High Drama and Low Comedy: The Chris Christie Years

Colleen O'Dea | January 12, 2018 | Politics
From the war on opioid addiction and implementing bail reform to Bridgegate, Beachgate, and calling a former Navy SEAL an ‘idiot,’ take a stroll down memory lane with our governor

Gov. Chris Christie
Chris Christie’s eight-year term as governor ends on Tuesday. In his inaugural address on January 19, 2010, the Republican promised change and then delivered it. He presented and implemented, often with assistance from Democratic majorities in the Legislature and other times against their wishes, the most conservative policies this blue state had seen in modern times. And while his demeanor was stereotypically Jersey, it was not something people had seen before in the state’s chief executive.

His eight years in office were a rollercoaster ride, peppered with significant achievements and controversies. In the immediate aftermath of superstorm Sandy in October 2012, Christie garnered record-high approval ratings — 77 percent in one poll. In his last year in office, polls would name him the state’s least popular governor, with a 15 percent approval rating.

In recognition of his tenure, we present some of the highs and lows of Christie’s term of office.

The 2-percent property tax cap: Midway through his first year in office, Christie reduced an existing cap and cut most of the exemptions allowed under it. Bond payments, health insurance, and pension increases are exempt, as well as money to cover natural disasters. While property-tax increases have exceeded the 2 percent cap, they have risen at a lower rate on average than in the years before Christie took office.

Planned Parenthood: In his first budget, and every one following, Christie angered Democrats and women’s groups by cutting what had become an annual $7.5 million state appropriation to Planned Parenthood and other women’s healthcare providers. At one time pro-choice, Christie initially said he cut the funding to Planned Parenthood to close a gap in the state’s $30 billion-plus budget, but when he was running for governor, he bragged about cutting funds to meet with conservatives’ approval.

Teachers and their union: It took less than nine months for Christie to have his first high-profile confrontation with a teacher at a town hall-style meeting. The teacher, Marie Corfield, questioned Christie about his anti-teacher and anti-school rhetoric. In the ensuing debate, Christie shocked the audience when he said, “If what you want to do is stand here and giggle and put on a show every time I talk, I have no interest in answering your question.” Christie used the video of the exchange to underscore his image as a “tough talker.” Christie would go on to have more than a dozen confrontations with teachers and make numerous critical statements about the New Jersey Education Association and its leaders.

The governor calling a former Navy SEAL an "idiot" at a town hall meeting
Arguments with the public: Christie never shied away from arguments and instead saw them as opportunities. At a March 2012 town hall, Christie called a former Navy SEAL and law school student an “idiot” for interrupting him. Two-and-a-half years later, when a man stood up at a Christie press conference about Sandy recovery efforts holding a sign telling the governor to “finish the job,” Christie told him to “sit down and shut up.”

The ARC Tunnel: In the fall of his first year, Christie canceled the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project. He said the tunnels, which would have significantly increased the number of NJ Transit trains into and out of Manhattan, were going to wind up costing at least $2 billion more than budgeted and the state could not afford it. Federal officials begged him to reconsider and said they would negotiate paying for the cost overruns. Christie refused to reconsider, and New Jersey wound up having to pay back $95 million to the feds. Meanwhile, Christie used the ARC funds to put off a gas tax hike until his second term.

Pension reform: Almost 18 months after taking office, Christie signed bipartisan legislation drastically changing the funding of public worker pensions and health benefits. Union members were forced to pay more, while the state agreed to up its contributions to a woefully underfunded system. But the state reneged. Unions remain angry that they lived up to the bargain the state hasn’t. Had Christie followed his own pension funding law, the state would be fully funding its pension obligation this year.

Charter schools, tenure reform, school aid: In his second year, Christie announced an education reform agenda that he said would reward good schools and turn around failing ones. Much of that agenda never made it out of the planning stage, but a few have led to significant changes. Christie touted charter schools as a way to help students in underperforming districts. While the number of district schools has risen by almost a quarter since Christie took office, enrollment in charters has more than doubled — although the state has shuttered nearly 20 charters over the past eight years.

Christie also reformed tenure rules, making teachers complete a fourth year before they could be granted tenure; increasing the amount of time teachers are observed each year and putting in place a tough evaluation system; and making it easier for a district to dismiss tenured teachers.

The governor also cut school aid shortly after taking office and never fully funded the school aid formula. He chose instead to consistently rail against the court-approved formula and pushed a scheme that would have taken money from some urban districts, given more to some suburban schools, and most likely, critics aver, not passed constitutional muster.

Bail reform: Christie first called for a constitutional amendment ending the right to bail for the accused and giving judges the ability to detain someone awaiting trial when they believe no amount of bail would protect the public. Two years later, voters overwhelmingly passed the amendment. Information about those charged in Superior Court is put through an algorithm that calculates what kind of a danger the defendant would be to others and the likelihood of his appearing for trial. Depending on the score, a defendant may be released with no conditions; be required to check in by phone or in person with a pretrial services officer; or made to wear an ankle bracelet that limits his ability to leave the home. Or the defendant may be held until trial.

