“It’s just unprecedented,” said Carl Golden, who served as communications director for both Republican Govs. Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman. “I’ve never seen a governor in this position. You have the weight of all the federal and legislative investigations, 20 subpoenas, tough policy questions about Sandy aid and why there weren’t more trains after the Super Bowl, and overall the worst press I have ever seen for any public official.”
The pressure of trying to run a government when the governor’s office, most of the governor’s current and former senior staff, the lieutenant governor, the Port Authority chairman, the community affairs commissioner, the former attorney general and the governor’s campaign manager are all the targets of subpoenas, named in investigations, or charged in lawsuits has certainly added to the, but the issue goes much deeper and much further back.
Statehouse insiders, legislators and academics agree that the Christie administration’s policy failures -- like Bridgegate and the other political scandals that have dominated the headlines -- flow directly from the decisions Christie made on how to set up and run his governor’s office and the $50 billion, 70,000-employee state government he was elected to administer.
“We went from an administration where the guy at the top couldn’t make a decision to a guy who can make a decision, but wants no input,” said Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray, comparing Christie to his predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine. “The problem is that when you pretty much shut out all outside voices in the decision-making process, you’re more likely to make a mistake. It’s just amazing to me how little public input there has been into how this Sandy aid is being spent.”
Experts agreed that the Christie administration is both more centralized and has less hands-on policy and political experience in the governor’s office and in key state agencies than the administrations of the six elected governors and two acting governors who ran New Jersey state government prior to Christie’s election in 2009.
“Ultimately, you can’t run a business you don’t understand,” said Raphael Caprio, director of Rutgers University’s Local Government Research Center. “In any organization, it all comes down to having the right people in the right place, and I’m not sure the senior administration officials who are responsible understand the aims, the mission, and the needs of the constituencies of the agencies they have been asked to run. Their inherent background is prosecutorial, it’s not advocacy and it’s not policy.”
Kevin O’Dowd and Charlie McKenna, Christie’s chief of staff and chief counsel for the past two years, both served with Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s Office (see) So did Economic Development Authority Chief Michele Brown, former Chief Counsel and U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, past and present Attorney Generals Paula Dow and John Hoffman, Sandy reconstruction czar Marc Ferzan, Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna, newly appointed Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Deborah Gramiccioni, Comptroller Marc Larkins, Press Secretary Michael Drewniak and Rosemary Iannacone, director of operations in the governor’s office.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who coordinates business development, is both a former assistant U.S. Attorney and Monmouth County sheriff. Port Authority Chairman David Samson worked with Christie when he served as attorney general with former Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa as his chief of staff, and Guadagno, O’Dowd and Sports and Exposition Authority chief Wayne Hasenbalg also served previously in the Attorney General’s Office. Christie’s political team -- strategist Michael DuHaime, recently fired Campaign Manager and Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Stepien, and Communications Director Maria Comella -- all came to Christie after working for Rudy Giuliani, a former U.S. Attorney who brought a similar management style to his mayor’s office.
Christie’s decision to rely on a top staff dominated by those who took orders from him for years when he was U.S. Attorney, plus those political operatives who proved their worth in his first 2009 campaign, is rooted in his insistence upon absolute loyalty and the fact that Christie was never really a part of New Jersey’s Republican establishment. Unlike former GOP Govs. Kean and Whitman, Christie had no lifelong GOP allies with deep Statehouse ties to bring into his administration, one veteran GOP legislator noted.
Christie quickly became a national media star and dominated New Jersey politics by forming alliances with Democratic power brokers George Norcross and Joseph DiVincenzo that furthered his own national and state political ambitions. It did nothing, however, to showcase future Republican leaders, promote the Republican Party brand in New Jersey, or give the GOP a chance to recapture control of the legislature, as Kean did. Christie, unlike Kean, owed the state party little.
That’s because Christie was -- and remains -- an outsider. He and Corzine were the first governors in a half-century who did not rise up through the ranks of party politics. Christie, a brash Morris County freeholder who was ousted by his own party after a tumultuous three-year term in 1997, bypassed the GOP hierarchy by teaming with his brother Todd Christie, a controversial Wall Street financier, and Kean’s political guru, Bill Palatucci, to raise millions for George W. Bush, who resurrected Christie’s career by naming him U.S. Attorney. Along with Christie’s wife Mary Pat, Todd Christie and Palatucci remain the governor’s most trusted advisers in a tight inner circle.
Other than Richard Bagger, a former state senator who served as Christie’s chief of staff for the first two years, the team of lawyers chosen by Christie lacked the Statehouse experience, long-term relationships with key politicians and stakeholders, in-depth understanding of ongoing policy issues, and years of experience responding to constituent complaints that make an administration successful, the government experts agreed.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the Department of Community Affairs. It was Grifa, Samson’s former chief of staff, and Constable, who served under Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, whose management as Community Affairs commissioners has been called into question in the provision of foreclosure aid to homeowners in 2011 and 2012 and the delivery of Sandy aid over the past two years.
“Grifa and Constable are the first two Community Affairs commissioners in history who did not have hands-on experience as mayors, legislators or Cabinet officials, so they did not know what it was like to get complaints from constituents, and they did not understand that complaints are a sign that you are doing something wrong and you need to fix it,” said one expert on the agency. “Randy Primas and Susan Bass Levin were great Community Affairs commissioners because as mayors, they understood what they needed to do.”
“Community Affairs is supposed to function like a giant funnel,” Golden said. “State and federal aid pours in one end and goes out the other to help local governments and citizens.”
But Grifa choked off the funnel. As a former prosecutor, she was so focused on preventing fraud that she set up a system where only eight people a month qualified for federal grants worth up to $48,000 designed to avert eviction in a state with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, leaving $300 million in federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money sitting unused for months, Constable conceded a year after taking over the agency.