Two months ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was certain to win a second term without help from aisle-jumping Democrats or $25 million in federal storm aid for tourism commercials that starred him and his family.
His strategy leading to Nov. 5 was to crush the record 40-point margin of victory achieved by his Republican mentor, Thomas H. Kean, in the 1985 gubernatorial race. It would mean bragging rights should Christie run for president in 2016.
“I’m happy to admit that I was trying to run up the score, absolutely,” Christie, 51, told reporters Jan. 9 of his 22-point win. “That’s what you do in a political campaign: try to get as many supporters, endorsers that turn into voters. That’s part of your job.”
Now, amid state and federal inquiries into the political overtones of four days of traffic tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge, plus Christie’s use of disaster aid, the governor is having “the worst week he’s had yet,” said David Redlawsk, a poll director who teaches politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
More challenges are to come, as Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Christie ally and the state’s most influential elected Democrat, yesterday announced a subpoena-empowered investigatory panel to be created as early as Jan. 16, the day a special Assembly session is to review the bridge matter.
Matt Farrauto, a spokesman for state Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie, likened Christie’s arc to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the Hans Christian Andersen story about swindling and pretense.
“This is the unpackaging -- the end of that tale,” Farrauto said by telephone. “And he’s got no one to blame but himself.”
The inquiries threaten the national ambitions of Christie, who’s backed by Wall Street billionaires including Home Depot Inc. (HD:US) co-founder Ken Langone and investor Stanley Druckenmiller, as the Republican Party seeks to capture the White House and distance itself from the anti-government Tea Party faction that has mired the U.S. Congress in dysfunction.
Christie today gives his State of the State speech before a legislature controlled by Democrats, who are using the inquiries to question the governor’s credibility. He will talk about education, a main theme of his first term, and propose a longer school day and year, according to excerpts of his speech.
The governor apologized Jan. 9 for the closing of two of three approach lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee, increasing a usually 30-minute trip to as much as four hours. He said he knew nothing about his aides’ orders to close the lanes to paralyze traffic in Fort Lee, a borough at the end of the bridge, whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse Christie for re-election.
The governor, renowned on Google Inc.’s YouTube for unscripted outbursts, said he hadn’t set the tone for intimidation within his administration.
“I am not a bully,” he said.
In polling since the bridge matter was widely reported last week, 60 percent of 1,006 respondents in a Jan. 9-12 national survey by the Pew Research Center said their opinion of Christie hadn’t changed, while 16 percent viewed him less favorably, and 6 percent, more. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Among New Jerseyans, the governor’s favorability rating fell to 44 percent in a poll Jan. 10-12, down from 70 percent in February 2013. The survey of 541 adults by Monmouth University in West Long Branch had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Christie today was set to kick off a week of triumph, starting with a New Jersey policy speech, a weekend sweep through Florida as the most prominent elected Republican fundraiser in the U.S., and a Jan. 21 celebration of his second term beneath the Statue of Liberty.
At every turn he is dogged by e-mails, written on non-government accounts, that tied the delays to a message from Bridget Anne Kelly, a senior deputy chief of staff: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The e-mails and thousands of pages of documents were obtained under subpoena by Democratic lawmakers and released by them on Jan. 10.
Kelly and three other Christie allies -- campaign manager Bill Stepien, and Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, both appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge’s operator -- delighted in the discomfiture of the Fort Lee mayor, Mark Sokolich, whom e-mails referred to as “the Serbian” and an “idiot.”
Sokolich, who didn’t join dozens of Democratic colleagues in crossing party lines to endorse Christie’s re-election, got no response when he asked whether he was being punished, the e-mails show. The lane closures were explained as part of a traffic study.
“The question that really resonates with a lot of us is: How damaging to democracy is it when you have someone in government using their political clout for the purpose of punishing a political opponent?” said Barbara Buono, the Democratic state senator who ran against Christie for governor.
Christie, who achieved record public approval on his handling of the October 2012 Hurricane Sandy disaster, led Buono in polls by at least 16 percentage points, and sometimes more than double that, throughout the race.
“Did he need those commercials? No,” Senator Richard J. Codey, a Roseland Democrat and former governor, said in an interview yesterday. “But his thing was to pile it on, which is his personality -- ‘I don’t want to win by just 18 points, I want to win by 25 points. I want to do better than Kean’ -- which was never going to happen. We’re a much more Democratic state than we were.”
On Sept. 13, what would have been the fifth day of jams, Port Authority officials from New York intervened to restore traffic flow, according to the e-mails. In response to the interference, Wildstein wrote that David Samson, Christie’s appointee as Port Authority chairman, was “helping us to retaliate.”
Samson told Christie he had no role in the matter, the governor said last week.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Sayreville who is leading his house’s investigation, said it was “understandable” that Christie wanted a big victory margin over Buono.
“What’s not understandable is this: the authorization for the closure through a private e-mail account, the glee that was expressed at the havoc that was caused in Fort Lee, and the absolute blind rage when it was stopped,” Wisniewski said.
The inspector general’s office of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department is auditing Christie’s Hurricane Sandy tourism expenditures, according to Ian O’Connor, a spokesman.
Frank Pallone Jr., a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, requested the review because it was “inappropriate for taxpayer-funded dollars that are critical to our state’s recovery from this natural disaster to fund commercials that could potentially benefit a political campaign,” according to a letter released by Pallone’s office.
Christie’s office, in a press release, pointed to November 2013 comments from Shaun Donovan, the federal housing secretary, praising the campaign’s effectiveness and declaring the governor’s use of the money “clearly within the legal boundaries.”
Reviews such as the one Pallone requested are routine, according to a Christie spokesman, Colin Reed.
“We’re confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history,” Reed said in a statement.
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