Gov. Christie was criticized in some quarters for his embrace of President Obama after superstorm Sandy.
Sandy: Christie was widely praised for his efforts during the storm and in its immediate aftermath, although he was criticized by some Republicans for appearing in his blue fleece with President Barack Obama on the eve of that year’s presidential election. The total damage was estimated at $37 billion, with 365,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged and road, power and other infrastructure in need of major repair. Christie’s approval rating soared. Later, however, criticisms of removal costs, complaints about getting money to towns and residents, and seemingly poor management of the recovery began to dog him. Christie also took flack for spending $23 million on the Stronger than the Storm ad campaign that featured him and his family while he was running for re-election and planning his presidential bid.

Bridgegate: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” read the text in what became known as the “Bridgegate” scandal, which will forever haunt Christie’s legacy. The state closed two lanes to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee for four days in a political payback scheme against the Fort Lee mayor. Four top Christie aides or allies were eventually charged and either convicted or pled guilty as a result of the federal investigation, but Christie wasn’t one of them.

Christie continues to maintain that he did not know about the lane closure plot, and was never legally implicated. His former ally, David Wildstein who pled guilty in the scheme, said Christie knew of it because he told him. Nevertheless, Wildstein was deemed not credible and legislative and federal investigations, as well as the trial, dragged on for years.

Travels: For a couple of years, it seemed Christie was out of state as much as he was in it. After his re-election as governor, Christie was named head of the Republican Governors Association and spent a third of the next year traveling. Christie also made two trips out of the country and was clearly laying the groundwork for his own presidential run. He made even more trips in 2015, when he finally announced mid-year he was running for president, and wound up spending at least some portion of more than half of the days outside New Jersey. Quitting the race in February 2016, Christie quickly endorsed Donald Trump and then traveled supporting him. The Associated Press reported that taxpayers spent more than $2 million to cover the cost of the State Police security detail that traveled with Christie during his first seven years of office.

Presidential bid: Although he denied he would run almost up to the day of his announcement, Christie was focused on his presidential aspirations long before then. He had his own super PAC, held town hall meetings, and was often featured as a commentator on cable news networks. He took more conservative positions, seeming to side with Republicans outside of state in many cases. His stances on gun-control, voting rights, parts of the Affordable Care Act, and immigration seemed beyond the position of New Jersey’s moderate GOP. It certainly drew Democrats’ ire. Polls showed that New Jerseyans, sour on Christie since Bridgegate, were increasingly unhappy with him. By the time he dropped out of the presidential race in February 2016, Christie’s approval rating was less than 30 percent and has been dropping since.

Credit: WHYY NewsWorks
christie trumpsplains His Candidate's 'Riot'
Trump: Christie’s endorsement shortly after dropping out of the presidential race wound up alienating more New Jerseyans and did not win him a position in the Trump administration. In May, Trump named Christie to head his transition team, should he get elected, but once elected, Trump replaced Christie with Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Opioids: Christie devoted time and political influence to laws and programs to help those addicted to drugs. He expanded the use of drug courts for nonviolent offenders and created a medium-security drug treatment prison. Early last year, he signed an executive order declaring opioid abuse and addiction a public-health crisis, creating a state task force to develop a strategy to combat the drug epidemic.

Atlantic City: The state had never taken over a municipality until November 2016 when Christie signed the order to take over Atlantic City. The city’s fortunes had been spiraling down as competition in neighboring states led to a number of casino closings, which decimated the city’s tax base and led to major budget shortfalls. The takeover has put the city back on firm financial footing, but it did so in part through salary cuts and the layoffs of more than 100 police and firefighters.

Environment: Hailing from Morris County, Christie was no fan of the law that put additional environmental protections on the Highlands, which covered parts of seven counties in north and central Jersey. He undermined environmental protections there and in South Jersey’s Pinelands, by naming members to the regional boards serving both who were more pro-development. In the Pinelands, he appointed a commission member who voted for the construction of a gas pipeline through the 1-million-acre preserve. In the Highlands, his Department of Environmental Protection adopted a rule that would have allowed more development on the most sensitive land in the region, although lawmakers interceded.

Beachgate: A budget stalemate in the Legislature over Christie’s effort to get Horizon Blue Cross to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for drug treatment and other programs led to a three-day state government shutdown last July. With only essential services funded, state parks and beaches were closed. But on the second day of the shutdown, a press photographer flying over Island Beach State Park, took pictures of Christie and his family relaxing on the otherwise empty state beach. The pictures made national headlines and Christie made the incident worse when he refused to apologize. Instead, he justified the family outing saying that he had a right to visit the governor’s beach house at any time. “Run for governor and you can have the residence.”