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Will the Bridgegate Scandal Change the Way Christie Governs?

george washington bridge

For all the talk about how the George Washington Bridge scandal is going to affect Gov. Chris Christie’s national ambitions, what about closer to home, what about the "business of the people" as it's conducted in New Jersey?

Christie gives a State of the State address next Tuesday, an inaugural address a week after that, and presents a state budget a month of that. Even after his mea culpa yesterday, is he now a weakened chief executive with an equally weakened agenda going into his second term?

Or is he even more emboldened now, more intent than ever on leading -- and changing -- the conversation?

In dramatic fashion, yesterday in Trenton kicked off with a court hearing about subpoenas, followed by Christie’s epic two-hour press conference, and ending with an equally long Assembly hearing over the scandal.

But what does all this drama mean when it comes to Christie’s agenda for his next term?

In conversations with leading legislators, lobbyists, and others who were on hand or following developments yesterday, the answers varied widely.

From both sides of the aisle, many said that it is too early to tell, given the uncertainty of future disclosures and other developments in Bridgegate, not to mention the vagaries of the media following it.

A few said they expected Christie may be more prone to compromises, while others said he may be even bolder in pressing his agenda. One leading legislator half-joked, “Maybe he’ll be a little nicer.”

Still, most agreed that the governor is sure to be distracted and the political equation has clearly been shifted, at least for now. At a minimum, Christie’s next speeches are probably already going through a rewrite, said one former governor in the Statehouse yesterday.

“I don’t see how he gets up there on Tuesday [for the State of the State] and ignores this,” said state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who served as governor after former Gov. James McGreevey’s resignation. “I have to think his speech has changed drastically from Monday to today.”

Others said there will clearly be some adjustments to make, at least as the scandal continues to dominate the public conversation. And there's a great deal on the agenda, from debates over health reform, changes in education policy in areas like charter schools and teacher quality, and deepening divisions over the administration’s environmental stance.

A Temporary Disability

Hal Bozarth, longtime executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, conceded that Christie may be temporarily damaged.

"It will take him a while to be the big Kahuna in the room again,'' he said.

Still, Bozarth does not expect a lot of changes in Christie's policies. "If had to guess, he will be exactly the same on the policy issues. He may well stay the course and he won't give in to the environmentalists,'' he said.

An early indication may emerge in how the governor deals out vetoes, conditional vetoes, and pocket vetoes over the flood of legislation expected to be approved in the lame-duck legislative session, which ends Monday, Bozarth said.

"What he does with all those bills will be interesting,'' he said.

Healthcare policy experts don't expect Christie's situation to have much of an effect on specific policy items, but some experts do see the potential for a more widespread impact on the administration's approach to policy.

New Jersey Policy Perspective senior policy analyst Raymond J. Castro said the administration may become more open to hearing proposals from outside groups, after receiving criticism for having a closed approach to governance.

"Maybe the state departments are going to be more cooperative," Castro said, noting that healthcare policy advocates have been frustrated in attempts to meet with Department of Banking and Insurance officials.

Castro added that the experience may lead Christie to strike a different tone in health policy debates. "It will be interesting to see now that he's more vulnerable, is he going to be as outspoken on issues like national health reform?"

Jeanne Otersen, a lobbyist for nurses union the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, reinforced Castro's point.

"I think we've had a very closed, tight circle within the governor's office setting policy, instead of more open and collaborative and inclusive policy development," Otersen said, adding that she hopes the state becomes more open in making hospital information publicly available.

"I think (the scandal) would have implications for policy if they really take this to heart," she said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney in an interview tried to dispel any notion that much will slow down in the wake of the scandal, saying he and the Democratic majority have their own priorities that they plan to pursue. Of course, Sweeney is one of the names most mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate to succeed Christie.

“Regardless of what is going on here, we have business we have to do for the people of New Jersey,” Sweeney said after the Senate’s brief and overshadowed session yesterday. “We will look for compromise, and we will look to get things done. We don’t stop and shut everything down.”

“Clearly there are investigations going on, and Assemblyman [John] Wisniewski and Sen. [Loretta] Weinberg have done a very good job in bringing this to light, but that doesn’t mean you stop everything and wait,” he said.

When asked whether the politics change in either his party or the Republican minority in terms of support for or against initiatives, Sweeney acknowledged Christie still holds plenty of sway in a governor’s seat that is among the most powerful in the country.

“He needs us to get things done, and we need him to get things done,” Sweeney said. “We need each other to get things done.”

Republicans were still standing behind the governor, at least publicly. State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), the Senate minority leader, has been in a public and sometimes-nasty spat with Christie over Kean’s leadership role, but yesterday he was supportive of the governor.

“The second that he found out there were individuals who were not factual with him, he took quick action,” Kean said. “Now he is able to go on . . . His response has reinforced his very strong, responsible profile.”

When asked whether he and his party are still united behind the governor, Kean said: “Of course.”

Privately, others weren’t so certain, but they also said it was a matter of how long the scandal will last. One lobbyist said the impact of the scandal won’t be so much on how Christie reacts but how the Legislature reacts.

“The question is whether he will still enjoy the same loyalty,” said the lobbyist, who asked to remain unidentified. “It will largely depend on how they perceive the impact on his ability to govern.”

The lobbyist and others have said Christie has been adept in his first term in shifting the discussion, in finding new issues and topics to grab the headlines. This will prove a new test of that skill, they said.

“But I have never counted him out,” the lobbyist said.

Tom Johnson and Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this story.

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