It was an Inauguration Day like no other, as Democratic leaders upstaged Gov. Chris Christie by announcing agreement on a joint committee to investigate Bridgegate and other alleged abuses of power by his administration just minutes before his inauguration, then trekked over to the War Memorial to listen to Christie deliver a speech that made no mention of the crises that threaten to cripple his second term.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said with a shrug after Christie’s speech. “There’s no need to allude to it. Everybody in the world already knows what’s going on in the State of New Jersey.”
TV camera crews and national newspaper reporters clustered around Sweeney and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) for the latest news on the investigation and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations, ignoring Christie’s speech with its message of bipartisanship, low taxes, and small government. Whatever campaign theme Christie was trying to convey to Iowa or New Hampshire voters no longer mattered.
Just two weeks ago, Christie was running neck-and-neck with Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential polls, planning a triumphal fundraising tour through Florida with Gov. Rick Scott, and preparing to celebrate his November reelection landslide with an Inaugural Gala on Ellis Island symbolically chosen to highlight his immigrant roots for the national media.
That was before emails showed that the order to shut down the George Washington Bridge lanes came out of the governor’s office, before Christie fired his deputy chief of staff and longtime campaign manager, before a legislative committee blanketed the governor’s office with subpoenas, and before the Hoboken mayor charged that Christie’s lieutenant governor had threatened to withhold Sandy aid if she did not approve a high-rise the governor wanted built.
Yesterday, after two weeks of nonstop media coverage of the Christie administration scandals, a Quinnipiac Poll showed Christie trailing Clinton, his presidential drive “stuck in traffic, sideswiped by Bridgegate”; a top Virginia Republican called for Christie to resign his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association for the good of the party; and a major snowstorm forced cancellation of the Ellis Island festivities for a party in no mood to party.
Christie took the oath of office in a forceful voice, but in his Second Inaugural Address, he seemed less ebullient than usual and content to reflect on the accomplishments of his first term, rather than looking ahead to offer a bold vision for the second.
“We have endured the worst economic recession of our lifetimes and we have begun to triumph over it. We have confronted entrenched interests and their endless stream of money that have previously stood in the way of fiscal sanity for our state, and educational excellence for our children,” Christie declared, taking a shot at public employee unions and especially the New Jersey Education Association. “Together, we have pushed those interests back, and put our children’s future first."
“We have survived the worst natural disaster in our state’s history and worked together to restore, renew and rebuild the state we love,” he said, declaring that New Jersey has been “setting the tone for an entire nation” by putting aside political partisanship and by being “willing to play outside the red and blue boxes the media and pundits put us in.”
Christie reiterated his low-tax, small-government mantra: “I do not believe that New Jerseyans want a bigger, more expensive government that penalizes success and then gives the pittance left to a few in the name of income equity,” he said. “For those who prefer economic growth and opportunity to government redistribution and higher taxes, I say this: come to New Jersey. You will be welcome here.”
Christie did not use his Second Inaugural Address to call upon Democrats to fulfill his 2009 campaign promise to pass an income tax cut, as he did in his second and third State of the State addresses.
Christie’s Second Inaugural offered none of the concrete pledges to cut state spending, curb municipal government, and cut red tape that highlighted his First Inaugural, with its proclamation that “Change has arrived!”
There was none of the ambition of his first State of the State speech, where he vowed “It’s time to do the big things” -- a full overhaul of pensions and health benefits, tenure reform, and a five-year business tax cut.
His Second Inaugural Address paled even by comparison with last week’s State of the State speech, in which he called for a longer school day and a longer school year, a constitutional amendment to end bail for violent offenders, and a call for new public employee concessions to reduce the burgeoning pension payments that are eating up the state budget.In fact, Sweeney, who declared last week that the Democratic-controlled Legislature would set the agenda for New Jersey, offered more specific goals in his six-sentence press release than Christie did in his 20-minute address.
Calling Christie’s speech “long on rhetoric and short on solutions,” Sweeney declared, “If the governor is honest about wanting to help all New Jerseyans, then let’s finally pass some of the initiatives I have been fighting for, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, restoring the Homestead Rebate, and asking millionaires to pay their fair share.”
It was the Democratic Legislature that seized the agenda yesterday with a joint Statehouse Annex press conference called by Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) just 45 minutes before Christie’s Inauguration to announce their agreement to set up a joint Senate and Assembly committee with subpoena powers to investigate Bridgegate and other allegations of abuses of power by the Christie administration. "We need to move forward in a unified way to get to the bottom of these issues that are seemingly growing every minute," said Sweeney.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), whose Assembly Transportation Committee subpoenas produced the bombshell email showing that Bridget Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, ordered the George Washington Bridge lane closures, and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who was the first to confront the Port Authority on the suspicious lane closures in Fort Lee, will co-chair the Joint Legislative Select Committee on Investigation.
