Buoyed by the largest win of any New Jersey Republican running for governor in three decades, Chris Christie began the year with an ambitious legislative agenda and designs on the U.S. presidency.
Today, his clout among state lawmakers and his national future may hinge on whether there’s truth to a former ally’s claim that he lied about his knowledge of a traffic jam.
Christie, a 51-year-old Republican who won a second term by 22 percentage points, in his State of the State address last month laid out an agenda that included lengthening the school day, cutting taxes and toughening New Jersey’s bail laws. He also needs to pass a budget by June 30.
Yet talk in Trenton and across the nation is centered on the growing probe of his administration’s role in four days of gridlock last September prompted by unannounced lane closures at the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Christie, who was booed at a Super Bowl ceremony in Times Square yesterday, may find that his cajoling doesn’t have the same effect on lawmakers that it once did.
“What’s going on now seems be taking the air out of the room as far as the legislative agenda,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from West Orange who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “With the specter that there are improprieties that could reach to him, the considerable influence of the governor’s office will be hamstrung.”
In his first term, Christie was able to goad, prod and entice the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass a series of budgets that cut spending. He also won enactment of measures to overhaul teacher tenure and force public-sector employees to pay more for pensions and health care.
Christie used his line-item veto power to erase $361 million in spending initiatives by Democrats from the 2013 budget and thwarted their efforts to restore the funding.
His leadership after Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012 allowed him to win over Democrats and independent voters. Pre-election surveys showed almost a third of Democrats supported him, along with a majority of women, and Christie went on to win the largest percentage of the vote of any Republican seeking the office since Tom Kean in 1985.
His approval rating in New Jersey has dipped below 50 percent for the first time since his response to the storm, and he now presides over an administration under probe by a joint legislative committee and federal prosecutors.
Lawmakers have subpoenaed 18 individuals, his office and his campaign seeking documents related to the lane closures, which e-mails that surfaced last month indicated were politically motivated.
Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and government at Montclair State University, about 70 miles (112 kilometers) northeast of the state capital of Trenton, said Christie’s ability to wield power could be altered.
“He’s weak and very damaged,” Harrison said yesterday in an interview. “A large part of his political power and prowess came from his enormously high approval ratings and his ability to get the Legislature to do whatever he wanted.”
Christie’s support also has dropped in national polls in which he is matched up against Democrat Hillary Clinton in a possible 2016 presidential contest. After having been essentially tied with Clinton, Christie trailed by eight percentage points in a survey released Jan. 21 by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University.
The attorney for David Wildstein, the one-time Christie political ally and former director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said Jan. 31 that Christie gave an incorrect account of what he knew about the bridge-lane closings that paralyzed Fort Lee, New Jersey, after the mayor there failed to join other leading Democrats in endorsing the governor’s 2013 re-election bid.
The lawyer, Alan Zegas, said in a letter to the Port Authority that “evidence exists” that shows Christie had “knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly.” The letter didn’t cite the evidence or provide more details.
“If it is true, and he doesn’t have a credible explanation, it would go directly to the ‘trust’ issue, a critical vote-determinative attribute,” said Mary Matalin, a former adviser to President George W. Bush’s campaigns and administration. “Having said that, he is a superior politician and 2016 is a long way off.”
The Christie administration, in an e-mailed statement following the assertions, reiterated the governor’s previous comments that he first learned of the closures through media reports and denied other claims made in the letter, which called on the bi-state agency to cover Wildstein’s legal bills.
Christie yesterday attacked Wildstein in an e-mail sent to friends and supporters. “Bottom line -- David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” the e-mail obtained by Bloomberg News said. The Christie e-mail was first reported by Politico.
The donnybrook occured during a weekend that should have been a triumph for the governor, as the National Football League championship is played today in East Rutherford. But a showcase event yesterday became an an occasion for noisy disapproval. When Christie stepped to the lectern at a ceremony to celebrate Arizona, the home of next year’s game, fans loudly booed the governor. He spoke for only about 30 seconds.
Christie is scheduled to give his annual budget address Feb. 25 to a joint meeting of the Legislature in Trenton. Democrats control the Assembly 48-32, and the Senate 24-16.
Colin Reed, a Christie spokesman, said the governor won’t scale back or alter his legislative agenda because of the current political furor. He declined to comment further in an e-mail.
“All of this stuff is clearly a distraction,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a Democrat who sits on the budget committee.
Because the state constitution requires a balanced budget be enacted by the July 1 start of New Jersey’s fiscal year or government agencies shut down, Burzichelli said he anticipates a spending plan will be approved on time. He also said he expects the plan to hew closely to the $33 billion outline Christie and lawmakers ratified for the current fiscal year.
“We will adopt the budget on time -- no one wants to shut government down,” Burzichelli said. “I hope this can be brought to some focused resolution. We need all attention on the business of the people.”
The lane closings, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12, stretched typical delays of 30 minutes to four hours or more and trapped emergency-response vehicles and school buses. On what was to be the fifth day of tie-ups, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, who was appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ordered all lanes reopened.
In testimony before the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee in November, Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee as the authority’s deputy executive director, said the closures were for a traffic study. Both Baroni and Wildstein, a high school acquaintance of Christie, resigned in December. A comprehensive traffic study has yet to be produced.
The bridge episode apparently began in August when Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, e-mailed to Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Wildstein, who ordered the lane closures, replied: “Got it.”
Mark Sheridan, an attorney representing Christie’s campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee, declined to comment when reached by phone. Both organizations were issued subpoenas Jan. 17 by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, seeking documents related to the lane closures.
“A lot of the Democrats who’ve supported him in the past are going to be wary of supporting him again,” said Harrison, the Montclair State professor. “Before, associating with him was seen as an enormously positive thing, and now it’s negative.”