How Christie, a Master of Political Arts, Contradicts and Confounds

Matt Katz | January 21, 2016 | Katz on Christie

This is the third part of a series of three stories released in conjunction with the publication this week of WNYC reporter Matt Katz’s new biography, “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption.”

In 1994, 31-year-old Christie sat in his living room to film his first ever campaign ad. His son, Andrew, sat on his wife’s lap, sipping a bottle.

“Hi, my name is Chris Christie, and I got into this race for a better future for my family and yours,” Christie said.

Showing an early flair for insulting language, Christie cited a newspaper editorial in describing the incumbents he was running against as “fumbling and bumbling.”

“And now they’re being investigated by the Morris County prosecutor.”

Actually, they weren’t. Christie’s campaign for a seat on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders was based on ethics reform. But in the process, he was committing an ethical blunder himself. He ended up getting sued for defamation.

Christie’s political style is the potent force behind his presidential candidacy. He is a master tactician and exceptional in front of the microphone. But his methods are full of contradictions.

Christie made his career as an ethical crusader — first running for Freeholder on an ethics platform, then making his name as US Attorney by charging more than 100 politicians with corruption. Yet his career would ultimately be marked by a series of humiliating alleged scandals, notably Bridgegate, in the last week of his first term. 

And while Christie built a national name for aggressively using the bully pulpit — like calling a law student and former Navy SEAL an “idiot” — what’s less known about Christie is behind the scenes, Christie often opted for the hug instead of the shiv, even among Democrats.

“The private persona of Chris Christie that I was able to see was a negotiator, someone who was willing to give and take,” said Bill Caruso, a former top staffer for the Assembly Democrats who worked with the governor on legislation. “A lot more take than give, that was his style, but he would have a negotiation.”

Caruso described Christie as the “dad in the room.” 

“The Chris Christie that you see banging on a podium at a press conference is not the same Chris Christie you see at the negotiating table,” he said. “I think that’s important. That’s what good leadership is.”

Christie’s wooing of the opposing party took many forms. He’d invite legislative leaders to dinner or New York Giants and Jets games. He’d call Democrats on their birthdays — “even ones that I really don’t like, which sometimes makes for awkward phone calls.” 

“I spend more time with people I can’t stand than I can count,” Christie told the Des Moines Register editorial board earlier this week. “But that’s the job.”

Some of the Democrats who Christie grew close to as governor were leaders of the Democratic machines in New Jersey. Here again is an apparent contradiction, because as US Attorney, Christie had investigated the unelected Democratic bosses who run the state.

As US Attorney, for example, Christie probed George Norcross, an insurance executive and hospital chairman in Camden who is considered the most powerful political leader in New Jersey. During Christie’s gubernatorial years, though, he and Norcross — who was never found to have committed any wrongdoing — attended Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies games together.

Norcross pushed for a bill, which Christie signed, to create new privately run public schools in the state. One of those schools now sits in Camden, with Norcross’s name on it. At the same time Christie won scores of policy victories because Democrats under Norcross’s sway supported the governor’s proposals in the legislature. 

In 2014, Norcross praised Christie for crossing partisan lines to improve Camden through a series of measures they negotiated. “In my lifetime there has never been a governor of either party who has worked harder and more diligently to help South Jersey and the city of Camden and many of the things we’re so proud of in this region,” Norcross said.

The men had other arrangements, sources say, that never before have been reported. Like the so-called “195 Deal” over Christie’s re-election in 2013: The governor wouldn’t campaign for Republican candidates south of Route 195, which bisects the state near Trenton. In exchange, Norcross Democrats declined to do much campaigning for Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono.

“The Democratic political bosses, some elected and some not, made a deal with this governor, despite him representing everything they’re supposed to be against,” said Buono in her speech conceding the election against Christie.

Both sides deny a deal, but Norcross-aligned Democrats — most notably, Senate President Steve Sweeney — did public events with Christie close to Election Day.

“It is in stark contrast to what we’re seeing right now in the nation’s capital where not only won’t people work together, they won’t talk to each other,” Christie said at one of those events. “And that doesn’t happen here.” 

But while Christie was wooing some Democrats, he was accused of punishing others. 

“The first word I would not think of is congenial,” said Democratic State Senator Ray Lesniak, who has been in the New Jersey Legislature since 1978.

An avowed critic of Christie’s, next year Lesniak is expected to make a run for governor himself. “Although he’s very charming in person when he’s talking to you,” Lesniak said, “in terms of how he’s dealing with you, he’s quite Machiavellian.”

When State Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor, was allegedly holding up the confirmation of one of Christie’s appointments, three of the senator’s friends and relatives were fired from state government in a single day. Codey was also stripped of his occasional security detail. 

One of Christie’s top advisors, Bill Palatucci, confirmed in the book, “American Governor,” that Christie was trying to send a message to Democratic Christie allies who opposed Codey. “Had Dick been more respectful of [Christie] in the office, maybe there was a chance of building a relationship there,” Palatucci said.

For his part, Christie — in an interview for the book — denied anything untoward. “There’s lots of examples of how I will send messages to people,” he said, “but that just wasn’t one of them.”

As for Republicans, Christie allegedly threatened to take his “whipping hand” out on legislators. One lawmaker said he remembered being taken aside by a Christie aide and pressed to change his vote on an amendment that wasn’t even going to pass. Christie’s team didn’t want any hint of defection in GOP ranks.

It is stories like these, long passed around the Statehouse, that would one day make the mysterious closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge seem scandalous to Trenton insiders, long before the smoking gun was revealed.