Prieto and Sweeney said the Assembly and Senate would meet tomorrow to approve the new committee, and would ensure that the 20 subpoenas issued by Wisniewski’s Assembly Select Committee on Investigation last Thursday night would remain in place.
The committee members were not named yesterday, but in a nod to Wisniewski’s and the Assembly’s lead role in the investigation so far, Prieto and Sweeney have tentatively agreed that the panel will include eight Assembly members (five Democrats and three Republicans) and four senators (three Democrats and one Republican)
Subpoenaed documents are due on February 3 from the governor’s office, Christie’s current and incoming chief of staff, his top two communications aides, the deputy chief of staff and campaign manager he fired, his Port Authority chairman, and two top Port Authority officials directly involved in the bridge lane closures who have resigned, and other administration and Port Authority officials.
Sweeney said the timing of the press conference right before the inauguration was not intentional. “The Speaker and I just concluded this 15 minutes ago,” Sweeney said. “This isn’t a thumb in the eye of the governor.”
Wisniewski, for one, has always signaled his expectation that the two houses would work together on a joint probe. In fact, Weinberg met Monday with Reid Schar, the special counsel the Wisniewski committee had already hired based on his successful prosecution of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges, in the expectation that their two committee investigations would merge.
“We’re glad to come to this agreement where we can bring both the Assembly and the Senate together to work for the common purpose of getting to the bottom of the very thorny question of the abuse of power and the attempted coverup of that abuse of power,” Wisniewski said.
Wisniewski said it was “premature” for the new joint committee to launch an investigation of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s charge that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno threatened that the Christie administration would withhold Sandy aid from the city unless she won city council approval for a Rockefeller Group high-rise represented by the law firm of David Samson, Christie’s Port Authority chairman who has already been subpoenaed in the Bridgegate scandal.
“Clearly, she raises serious allegations,” Wisniewski said of Zimmer. “There’s a lot of facts swirling about with who said what when.”
But Wisniewski added that “the first order of business for this committee is to follow the information we have to date where we have somebody in the governor’s office abusing power, and we see attempts to cover up that abuse of power. We’ll follow that trail wherever it leads, but we’re not going to switch gears now and start following another investigation.”
Weinberg agreed. “In terms of the current subpoenas, we have a major question that’s out there: Who ordered Bridget Kelly to issue her email and why?” Weinberg asked, referring to the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email that Kelly sent to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority. “We’re looking forward to seeing the documents in the first week in February when they’re due and we’re looking forward to getting answers to that as we move along on this road. I don’t know where it’s going to lead us, but I know we have a focus on where we started and we need to get to it.”
Meanwhile, Zimmer, who met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for two hours Sunday afternoon and handed over pages from a contemporaneous diary detailing Guadagno’s alleged threat and other related emails, released an April 23, 2013 letter she sent to Christie as further evidence that she has had concerns for a long time about political pressure to approve the Rockefeller Group project in exchange for Sandy aid.“Just as shore towns are not being asked for development in exchange for protecting them from future storms, the solution to Hoboken’s flooding challenges cannot be dependent on future development,” Zimmer said in the letter, which was written 15 days before the Hoboken Planning Board rejected the Rockefeller Group project and 20 days before she says Guadagno threatened to withhold Sandy aid.
Guadagno read a statement to the press in Union Beach Monday in which she denied the threat, and said Zimmer had “mischaracterized” their discussion about Hoboken development issues that day.
A spokesperson for Christie yesterday dismissed the importance of Zimmer's April 23 letter, saying, “With the latest shift in her ever-changing story, Mayor Zimmer continues to undermine her credibility, adding evolving and unsubstantiated claims with each media interview.”
Zimmer first made her allegations last Friday, the same day that the Wisniewski committee subpoenas began flooding into the governor’s office. The two events came on the eve of Christie’s two-day fundraising trip to Florida as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a trip that was limited to private fundraisers after Gov. Rick Scott decided to cancel a planned public event where Christie would have been besieged by the national press corps.
Ken Cuccinelli, the losing GOP candidate for governor in Virginia last year, said on CNN’s “Crossfire” yesterday that Christie should step down as RGA chairman. “I think just from the perspective of setting aside this as an issue in other races it makes sense for him to step aside in that role,” Cuccinelli said. “He does not serve the goals of that organization by staying as chairman. And that doesn't mean any of the charges political or otherwise or substantive or not, it doesn't matter, perception is reality.”
Yesterday’s Quinnipiac Poll showed that perceptions of Christie are changing nationally. Christie now trails Clinton 46 percent to 38 percent, down from polls in both November and December that showed Christie with a slight lead.
"New Jersey Gov. Christopher Christie's 2016 presidential drive is stuck in traffic, sideswiped by Bridgegate, the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal," Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in releasing the poll results yesterday.
Sarah Gonzales, a reporter for WNYC, a partner of New Jersey Spotlight, contributed to this report.