New Jersey’s Democratic legislature today called for a special session as Republican Governor Chris Christie, fresh from apologizing for his aides’ role in a New Jersey traffic-jamming scheme, works to put his credibility back on track.
Christie, who will unveil his agenda for the year on Jan. 14, cast himself in his first term as a master of bipartisanship, willing to back legislation introduced by Democrats and to praise -- and hug -- President Barack Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The George Washington Bridge scandal could dim that image and hinder his spending and economic-development plans. Bridge access lane closures in Fort Lee led the town’s mayor to ask bridge operators if he was being punished for refusing to endorse Christie, 51, in the November election, according to e-mails and texts made public Jan. 8.
“Things are going to be scrutinized more from his legislation and budget than ever before,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal research in New York at Evercore Wealth Management LLC, which oversees about $4.9 billion. “There’s pressure on the Democratic Party in New Jersey to not necessarily cooperate with him on every issue.”
Leaders of the legislature’s majority party said they’ll give the governor no easy claim to across-the-aisle teamwork. Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, a Democrat from Voorhees, said Christie had been inclusive and collaborative only when it was convenient anyway.
“The governor likes to portray himself as bipartisan,” Greenwald said, “because it sells politically.”
The disclosure of the messages led Christie -- who said he was “stunned” when he learned aides had done something he described as inexcusable -- to fire a deputy chief of staff and cut ties with one of his top advisers.
State lawmakers and federal prosecutors are investigating the September lane closings, which immobilized Fort Lee, a town abutting the bridge to Manhattan. The Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, had refused to follow dozens of others in his party and back Christie for governor. The intention was to punish Sokolich, according to the messages.
Lawmakers wasted little time making their fresh assertiveness clear. Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto said today he will call his chamber into special session Jan. 16 to consider reauthorizing subpoena power so the probe can continue.
“Many questions remain unanswered about this threat to public safety and abuse of power,” Prieto, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Democrats yesterday released computer files containing hundreds of pages of documents in the probe, which will continue after Christie’s second term starts Jan. 21.
“Democrats in the state were prepared to cause trouble for him before this broke,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public policy. “They can make him focus on this rather than anything else he wants to accomplish. If the story continues, it’s going to be very useful to the Democrats.”
Indeed, the nomination of Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, as attorney general was placed on hold yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to Senator Ray Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth who sits on the panel. O’Dowd’s name appears among the documents.
The attorney general is the top state-level law-enforcement officer, with duties including oversight of prosecutions and the state police. His hearing, which was to be Jan. 14, is delayed indefinitely, Lesniak said by telephone today.
“We had more questions than could be answered with the material we have on hand,” Lesniak said.
What’s being called Bridgegate could threaten Christie’s possible 2016 try for president. While he’s said his focus is on New Jersey, not on national ambitions, he hasn’t ruled out leaving the governor’s office early to seek the nomination. A CNN/ORC International poll last month showed him ahead of Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 48 percent to 46 percent, in a hypothetical 2016 race.
Michael Drewniak and Colin Reed, spokesmen for the governor, didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails.
Beyond the state, Christie’s chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association -- and his unscripted tough-guy moments that are popular on Google Inc.’s YouTube -- will keep him visible. Supporters said the bridge scandal wouldn’t hurt him and that his handling of it may burnish his credentials.
“The governor’s coming out stronger” already, said Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican from Westfield and the state Senate minority leader. “People, when they look to how he handled this crisis, saw a person who was determined, who was decisive, who sought answers.”
Christie won praise from crisis-management experts for reacting swiftly and strongly when the incriminating messages emerged. There were only a few slip-ups at his Jan. 9 press conference, they said, including when he answered a question about whether he fosters an in-house atmosphere for political trickery by saying, “I am not a bully.”
The governor fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who he said had lied to him about whether anyone on his team was involved in the September bridge lane closures. The e-mails released include one from Kelly on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. “Time for some traffic problems,” she wrote. He replied, “Got it.”
Four lanes were closed for four days, turning the typical 30-minute drive across the bridge into a trip of four hours or more, stranding commuters and emergency medical crews.
On Jan. 9, an Assembly panel looking into whether the closures were retribution against Sokolich was stymied by Wildstein. Appearing under subpoena, he invoked his right to remain silent. The panel ruled him in contempt. Wildstein resigned last month, as did Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority.
Greenwald, the Assembly majority leader, said there were few explanations for the aides’ ability to orchestrate the closures without the governor’s knowledge.
“It’s either through complacency or that he is distracted by his personal ambition to run for president,” Greenwald said.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, whose district includes Fort Lee, said Christie’s political dexterity would be tested in his second term.
“We’ve got, in many big areas, very different philosophies,” she said. “People will see that play out over the next two years.”
In his first term, he worked with Democrats to raise the retirement age for government workers and increase their contributions to pensions and health benefits and to overhaul teacher-tenure rules. He didn’t sell Democrats on a 10 percent income-tax cut; he vowed to try again even after Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney said the state doesn’t have the revenue to support the reduction.
The economy is “fairly weak,” Evercore Wealth’s Cure said. The November unemployment rate was 7.8 percent, higher than neighboring states, according to U.S. Census data. Gross domestic product increased 1.3 percent in 2012, ranking 37th among U.S. states, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis.
New Jersey’s credit outlook on Sept. 18 was reduced to negative from stable by Moody’s Investors Service, which cited the “sluggish economic recovery” and growing pension burden. The change affects about $32 billion of New Jersey general obligation bonds and appropriation-backed debt, the New York-based ratings company said in a report. The state has a grade of Aa3 from Moody’s, three steps below Aaa. Only Illinois and California have lower ratings among U.S. states.