Playing Ball With Chris Christie

Matt Katz | April 10, 2014 | Katz on Christie

On May 13, 2013, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno had a now notorious chat with the mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, in the parking lot of a Sandy-damaged ShopRite.

Zimmer remembers Guadagno threatening her: If she didn’t approve a development project run by the Rockefeller Group, which was represented by Bridgegate-embroiled Port Authority Chairman David Samson, she would lose out on Sandy funding. But Guadagno remembers the conversation differently. She says Zimmer was complaining to her about low Sandy aid to her town, and she simply responded that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had to consider the needs of all towns, not just Hoboken.

Last month a taxpayer-funded lawyer hired by Christie’s office, Randy Mastro, found that Guadagno was telling the truth, while Zimmer’s claims were “demonstrably false in material respects.”

Mastro and his team of attorneys write that after this “tense” ShopRite conversation between Zimmer and Guadagno, the lieutenant governor got into the passenger seat of her SUV.  In the back sat her aide, Lucy DiMaggio, who remembers that Guadagno got into the car and said something about Zimmer not “playing ball.” DiMaggio told Christie’s investigators that she didn’t understand what these words meant. 

That’s a key question as federal investigations intensify into both the mysterious September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge and the no less mysterious allegations of a Sandy funding shakedown in Hoboken.

Mastro says that “playing ball” – a phrase which he puts in quotations in one section of the report, but not in another – meant that Zimmer was not, effectively, “playing well with others” when it came to helping the entire storm-damaged state. Zimmer just wanted money for her town, Mastro argues.

And Mastro says her story is weakened by how she made different allegations about Christie to different reporters on different days. First, she said that Guadagno had threatened her on behalf of Christie over a development deal that Christie wanted. Later she mentioned two additional Christie officials who had also passed along threats. 

But the “playing ball” phrase is curious because it gets to the theme of all of the allegations against Christie in both the Hoboken and Bridgegate scandals – that playing ball, or quid pro quo, or I scratch your back, you scratch mine – was a fundamental ethos of the Christie Administration.

And it wasn’t just a development deal that Zimmer wasn’t playing ball on. She also didn’t endorse Christie – despite a sustained 10-month effort by the Christie campaign that cost thousands of dollars.

WNYC has obtained a copy of a previously unreleased poll commissioned by the Christie campaign and run by one of the governor’s top political advisers, Michael DuHaime.

In Frebruary 2013 Christie met with Zimmer at his office at the Statehouse. Both sides agree that Christie sought Zimmer’s endorsement. Zimmer says she said no, while Christie campaign sources say they thought she unquestionably left the door open.

So Team Christie went about trying to convince Team Zimmer. The poll, which is estimated to have cost thousands of dollars, sought to make its case to Zimmer, a Democrat who was also on the ballot in November. The findings indicate that both Christie and Zimmer were popular in Hoboken. The pollsters also probed voters about how they would react if Zimmer endorsed Christie, and 82 percent said a mayoral candidate endorsing a gubernatorial candidate would have no impact on their vote for mayor.

The findings were presented directly to the Zimmer campaign.

The strategy of the Christie campaign was focused on more than a win in New Jersey. The governor wanted to show the nation that he was was a unifying, reasonable, conservative Republican, and so picking up Democratic endorsements from elected officials was the top priority.

Hoboken was particularly prized. As one of New Jersey’s most well-known municipalities, Hoboken has political and symbolic cache. It posed a statistical challenge for Christie (overly Democratic, he lost the city in 2009 and would go on to win it in 2013), and it was where former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine lived.

Zimmer has not explicitly accused Christie of punishing her for not endorsing him. But we know from the Bridgegate documents that his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, was furious that Zimmer wasn’t endorsing because Christie’s people had been “kissing her ass” for so many years. And in 2012, Stepien even recommended that the lieutenant governor not have lunch with Zimmer because she had spoken out for gay marriage, a policy that Christie opposed, according to the Mastro Report.

The lunch happened — only because Stepien was satisfied that Guadagno would use the lunch to push for development projects in Hoboken.

In the least, the Mastro Report pulls back the curtain on how Christie wooed allies, revealing the extent to which he went after endorsements — and how government workers ran point on securing those endorsements. What two federal investigations are now trying to figure out is if Christie, both in the bridge scandal and in Hoboken, also tried to punish those who didn’t, as they say, play ball.