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Opinion: GOP Legislators May Finally Be Ready to Buck Christie, Override Veto

Tables may turn because of bipartisan support of reforms at Port Authority, governor’s drop in polls

carl golden
Carl Golden

Rarely has a possible legislative override of a gubernatorial veto been as fraught with political implications as that involving Gov. Christie’s rejection of legislation to revise and reform the operations of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Entering his sixth year in office, Christie has run the table in having his vetoes upheld, thanks to Senate Republicans standing steadfast behind his actions, even when it meant a public reversal of their prior positions and votes.

Flip-flopping --- even when it was embarrassing --- was preferable to crossing their governor and risking retaliation.

The environment, though, has been altered significantly. Starting some 16 months ago with the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, the actions and motives of the Port Authority have drawn increased scrutiny, and calls for dramatic internal reforms have become louder and more frequent.

The political landscape has changed radically, as well. Christie has suffered precipitous declines in numerous polls and his job approval standing is now in negative territory. His handling of issues such as the state budget, economic recovery, job creation, and the public pension system is mired in the 30 percent range. One recent poll revealed than fewer than one in five New Jerseyans expressed satisfaction with life under the Christie Administration, while 75 percent characterized the governor’s accomplishments as minor or minimal.

This reflects a growing disillusion with Christie, fueled in part by his frequent travels out of state as he contemplates a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. A belief has taken hold that he has paid scant attention to --- or ignored entirely --- the serious problems facing the state and has become preoccupied with fulfilling his own political ambition.

In this markedly changed climate, Republican legislators, recognizing that the governor has been weakened, may conclude that opposing him no longer exposes them to the high risk it once did and that it would be in their longer term best interest to assert their independence and put some distance between themselves and Christie.

Legislators will never again appear on the ballot with Christie at the top of the ticket providing a hand up and will be less dependent on him for fundraising.

Republicans are cognizant of and sensitive to the political blow their support of a veto override would deal to Christie, not only in New Jersey but nationally as well. He built a reputation and rose to national attention with his aggressive style, rolling over the opposition and imposing a party loyalty which allowed him to work his will on a Democratic Legislature’s partisan agenda.

A veto override made possible by significant Republican defections would signal that his control of his own party has slipped and, even more disconcerting, that the “Bridgegate” scandal and the subsequent loss of confidence in his ability to confront troubling issues have taken their toll.

It is altogether fitting that the first potential break in Christie’s streak of veto successes should involve legislation designed to bring greater accountability to the Port Authority. After all, that agency was where what has become arguably the state’s most dominant political story began.

What at its outset was a routine and seemingly innocuous review of the circumstances surrounding the four-day shutdown of access lanes at the Geroge Washington Bridge has developed into a sordid portrayal of the Port Authority as a symbol of wretched governmental excess, a secretive patronage-riddled agency where insider deals are concocted in comfortable surroundings, a nest of conflicts of interest whose agenda is driven by raw politics rather than conscientious and deliberative policy.

The cumulative effect of the year-and-a-half-long cascade of unflattering news created an atmosphere in which public skepticism and mistrust of the Port Authority’s actions and motives flourished.

The agency has its supporters, certainly, who would quarrel with that characterization as unduly harsh and unfair.

Its critics, on the other hand, contend its mission has been distorted to accommodate political demands from the two states to embark on billions of dollars in projects formerly outside the agency’s purview and to provide jobs to be filled by gubernatorial appointments.

The vetoes issued by Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo were quickly interpreted as supporting the status quo, preserving access to Port Authority funds as well as the ability to secure patronage appointments.

The Democratic legislative leadership’s vow to override the governor’s veto is based partially on the belief that Republicans will be unable to withstand the pressure to address the abuses at the Port Authority, even though an override would be largely symbolic, since it would be necessary for the New York Legislature to take similar action to implement the reforms.

Republicans are mindful, as well, of the continuing investigation of the bridge scandal by the U.S. Attorney’s office. If indictments are brought and if the findings are critical of the Port Authority, opposition to reform legislation which they all initially supported would be politically risky.

No matter the outcome of the federal probe or the legislative override vote, public confidence in the Port Authority has been scorched and its credibility undermined.

The “Bridgegate” cover story --- that the lanes were closed as part of a Port Authority-sanctioned traffic study --- collapsed with the disclosure that a deputy chief of staff in Gov. Christie’s office had conspired with an agency staffer to pull off the stunt as political retaliation directed at the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for his refusal to endorse Christie’s re-election.

In the aftermath, reports surfaced alleging the chairman of the Port Authority engaged in influence peddling to urge support of projects in which his private law firm held a substantial and potentially lucrative interest.

Questions also were raised over the legality of the Port Authority’s decision --- at the Christie Administration’s behest --- to finance a billion-dollar reconstruction of the Pulaski Skyway, despite it not being a part of the agency’s transportation network.

Reports of staff level infighting swirled, suggesting that the working relationship between the appointees from the two states had deteriorated so badly that it was now dysfunctional.

When the governor and members of his family flew to Dallas to attend a Cowboys football game, the private jet transportation and game tickets were supplied by team owner Jerry Jones who, it was later revealed, is a partner in a firm which had received a contract from the Port Authority to operate an observation deck at the World Trade Center tower. Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are on public record urging the Port Authority to accept the firm’s bid and, after the fact, congratulating all concerned.

The administration argued the governor’s acceptance of the travel and the game tickets did not breach ethics regulations because the governor is allowed to accept gifts from personal friends. This explanation led, in turn, to an embarrassing petty public squabble over precisely when the two men actually became “personal friends,” whether it was five years ago as Christie has said or less than two years ago as his office has said.

Democrats are cautiously optimistic that, against this background of alleged misbehavior, favoritism and political retaliation, Republicans can ill afford to be seen as thwarting reform legislation.

No one could have foreseen that the chain of events set in motion by former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly with her “Time for some traffic troubles in Fort Lee” e-mail message would culminate in a scenario with such widespread and impactful political resonance.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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