2016 Year in Review of New Jersey News

By Brenda Flanagan

“What an extraordinary honor to get a chance to run for president of the United States,” Gov. Christie said on New Hampshire’s Primary Day in February.

Christie dominated New Jersey’s news narrative in 2016, from his zenith as presidential primary candidate, through a meteoric fall from public grace driven largely by Jersey’s second-biggest news story: Bridgegate. The year-long scandal relentlessly dogged Jersey’s governor, irretrievably tarnishing Christie’s political star and dashing his dreams of national office.

“Any time you say Bridgegate it hurts Chris Christie. It doesn’t matter what the context is,” said Seton Hall University Political Science Professor Matthew Hale.

Christie’s voracious political ambition consumed his time and energy in 2016. The governor drew criticism for spending weeks away from New Jersey while he campaigned hard in the Republican primary. But Christie poured all his energies into his campaign, and he performed brilliantly in the Feb. 6 GOP debate, savaging Marco Rubio.

“When you’re president of the United States, when you’re governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person,” Christie said.

It wasn’t enough. Christie finished at the back of the pack in New Hampshire and quietly withdrew from the race. In mid-February, his job approval rating stood at 33 percent in the Eagleton poll, so his next move rocked residents and lawmakers who expected him to fully re-engage at home. Instead, Christie endorsed former opponent Donald Trump.

“He has listened to the American people,” Christie said in March. “The American people are listening to him and he is bringing the country together. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not a campaign. It’s a movement.”

Ultimately it paid off when Trump surfed a wave of voter discontent to win the GOP nomination. Christie breathed fire during a convention speech.

“The charge of putting herself [Hillary Clinton] ahead of America? Guilty or not guilty? Guilty!” Christie said in his Republican National Convention speech.

But as the governor basked in Trump’s reflected limelight, scandal loomed. His mentor and confidant — former Port Authority Chairman David Samson — had just pleaded guilty to bribing United Airlines to create the special “chairman’s flight” in return for favors.

“Samson would take action against United if the airline didn’t play ball,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.

And in September, Bridgegate owned the A block in newscasts, including NJTV News, as the jury began hearing some eye-opening evidence.

“Bridget Kelly took the stand and delivered bombshell material. She described telling Christie three times about the traffic study and that he essentially signed off on it a month before it happened,” Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron reported on Nov. 4.

Multiple witnesses testified that Christie knew all along about the plot to exact political retribution on the mayor of Fort Lee by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. Christie has never been indicted and has consistently maintained his innocence.

“Did I know about it? Did I have anything to do with it? The answer is no,” Christie said in September.

But polls show the court of public opinion convicted the governor, just as the Bridgegate jury convicted both defendants, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, on all counts.

“It is time for Chris Christie to look in the mirror and take responsibility for what happened here,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

Both defendants have appealed. But Bridgegate wasn’t done with Christie. A Bergen County judge found merit in a separate, criminal Bridgegate complaint filed against the governor which will follow him into 2017. It was apparently too much for the Trump camp.

After Trump’s surprise win in November and despite an on-camera kudos — “Gov. Chris Chris folks, was unbelievable” — Trump summarily demoted Christie from head of his transition team and the governor’s prospects for a spot in the nascent Trump administration tanked. By mid-December, Christie’s approval ratings plumbed historic lows — just 18 percent. He’s remained defiant.

“I have every intention of serving out my full term as governor. I’ve said that from the beginning,” Christie said during a keynote speech at the League of Municipalities luncheon in November.

Throughout 2016, the governor had juggled campaign and Jersey crises, refocusing on Trenton when political dumpster fires like the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund flared higher into real emergencies. With efforts to renew the TTF stalled after months of bitter partisan bickering, Christie had halted all work projects in June. Though some mayors like Piscataway’s Brian Wahler defied the governor’s executive order.

“They’re crazy. I’m ripping it up! It means nothing! Nothing! And that’s what I think about your cease and desist order, commissioner and governor,” Wahler said.

Christie and the Legislature finally agreed in October to raise New Jersey’s historically low gas tax by a whopping 23 cents a gallon while cutting some other taxes. Amidst intense lobbying, voters also approved a November ballot question dedicating the gas tax to the TTF.

“If we don’t make an investment, we’re going to be at a complete economic disadvantage and we’re going to lose business which means taxes will go up,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“Everybody’s not going to love this bill, but it’s a bill everybody’s going to live with,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. “And again, it’s a public safety issue.”

