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Analysis: Will Governor Christie's House of Cards Collapse?

Governor banks on larger-than-life celebrity, but expanding investigations, mounting fiscal problems could undercut presidential hopes


Looking at Gov. Chris Christie's schedule in the days leading up to last week’s budget battle, you would think he didn't have a care in the world as he continues to gear up for a 2016 presidential bid:

  • "Dad Dancing" with Jimmy Fallon, showing off the results of his "less is more" lap-band diet

  • Blaming Obama for Iraq in front of the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington

  • Raising money for the Republican candidate for governor in New Hampshire, the first primary state

  • Telling former Romney donors in Utah he isn’t “worried” about Bridgegate

  • Playing nine innings of "celebrity softball" in Yankee Stadium with Boomer and Carton so they can talk about it on WFAN for days.

Yet, as much as Christie continues to trade on his larger-than-life personality and fund-raising prowess to keep his presidential hopes alive, a series of expanding federal and state investigations, a budget and pension system in never-ending crisis, and a mired economy that belies his New Jersey turnaround narrative and threatens to undermine Christie's best-laid plans.

Governor YouTube

Christie’s meteoric rise to Republican presidential frontrunner status was built first on his YouTube celebrity status as a brash, tough-talking politician who put union members in their place. Then, on legislation to fix New Jersey’s pension system he teamed up with Democrats to pass, and finally on his Giuliani-style public leadership during superstorm Sandy -- a performance that elevated him from mere political celebrity to People magazine status.

From there, the roadmap to the White House was clear -- an overwhelming reelection as governor over underfunded Democrat Barbara Buono in a race nobody else volunteered for, a triumphant year raising money for the GOP and courting future presidential donors and endorsements as head of the Republican Governors Association in 2014, and an all-out presidential campaign starting the year after that.

But the seeds of Christie’s potential destruction were planted in the political calculation that accompanied the governor’s rise, and are now coming back to haunt him in the shape of revenue shortfalls, pension liabilities, unemployment statistics, and credit downgrades that he should find difficult to shake. Now, there are leaks coming out of criminal investigations whose impact the former U.S. Attorney knows all too well.

The ARC Issue

For Christie personally, the most potentially dangerous investigation flows directly out of one of the most important political and policy decisions he made in his first year as governor -- his October 2010 decision to cancel the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail passenger tunnel in order to divert $3.3 billion in Port Authority and New Jersey Turnpike funds dedicated to the project to fund the Transportation Trust Fund without a gas tax increase.

For Christie, who had campaigned on a promise of no new taxes, avoiding an increase in New Jersey’s gas tax -- even if it is the third-lowest in the nation -- would have been a priority even if he was just looking ahead to reelection as governor. But Christie was already an emerging political star being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in a party where approving any tax increase would be tantamount to political suicide.

Christie’s decision to cancel an $8.7 billion tunnel that was the largest public works project in the nation -- despite the Obama administration’s efforts to renegotiate potential cost overruns -- enhanced Christie’s GOP political bona fides, and inspired Republican governors elected the next month to follow suit by cancelling major federal-state rail projects in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida.

While Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), co-chair of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation, has subpoenaed documents on the ARC Tunnel cancellation, it is Christie’s insistence on using Port Authority money to pay for the reconstruction of the Pulaski Skyway – which does not fall within the Port Authority region -- that is the focus of investigations by both the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Manhattan and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

And unlike Bridgegate -- which Christie blames on out-of-control subordinates he put in positions of power in the governor’s office and the Port Authority -- the decision to use Port Authority funds for the Pulaski Skyway falls directly on Christie.

Despite warnings from Port Authority lawyers that bond covenants barred Port Authority funds from being used to rebuild bridges and access roads leading into the Holland Tunnel, Christie bullheadedly went ahead and publicly announced in January 2011 that $1 billion in Port Authority money originally earmarked for the ARC Tunnel would be used to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway, according to memos obtained by The Record. Christie did not bother to consult with Port Authority officials before making his announcement.

Tunnel Vision

It took two months of heated negotiations between Christie’s top staffers led by Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni -- whose resignation Christie later demanded because of his role in the Bridgegate scandal -- before Port Authority officials finally caved in and agreed on March 25 to grant approval to the project as an alleged approach road to the Lincoln Tunnel. This was done even though few drivers would ever take the Pulaski Skyway, which feeds into the Holland Tunnel, to get to the Lincoln eight miles to the north.

Christie, who has held few press conferences since the Bridgegate scandal broke, last discussed the Pulaski Skyway decision at an April news conference, in which he expressed confidence that the use of Port Authority money was justified. He dismissed criticism of the deal, saying “dozens and dozens of lawyers from both sides of the river” had signed off on the agreement.

But, as The New York Times reported last week, the Port Authority told the Securities and Exchange Commission that the agency never sought an opinion from outside bond counsel or outside legal advice on whether the thinly disguised effort to skirt its own rules was legal.

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