Gov. Chris Christie’s year so far has included failing as a presidential candidate and watching a jury find two of his closest aides and allies guilty of federal corruption charges. He’s also quarreled publicly with his own lieutenant governor over his decision to sign an unpopular gas-tax increase.
But the second-term Republican chose to focus on the big picture of his time as governor during a speech before local-government officials gathered in Atlantic City yesterday, sketching out a glossier first draft of his gubernatorial legacy. This Christie seemed to be a throwback to an earlier time, as he painted himself a model of bipartisan governance.
“People say they want bipartisanship all the time, they say they want the two parties to stop bickering with each other and to work together,” Christie said. The gas-tax compromise “was a perfect example of that,” he said.
Whether the speech itself was a signal that Christie could soon be leaving for a post in the administration of President-elect Donald Trump or just a table setter for the remaining 14 months of his tenure remains to be seen. He didn’t firmly close the door yesterday on getting a federal job, saying only that he has “every intention of serving out my full term as governor.”
The speech was also a snub of sorts of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a fellow Republican who for the first time in seven years publicly broke ranks with Christie on the gas tax. With Christie away in Florida earlier this week for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, Guadagno was originally scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the New Jersey League of Municipalities’ annual convention. But Christie swooped in at the last minute and bumped her off the program, only letting the organization’s officials know of the schedule change around 4:30 p.m. the day before.
Guadagno still attended the event and watched Christie deliver the speech while sitting at the head table just a few seats to his right. “I can give a speech at any time,” Guadagno said beforehand while speaking to reporters. “My relationship with the governor is fine.”
Guadagno has already signaled she is interested in running for governor next year, and she told reporters yesterday she won’t make a firm decision until after the holidays. Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) is the first Republican to formally declare he’s seeking the GOP nomination in 2017.
Christie’s decision to deliver the speech himself yesterday came as his administration recently moved to take over the local government in Atlantic City. The takeover was authorized by legislation Christie signed into law earlier this year as the resort’s strained finances have put it on the verge of bankruptcy.
Former state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, a close friend of the governor’s, was recently named to lead the Atlantic City takeover effort. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, addressing the convention luncheon moments before Christie, urged those in attendance to spread the word that “we haven’t fallen into the ocean yet.”
But Christie made no mention of the Atlantic City takeover yesterday. And in his first public remarks since the recent federal Bridgegate trial wrapped up in Newark, he steered clear altogether of the jury’s decision to convict of one of his former aides in Trenton and one of his top appointees to the Port Authority.
Christie instead focused on recounting the bipartisan deals he’s struck with Democrats in Trenton, like last month’s agreement to hike the gas tax by 23 cents in order to restore the state Transportation Trust Fund to good health. The tax increase, which was opposed by Guadagno and many other Republicans, marked the first ever to be approved by Christie since he took office in early 2010.
“I made this deal because we can’t leave it to politics any longer on the way that we fund our roads and our bridges and our mass-transit systems, and we shouldn’t leave it to you to have to raise your property taxes in order to maintain your roads,” Christie told the local leaders.
New Jersey voters also decided last week to approve a constitutional amendment dedicating all of the revenue from the gas tax to the TTF, something Christie also supported but that was opposed by Guadagno.
“TTF is a prime example, and the constitutional dedication is a prime example of the kind of issues where we need to leave politics at the water’s edge and do the work of the people the right way,” Christie said.
Striking a different tone regarding the Obama administration, Christie pointed to his willingness to greet and work with President Obama just days before the 2012 presidential election, when Obama personally came to view the damage Hurricane Sandy had just caused in New Jersey. Christie has faced criticism from some Republicans for appearing with Obama at such a politically important time and has generally disavowed Obama or avoided talking about it.
“I treated him with the respect that a president who is coming to offer his help to the people of a state who had been hurt and damaged deserves,” Christie said. “I was not ignorant at the time of the potential political effect that would have on me as one of the most prominent surrogates for (GOP presidential nominee Mitt) Romney,” Christie said.
“But I also know that when you have positions like this, you have a job to do,” he said.
When Christie brought the conversation back to his own future, he said he’s warned Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who was also seated at the head table, that he isn’t planning to glide gently toward the end of his tenure in early 2018. He didn’t mention any specific issues, though a heated debate on education funding is expected to play out in the Statehouse in 2017.
“I will continue to provoke and push and prod and advocate for the things I believe in,” Christie said. “But I will also continue to listen and to compromise and to agree when I believe it is in the best interest of the people of this state.”
He did, however, also acknowledge that he could soon be leaving office if Trump were to offer him a position in his administration. Though Christie once was expected to be a shoo-in for such a role when he was one of the first establishment Republicans to endorse Trump’s candidacy after abandoning his own campaign in February, recent reports have indicated that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has used revelations from the Bridgegate trial to block Christie from power. Christie convicted and jailed Kushner’s father for witness tampering and tax evasion when Christie was U.S. Attorney.
“Whether I join the Trump administration in some capacity, whether I stay here and finish my term … I’ve had a pretty good run,” Christie said yesterday.
“There’s nothing that’s a greater honor or higher reward outside of what you do with your family than having the opportunity to have your citizens bestow upon you the honor and responsibility to lead,” he said. “There’s never a day, no matter how difficult some of them have been, that I’m not completely, completely thrilled to be the governor of this state.”