New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stood before lawmakers investigating political retribution that emanated from his office and asked them to move beyond partisanship.
The 51-year-old Republican, in his annual agenda-setting State of the State speech in Trenton today, urged Democrats who control the legislature to work with him on issues such as education and reducing unemployment, which at 7.8 percent in November was higher than neighboring states. Christie held a news briefing Jan. 9 to apologize for politically motivated lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in September, which triggered a four-day traffic jam.
“I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state,” Christie told lawmakers. “This administration and this legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed.”
State and federal inquiries into the bridge incident and Christie’s dispersal of disaster aid threaten the governor’s national ambitions.
The jam paralyzed Fort Lee, a town of 35,700 at the end of the bridge connecting New Jersey to Manhattan whose Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, refused to endorse Christie in the November election. The intention was to punish the mayor, according to a cache of e-mails and text messages obtained by news organizations, including Bloomberg.
The governor fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, 41, who he said had lied to him about whether anyone on his team was involved in the 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.”
Christie’s speech stuck to familiar themes of increasing employment, lessening the tax burden and reducing the state’s public pension debt, which swelled 13 percent to $47.2 billion in fiscal 2012.
“He didn’t have the same emotion or punch in this one,” said Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, a Democrat from Voorhees and majority leader. “It’s a little stale.”
The unspecified cost of one proposal, to lengthen the school day and school year, was met with skepticism by Democrats. Senate President Steve Sweeney from West Deptford, the highest-ranking elected Democrat in the state and an ally of Christie’s on public-pension and teacher-tenure legislation, said he hadn’t received advance word on the initiative.
Democrats are investigating whether Christie or other members of his administration had knowledge of the lane closures and whether they tried to cover it up. The governor maintains that he was “blindsided” by the revelations.
Christie also faces a federal investigation over his use of $25 million of Hurricane Sandy relief money for a commercial he starred in promoting tourism on the Jersey Shore. Democratic lawmakers have said the “Stronger Than the Storm” ads gave Christie free publicity as he campaigned for a second term. He beat state Senator Barbara Buono by 22 percentage points.
The inquiries threaten the national ambitions of Christie, who’s backed by Wall Street billionaires including Home Depot Inc. 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.
Until Sandy struck on Oct. 29, 2012, Christie spent much of his first term on education, pushing privately funded vouchers to students from poor families, seeking merit pay for teachers and making it easier to fire educators deemed inadequate. He raised the minimum retirement age, boosted contributions for pensions and benefits, and argued with Democrats over tax cuts and revenue projections. Since taking office in 2010, Christie has scrapped with the statewide teachers union over cuts to education, an overhaul of tenure guidelines and merit pay.
Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, attracted Democrats and independent voters with his leadership after Sandy. In November, he became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win more than 60 percent of the vote since Tom Kean in 1985.
The governor proposed lengthening the school day and school year as a way to prepare all students for higher education.
“Our school calendar is antiquated both educationally and culturally,” he said. “This is a key step to improve student outcomes and boost our competitiveness.”