Can Christie Come Back After the Bridgegate Verdict?

Chase Brush | November 8, 2016 | Politics
The governor’s polling numbers are in the tank, his hold on the Republican legislative bloc is no longer ironclad. What can he accomplish in his final year?

With guilty verdicts in the Bridgegate trial and the long-drawn-out presidential election finally coming to a close tonight, New Jersey officials will soon turn their attention to local problems — as well as a 2017 gubernatorial election. One outstanding question: Will Gov. Chris Christie return and be capable of leading the state in the coming year?

Barred by term limits from running again, the two-term Republican still has a year in office, and there are several big-ticket legislative items that lawmakers hope to address during that time, including pension and benefits and school-funding reform. How Christie’s increasingly toxic reputation will affect — or possibly prevent — lawmakers from making any real progress on those issues will be a defining question of the remainder of his term.

Of course, in the less-than-likely event Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump turns out to be the winner, Christie is unlikely to return to Trenton. But if his big gamble should go bust, he will have no choice but to return his full focus on New Jersey.

“I think he’s lost any ability to lead. He’s lost the support of his Republican colleagues, which is eroding more and more everyday, and I think he would do the state a big service if he would just up and resign,” said state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-Essex), a longtime Christie critic.

Christie once enjoyed incredible popularity among New Jersey voters, beginning his career as a fearsome U.S. Attorney-turned-gubernatorial candidate who vowed to change the culture of what many perceived as a corrupt Trenton. Well-publicized leadership on a few key issues — including touring the state with President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — helped lead Christie to one of the most successful reelection campaigns in the state’s history, besting a largely symbolic Democrat opponent with over 60 percent of the vote. And Christie’s approval rating throughout that time was equally impressive, with 77 percent of residents supporting the governor at its highest point in the wake of Sandy.

But that popularity has eroded, whittled away both by Bridgegate, whose inception marked the decline back in 2013, and by his national ambitions, which saw him spending increasingly huge amounts of time out of state — first in an effort mount his own presidential bid and, when that failed, to assist Trump in his. The chairman of Trump’s White House transition team, Christie saw his approval rating drop to 23 percent last month as trial proceedings uncovered more details about his associates’ involvement in the politically retributive lane closing scheme, made possible by the culture of intimidation he himself might have helped breed. Several witnesses testified at the trial — an opinion shared by both prosecution and defense — that Christie had knowledge of the scheme, despite his protestations.

In the first poll taken following the Bridgegate trial, his reputation is even more tarnished: just 19 percent of residents have a favorable view of the governor, according to the latest Rutgers poll, while 73 percent disapprove.

Earlier this week, both co-chairs of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation called on top lawmakers to reconvene the panel in light of conflicting testimony from the federal trial, with Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), a 2017 gubernatorial candidate, taking aim directly at Christie.

“With two of the highest-ranking members of the Christie administration found guilty of criminal conduct, it is time to find out what the governor knew, when he knew it, and what actions he took in relation to the shutdown of the lanes on the George Washington Bridge,” Wisniewski said, adding Christie should be “compelled under oath” to provide his side of the story.

Perhaps nowhere, though, is Christie’s rocky relationship with the Legislature more obvious than within his own party. As governor, he has not once had a veto overridden, due to the unbreakable voting block of Republican legislators. Christie now finds himself estranged from many members of his party, with Republicans like state Senator Mike Doherty (R-Hunterdon) complaining that Christie was neglecting New Jersey in favor of personal ambitions.

Since then, defections among Republican lawmakers on legislative efforts backed by Christie have become more and more frequent — and arguably climaxed last week, when Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, always a quiet supporter of Christie’s decisions, broke rank and announced her strong opposition to Public Question #2, the gas-tax dedication amendment that Christie himself helped broker.

“As long as anyone is holding elected office it’s their responsibility to lead. Of course, when you’re in a leadership position like the governor, that becomes very difficult when your approval ratings are around 20 percent,” said Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), another frequent Christie critic and 2017 gubernatorial nominee, who added one of his first objectives as governor would be to “resurrect the state Republican party.”

That strain could make it more difficult for Christie, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rowan University.

“When he has an approval rating in the low 20s, it’s harder to rally the public toward his agenda,” Dworkin said. “So Bridgegate, by contributing to his low approval rating, affects his ability to push an agenda in the next year.”

One of the issues expected to be at the forefront of that agenda this year is school funding reform, which has seen renewed attention from Christie and other legislative leaders in recent weeks. Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) have all proposed their own plans to fix the state’s problematic school-funding formula, which doles out school aid to towns based on factors like student enrollment and demographics. Christie has laid out his own “Fairness Formula,” which would demolish the existing approach altogether in favor of funding every district $6,599 per student. Meanwhile, Sweeney has called for the creation of a special commission to review and come up with fixes to the system.

But addressing that problem isn’t necessarily imperative over the next year, and so Christie won’t be able to use a ticking clock to force the Legislature to bend to his will or agree to some compromise. But there are still plenty of ways Christie can keep the issue on the front burner, such as including some version of it in his 2018 budget proposal.

“It’s difficult to get any major items done without the governor being a party to it, and he’s lost the credibility of the public and the Legislature,” Lesniak said. “So it’s hard to imagine we can get started on the things we need to get started on while he’s still around as governor.”

Still, there are some Republicans who say they are hopeful that the Legislature and the front office can work together on policy in the coming months — as long as they all turn their focus to the issues, as opposed to the politics of the moment. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), speaking at a press conference on the Bridgegate verdict in the State House yesterday, accused Democrats of directing public attention toward “issues involving Bridgegate that have been resolved by a federal prosecutor” and away from “the Democratic majority that will not address the issues that are sensitive to them, and I think very concerning to their special interests.”

Rattling off a list of policy issues he said lawmakers should address — including school funding, campaign finance, gerrymandering, and Port Authority reform — Bramnick was particularly critical of Wisniewski, who he blamed for threatening “the basic institutions of democracy” with the “politics of personal destruction.”

“The bottom line is the governor has a formula,” Bramnick, a longtime Christie defender, said of the Republican’s school-funding plan. “Why don’t we have a hearing on that? I’ll tell you why. Because those are the hard things to do, and they don’t in anyway support the gubernatorial candidacy of John Wisniewski.”

What is certain is that the cloud that has followed Christie through Bridgegate isn’t likely to disappear with the trial’s close. Both Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, the former deputy chief of staff and Port Authority appointee convicted in the trial, have vowed to appeal the verdict, which will keep the scandal in the public bloodstream. And Christie is expected to appear in Bergen County municipal court later this month to answer for a criminal complaint filed in connection with the trial. Lesniak yesterday called on the attorney general’s office to appoint an independent investigator to oversee that complaint.

The optics are daunting, but Christie, for his part, doesn’t appear worried. In his first public appearance following the trial’s close, he told Charlie Rose on CBS that he’s prepared to defend himself in the court of public opinion.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told my political career is over,” Christie said. “Here I am.”