Lawmakers also struggled to save Atlantic City from bankruptcy, passing a bailout bill in May that gave the city just 150 days to draft an approved path to financial redemption. Since 2014, the casino town had lost four gaming halls to a contracting economy.

The Taj closed Oct. 10. Facing insolvency, Atlantic City’s frantic efforts to avoid state takeover — including deep cuts in municipal staffing — ultimately failed. On Nov. 9, the state assumed control despite pleas from distraught locals.

“Atlantic City is my home, and so I’m asking you to have some compassion,” Atlantic City resident Linda Steele said.

After watching Atlantic City’s financial death spiral, 77 percent of New Jersey voters said no to a November ballot question over allowing more casinos in northern New Jersey. Blistering attack ads helped bury the issue.

Lack of funding proved a constant refrain across several controversies and tragedies this year. The deadly Hoboken train crash that killed a young mom and injured more than 100 passengers on Sept. 29 shocked eyewitnesses.

“It hit the block, the block is meant to stop a train, but at that speed, it was going so fast. It went up and over the block. It literally flew through the air,” said eyewitness Michael Larson.

The crash underscored NJ Transit’s chronic funding shortages. Angry lawmakers convened to investigate.

“The New Jersey Transit trains are twice as likely to break down, as those operated by regional peers such as LIRR and Metro-North. Far too many cars sit in repair yards, contributing to a standing-room-only, hellish commute,” said Sen. Bob Gordon.

The agency’s new executive, Steve Santoro, promised significant improvements.

“New Jersey Transit is at a critical juncture and we have issues to address,” he said before a joint legislative committee in November.

The numbers are evident and rising for New Jersey’s rampant opioid epidemic. Almost 1,600 people overdosed in 2015. That’s up 22 percent from the prior year. Heroin killed more than 900.

“Every time that you take that packet it’s Russian Roulette. At some point in time — it’s not if, it’s when is that body going to shut down and you’re going to be part of the statistic,” said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato.

Hard hit Ocean County reports more than 70 percent of the heroin for sale is cut with fentanyl — a lethal synthetic that requires more than one hit of the anti-overdose spray Narcan to reverse an OD.

Another poison still lurks in New Jersey’s old houses and schools where lead — a potent neurotoxin — contaminates the paint and plumbing. Newark distributed bottled drinking water to students in 30 schools in March, after it discovered lead in drinking water there.

“I’m going to have my son tested because I’m very concerned and it’s not a good thing for any of the kids in school,” said mother Elizabeth Lespier.

Tougher state rules now require all schools to test for lead and set aside $10 million to strip lead paint from housing.

Meanwhile, a new health threat emerged in New Jersey this year: the Zika virus. Doctors say a baby born in Hackensack to a Honduran mom suffered from Zika-induced microcephaly.

“Neither the mother nor the baby acquired this infection in the United States,” said Dr. Julia Piwoz, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at HackensackUMC.

New Jersey and U.S. health officials warned most travelers to avoid Zika hot spots.

Another threat erupted — entirely man-made — when bombs placed in Manhattan’s Chelsea section and in a Seaside Park garbage can exploded on a September weekend. Two men found more unexploded bombs left in a backpack near the Elizabeth train station. FBI investigators tracked down the alleged bomber, Ahmad Rahimi, a disaffected immigrant from Afghanistan, who’s now charged with terrorism.

“He was described as armed and dangerous, and as we see from this incident this morning, that’s exactly what it was,” Linden Police Captain James Sarnicki said. “We’re very lucky. We had two officers shot, fortunately both of them are going to be OK and obviously this suspect was bent on harming people.”

Rahimi’s trial is pending.

In Newark, a special monitor appointed by the federal Department of Justice will watch that police properly patrol city residents.

Down the Shore, four years after Sandy, storm victims still raged against state and federal bureaucracies that victimized them a second time.

“Two days shy of the Sandy anniversary and the emotions are flowing,” said Sandy victim Joe Mangino. “I’ve been hearing from people and they can’t deal with it.”

But political storms generated rallies against a different perceived threat. The president-elect’s promise to deport unauthorized immigrants and penalize so-called sanctuary cities frightened many New Jersey residents and drove campus protests.

“Today we are gathered here to make Rutgers a sanctuary campus,” said Carimer Andujar.

Protests will continue. Meanwhile, Gov. Christie’s year ended badly. He lost a legislative battle over yanking legal ads out of newspapers and promoting a book deal for himself. But his record of no veto overrides still stands. As for 2017, well, that’s another story.