Transit officials failed to show up to answer questions about the February 2 Super Bowl snafu, saying they were waiting for completion of their internal investigation.

Ironically, it was the refusal of administration officials to testify on the 2011 Port Authority toll hikes that led the Assembly to give Wisniewski’s transportation committee subpoena power, which led directly to the uncovering of the email by Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, ordering the Bridgegate lane closures and engulfed the Christie administration in a series of scandals that has made national news for the past two months.

Further undermining that relationship with the Legislature is Christie’s tendency to go after legislative opponents publicly, from his suggestion that reporters “take a bat” to Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) to his recent unsuccessful effort to oust Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Somerset) for the sin of trying to elect Republican senators in districts controlled by Christie’s Democratic political allies.

Christie’s tongue lashings of teachers, police, school superintendents, authority directors and, even Navy SEALs created a political culture in Trenton -- prior to Bridgegate -- in which critics feared disagreeing publicly with a popular governor with the ability to dominate the airwaves.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” one trade association leader said. “Christie doesn’t seek out public comment and people are afraid to publicly disagree with him. So he doesn’t find out what he’s doing wrong until after he’s done it, and then his personality won’t let him admit it.”

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