New Jersey Governor Chris Christie paced the Princetonian Diner on U.S. Route 1 in mid-October, imploring patrons to pick his Republican ally and friend Joe Kyrillos over incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Menendez.
Just two weeks later, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the U.S. East Coast, decimating New Jersey’s shoreline, crippling mass transit and cutting power to 8.5 million homes and businesses in 21 states. Eight days after the biggest Atlantic storm in history, Menendez coasted to an 18 percentage-point victory over Kyrillos, a 20-year veteran of the state senate who was chairman of Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign.
In an instant, Sandy also reshaped New Jersey politics. It prompted Christie to seek help from Menendez and Democratic U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, whom he once called an “embarrassment to the state” during a two-year feud. And it led him to praise President Barack Obama repeatedly on national television, angering some Republicans who called it a betrayal.
“What a difference a couple of weeks can make,” Lautenberg, 88, said in a telephone interview. “This is no time for pitchforks; it’s a time for shovels. I’m frankly pleased with the way he’s handled this.”
The 50-year-old governor, who hasn’t said whether he’ll seek a second term next year, has said he doesn’t yet have an estimate for damages from the storm. Christie, who has battled Democrats in control of the legislature over spending and tax cuts, pledged to avoid partisan politics during rebuilding and promised to seek federal assistance to defray the costs.
Christie and the state’s delegation to the House and Senate are scheduled to meet tomorrow in Trenton to craft a strategy for garnering federal money, Lautenberg said.
The governor may find Menendez and Lautenberg to be indispensable allies. The two senators said on Nov. 15 that they have expedited $25 million of funding owed to New Jersey Transit, which suffered massive flooding damage to 25 percent of its cars, had tracks washed out and still faces ire from commuters as it attempts to cobble together rail service.
Menendez sits on the Senate Finance Committee and chairs the banking subcommittee on housing, transportation and community development, which he said will be important as New Jersey seeks to put displaced people into longer-term housing. Lautenberg is vice chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Even if Frank Lautenberg drives me crazy at times, which he does, it doesn’t mean I don’t understand his importance in the process of helping to rebuild my state and to aid the people who have been so severely damaged by this storm,” Christie told reporters on Nov. 16 in Newark.
Christie in March said Lautenberg was a “political hack” whose time had passed after the senator criticized his proposal to merge state universities. An “embarrassment to the state” was how the governor characterized him in April after Lautenberg grilled one of Christie’s Republican appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at a hearing in Washington.
The feud reaches back to Christie’s 2010 decision to end an $8.7 billion project that would have built a new Manhattan commuter-rail tunnel by 2018 to ease congestion as trains travel under the Hudson River. Lautenberg, an ardent backer, called the cancellation “one of the biggest policy blunders in New Jersey’s history.”
Sandy hobbled the state’s mass-transit network after Amtrak was forced to close its flooded tunnel under the Hudson.
Menendez, 58, has served in the Senate since February 2006, when Jon Corzine, Christie’s predecessor, appointed him to fill the seat he left vacant when he was elected governor. At the time, Christie was U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. When Menendez was locked in an election battle later that year to retain his senate seat, Christie’s office subpoenaed records pertaining to a property that Menendez rented to a Hudson County charity.
Still, the two never had a personal quarrel like the one between the governor and Lautenberg, said Donald Scarinci, a lawyer from Allendale who has been friends with Menendez since they were teenagers.
“To both of their credit, neither of them took a punch” in this year’s election, Scarinci said in an interview. “The past is the past.”
Christie, who during the race called Kyrillos his best friend in Trenton, appeared at fundraisers and campaign stops on behalf of him, until Sandy curtailed the governor’s stumping in the election’s final stretch.
Before the election, Christie said he invited Menendez to join him on a tour of damage with Obama and again when they viewed the storm-wracked Barnegat Bay by boat. A working relationship with Menendez is critical in order to navigate the state through its recovery, Christie said in Newark.
“We’re going to need him to advocate for us in Washington, D.C., for the funding we’re going to need to rebuild our state,” Christie said.
On Nov. 4 in Hoboken, Menendez stood nearby as Christie gave one of his many post-storm briefings. Lautenberg nodded in the front row. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department oversees FEMA, was there. Obama had flown over the state in Marine One with Christie just days prior. That visit prompted Christie to praise the president’s leadership less than a week before the election.
“It’s a change that is born out of necessity,” said Krista Jenkins, director of the PublicMind polling institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison. “The last thing that public leaders want to do is communicate to voters that at a time of crisis and at a time when we need them to work together and need state and federal cooperation, that they’re at each other’s throats.”
The question, Jenkins said, is how long the truce will last. Given the political polarization in the U.S., the détente will probably fall “by the wayside” as the immediacy of the storm recedes, she said.
Menendez said he has worked with Christie’s administration before Sandy on transportation issues and in securing Medicaid provisions sought by the governor. Menendez said he’s “proud” of Christie’s handling of the storm, beginning even before it hit the coast.
“I don’t live my life looking in a rear-view mirror, and Governor Christie and I were both elected to represent the people of New Jersey,” Menendez said in a telephone interview. “We may differ on some policies, we have in the past and I’m sure we will in the future, but we’re New Jerseyans first.”
Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Corzine, said “I tip my hat” to Christie for his Sandy performance. National Republicans are wrong to criticize him for his praise of Obama when the state needs federal assistance, she said.
“Everybody understands that when it comes to a crisis of the magnitude of Sandy, that any hint of partisanship would backfire,” Roginsky said. “At the end of the day, there have been a lot of words spoken against Bob Menendez and against Frank Lautenberg politically by the governor. So I don’t know if that’s something on a personal level they can get past, but they are also all mindful that they need to work together.”