Today, as embattled Gov. Chris Christie prepares to deliver his fourth State of the State speech to a packed Assembly Chamber, the state of the state is severely troubled, and the charismatic, hard-charging governor’s political clout and ability to punish his enemies will most likely never be the same.
A week ago, Christie was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, poised to declare New Jersey’s record of bipartisanship a model for a bitterly divided nation in his State of the State speech. He was set to celebrate his immigrant roots at Ellis Island at his made-for-a-campaign-ad second Inaugural, and pop in for a celebrity interview at the Super Bowl at Giants-Jets Stadium where air time is $8 million a minute.
Today, it’s all different.
Today, when Christie gives his speech, “it will be mostly the same speech he was going to do — a call for a tax cut, job creation, Sandy recovery, getting New Jersey back on track — but without the bravado about teaching Washington to be more like New Jersey,” said Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray.
That’s not a likely lesson when his administration is facing investigations into Bridgegate by two legislative committees armed with subpoena powers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Port Authority Inspector-General’s Office, a U.S. Senate committee, and possibly the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. A federal agency is probing the propriety of the $25 million federally funded “Stronger Than The Storm” Sandy ad campaign in which he starred, and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office is deciding whether to find the first of his aides to testify in Bridgegate to be in contempt of an Assembly committee for taking the Fifth Amendment more than 30 times.
Today, as Christie takes the podium, he will stand in front of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), his erstwhile ally who has launched an investigation into why Christie’s top aides engaged in partisan retaliation against a mayor who refused to endorse him by closing George Washington Bridge access lanes from Fort Lee, and new Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), who announced the appointment of a special investigative committee to dig into Bridgegate.
Incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto at a press conference to announce the formation of a Bridgegate “supercommittee” to build on the “great work” done by the Transportation Committee.
Near the front below the podium to his right, Christie will see Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), whom he unsuccessfully attempted to oust for the sin of trying to win enough Republican seats to gain control of the Senate, even if it meant going after Christie’s South Jersey Democratic allies. Kean still says all the right things, but his father, the revered former governor and 911 Commission chair, has been telling everyone that Christie’s aggressive take-no-prisoners approach to governing raises doubts about his fitness for the presidency.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the Democrat whose investigation has already the ended the career of four top Christie appointees, including his political right arm, campaign manager Bill Stepien, will be on the aisle four rows up. And as Christie lifts his eyes to scan the front row of the Assembly Gallery, he has to wonder how many more of his top aides will no longer have seats when the various investigations finally wrap up months into the future.
He will see the gallery packed with the national media whose attention he used to covet, and as he looks into the cameras and reads from the two Teleprompters flanking him, he will be calibrating his second nationally televised apology in five days not only for the citizens of New Jersey, but also for the elite Republican party officials and fundraisers around the country who hold in their hands the future of his presidential ambitions.
For Christie, who has the disastrous timing of serving as chairman of the Republican Governors Association this year, “the question is whether he can still move the ball for the Republican Party heading into 2016,” Murray said. “He has to acknowledge to the Republican National Committee in his speech that he knows his effort is in danger. If he doesn’t, they’re going to think he’s delusional. At the end of the day, it’s the party insiders who are going to decide if he is finished or not.”
Christie’s not finished in New Jersey, even if voters no longer believe him, political experts agreed. A Monmouth University Poll released yesterday showed Christie holding onto a 59 percent approval rating, even though 64 percent of voters believe the bridge lanes were closed for political retaliation, 51 percent do not believe Christie was completely truthful, and 52 percent believe he knew about his staff’s involvement before the bombshell release of subpoenaed documents.
“Even before the bridge controversy, this was always going to be a tough second term,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “Lame-duck governors always have a tougher time with the Legislature, especially when there’s not a lot of money coming in to do new projects. Whether he’s at 65 percent approval rating or 25 percent approval, New Jersey’s governor is still the most powerful in the nation, and nothing is going to get done without him.”
“That being said, it will be difficult for Christie’s Republican Party agenda to get a full hearing while the cloud of these investigations hangs over New Jersey politics. A critical element of Christie’s success in his first term was his ability to mobilize public opinion through his town halls and very savvy media outreach. He will have a tougher time doing that when all the media wants to focus on is the investigations,” Dworkin said.
John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said Christie did not go into this year as a normal “lame-duck” governor, crippled because of the constitutional prohibition against running for a third term, because legislators from both parties assumed he would run for president, and have a good chance to win, so they might still have to deal with him for another four to eight years after 2016.
“That could change because of this scandal,” Weingart said. “The real question is not whether Republicans are going to begin to stand up to Christie, but how much the opposition from the Democrats is likely to grow.”
Opening up Some Distance
Murray said Sweeney’s decision yesterday to convene a special Senate investigative committee with subpoena powers chaired by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) “is an attempt to put distance between him and the governor in preparation for his own run for governor in 2017. With all the investigations underway, it’s becoming more of a liability for Sweeney to be so closely associated with Christie.”
Christie has trumpeted his bipartisan cooperation with Sweeney on groundbreaking pension and tenure legislation as a centerpiece of his speeches to Republican audiences across the country, and Christie chose not to campaign against Sweeney and other “Christiecrat” South Jersey Democrats who worked with him on critical legislation during his 2013 reelection campaign. He won by a landslide, but did not gain a single seat in the Legislature — unlike former Gov. Kean, who carried in a Republican Assembly majority by running against “obstructionist Democrats” during his landslide 1985 reelection.
