New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, addressing lawmakers amid investigations into political retribution, laid out his second-term agenda beginning with a fresh acknowledgment of his administration’s errors.
The 51-year-old Republican, in his annual State of the State speech yesterday, 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 for neighboring states. He again expressed regret for politically motivated lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in September that 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 in Trenton. “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.”
The matter is diverting the governor from focusing on his campaign promises as he prepares for the start of his second term next week, said Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who -- like Christie -- is a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
“It’s something that takes away from his ability to continue to push reform at the level that he wanted to, coming out of this recent election,” Walker told reporters yesterday in Washington. Christie won in a landslide over his Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono, in November.
‘Mistakes Were Made’
Christie’s speech repeated a line that he used several times during an almost two-hour news briefing on Jan. 9 on the bridge incident: “Mistakes were made.”
State and federal inquiries into the lane closures and Christie’s dispersal of disaster aid threaten the governor’s national ambitions. His remarks yesterday were a reminder that Christie has a job to do in New Jersey, said 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.
“One speech isn’t going to make this go away but he’s got to focus on his job as governor because one thing we can’t let happen is have this become such a distraction that things come to a grinding halt,” Sweeney said before the speech.
The issues have taken a toll on Christie’s public-approval ratings. Fifty-five percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job he is doing, down from 68 percent in July and his all-time high of 74 percent in February 2013, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.
The traffic 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 e-mails and text messages obtained by news organizations, including Bloomberg.
The governor last week fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, 41, saying she had lied to him about whether anyone on his team was involved in the 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.
“The rest of the speech, he really couldn’t go after his political enemies because that would really play into the narrative that’s been going on,” Patrick Murray, director of polling at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, said in an interview. “All those lines he would have had are just gone. So the rest of the speech was just really flat.”
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, a Democrat from Voorhees and majority leader, called the speech “a little stale.”
“He didn’t have the same emotion or punch in this one,” Greenwald said in an interview.
The unspecified cost of one proposal, to lengthen the school day and school year, was met with skepticism by Democrats. Sweeney 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.
Walker, who met with President Barack Obama yesterday along with other members of the National Governors Association executive committee, said he spoke with Christie by telephone last week. Walker said he was returning Christie’s earlier call about another matter.
“He told me exactly what he said to the public and I have every reason to believe him going forward,” Walker said. “He handled it the way we’d expect a leader to handle it.”
Christie, in addition to inquiries about the bridge, also faces a federal investigation over his use of $25 million of Hurricane Sandy relief money for a TV commercial that featured him 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 won by 22 percentage points.
The inquiries that are under way allowed Christie to skip calling for an investigation of his own, Murray said.
“He just needed to be contrite and he was,” he said.
The inquiries may undermine the 2016 presidential prospects for 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-tax Tea Party faction.
Until Sandy struck on Oct. 29, 2012, Christie spent much of his first term on education, pushing privately funded vouchers for 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 battled 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.”