Kean Jr. defied Christie by going after Sweeney and other South Jersey Democrats because there was no other way to gain the five seats needed to recapture the majority, and Christie’s effort to unseat Kean as minority leader was seen by Republicans partly as the governor trying to do a favor for Sweeney.
So far, there is no indication that the Republican “bobble heads,” as Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) dubbed the GOP Senate and Assembly caucuses who have voted in lockstep with Christie for four years, will buck the governor now that he is weakened by Bridgegate. But the Republican members of Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee did vote unanimously last Thursday to hold David Wildstein, the Port Authority official appointed by Christie who directly ordered the lane closures, in contempt for repeatedly taking the Fifth Amendment.
More Bad News
On a day in which Sweeney launched his own investigation and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency confirmed that it was undertaking a review of the propriety of the federally funded “Stronger Than The Storm” TV ads in which Christie starred, the worst news for Christie was a new email chain showing that fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s punishment of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was not an isolated incident.
Emails obtained by news organizations from Jersey City showed that Kelly, who succeeded Stepien as Christie’s political point person in the governor’s office after he left to run the governor’s reelection campaign, assiduously courted new Jersey City Democratic Mayor Steve Fulop following his election last May.
Kelly arranged a “mayor’s day” scheduled for July 23 in Jersey City that would bring a parade of Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials to Jersey City to meet with the mayor to see how they could help him. Included were Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, Economic Development Authority chief Michelle Brown, Sandy relief coordinator Marc Forzan, and Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni.
However, when Fulop decided not to endorse Christie for reelection, all of the Christie administration officials who were scheduled to meet with the Jersey City mayor called his office one after the other to cancel and did not offer the possibility of any alternative dates.
Fulop emailed Baroni on both August 1 and August 15 seeking to reschedule the meeting and got no response.
“I am not sure if it is a coincidence that your office cancelled a meeting several weeks back that seemed to be simultaneous to other political conversations that were happening,” Fulop wrote in the second email. “Prior to that you were always very responsive and I sincerely hope the two issues were not related as it wouldn’t be in the PA, Jersey City, or the residents of the state’s best interest.”
Baroni, who played a central role in the George Washington Bridge lane closures and actively participated in covering up the political motives, resigned last month, and Christie replaced him with Deborah Gramiccioni, vowing that she would implement necessary reforms within the agency.
Fulop wrote to congratulate Gramiccioni on December 18 and she promised to meet with him shortly. Three weeks later, on January 8, the mayor’s appointments secretary reported, “I have made many attempts on this but am not getting anywhere.”
The Best Defense
Colin Reed, a Christie administration spokesman, did not comment on the meeting cancellations by Cabinet officials in the wake of Fulop’s decision not to endorse the governor, but instead attacked Fulop, Sweeney’s chief rival in the 2017 Democratic race for governor in the early handicapping, for his personal ambition.
“The Christie Administration has and continues to work with Jersey City officials on numerous issues, including taking criminals off the streets, Sandy recovery aid, and improving local roads,” Reed said. “However, Mayor Fulop’s words and actions must be viewed through the lens of partisan politics and his attempt to advance his own personal agenda. Fulop’s relationship over time with both the governor and Democrats in the legislature has been inconsistent as he has made clear his future political aspirations.”
Wisniewski’s steady and determined chairmanship of the Assembly Transportation Committee’s investigation of Bridgegate adds him to the top tier of contenders for 2017 with “North Jersey Steve” Fulop and “South Jersey Steve” Sweeney, according to Murray.
Prieto announced yesterday, as expected, that Wisniewski would chair the special Assembly committee probing the Bridgegate scandal after the new Legislature is sworn in today. Both the Assembly and the Senate are expected to vote to give their committees subpoena powers at special legislative sessions tomorrow, Prieto and Sweeney said.
Witness for the Prosecution
Wisniewski yesterday referred the contempt charges against Wildstein to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, and said Kelly and Stepien would be the next two witnesses subpoenaed to testify before his committee.
Weinberg and Lesniak urged the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the lane closures.
“This was a political dirty trick that had potentially dangerous consequences,” said Lesniak. “The police, ambulances, and other first responders were caught in the traffic, slowing their response time to emergencies. We need to get to the bottom of what happened and why. The county prosecutor should open an investigation and get at all the facts.”
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich confirmed that he had been approached by a Christie campaign staffer seeking his endorsement. Sokolich did not identify the staffer, but sources confirmed that the campaign aide was Matt Mowers, whose focus was Bergen County.
Mowers was named executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party following Christie’s reelection, which political analysts viewed as Christie’s effort to place a loyalist in a key early primary state.
Yesterday, the Bridgegate scandal reached up to the Granite State, as New Hampshire Democratic Party Communications Director Harrell Kirstein demanded that the GOP “come clean about what role Mowers played in the scheme that put people’s safety at risk to exact political revenge.
“Matt Mowers spent years working under now-disgraced aides of Chris Christie, and we are all left to wonder what dirty tricks they taught him and what plans he has to use them in New Hampshire,” said Kirstein. “Granite Staters deserve to know about Mowers’s role in Christie’s growing bridge scandal. Did he bully the mayor of Fort Lee when he declined to endorse Christie? Was he a part of the scheme to shut down the George Washington Bridge?”