Christie’s Verve Wanes as Scandal Clouds Inaugural Moment

Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey begins his second term today in search of his trademark verve as his administration’s legal troubles overshadow a possible 2016 presidential run.

Challenges such as investigations of his office’s Hurricane Sandy spending and ties to politically motivated traffic jams come “out of nowhere, to test you,” he said last week. This weekend, another arose as a mayor accused his administration of threatening to withhold disaster aid unless she endorsed a redevelopment project. Today, with snow bearing down, the 51-year-old governor canceled an inaugural celebration at Ellis Island, a high-profile venue that had been taken as a sign that he might court a national electorate.

Christie and his family attended an inaugural prayer service today at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where none of the speakers mentioned the troubles directly. The pastor, the Rev. Joe A. Carter, reminded the audience that hardships are ever present.

“All of us, at one time or another, have to deal with times of testing and seasons of frustration,” Carter said.

Christie told supporters in Manahawkin on Jan. 16 that he won’t be distracted. Afterward, he refused to speak to the more than two dozen reporters following him to his car.

Muted Tones

“He knows he’s in trouble,” said Peter Woolley, a politics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. “He’s concerned that long-time friends and associates are clearly in trouble.”

The governor, ordinarily a clear-voiced, high-energy speaker, has appeared tired since Jan. 9, the day he told reporters he was “a sad guy” during an almost two-hour Trenton news conference to address the jams on the George Washington Bridge. In Camden on Jan. 17, he stayed on topic for the swearing-in of a state Supreme Court justice.

Last month, Christie was neck-and-neck with Democrat and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 48 percent to 46 percent, in a CNN/ORC International poll based on a hypothetical 2016 presidential race. The edge was within the margin of error.

Now he is at the center of an inquiry unprecedented in the New Jersey governor’s office, one that by constitution is the most powerful in the U.S.

Mass Subpoenas

Legislative committees on Jan. 16 issued 20 subpoenas to individuals and organizations, including Christie’s spokesmen, Colin Reed and Michael Drewniak; communications director Maria Comella; former chief counsel Charlie McKenna; campaign manager Bill Stepien; former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly; and former chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd, whose nomination for attorney general is on hold.

“This was supposed to be the ’Year of Christie’ as he stepped out onto the national stage on behalf of other candidates and began laying the foundation for his own national campaign,” Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement Jan. 17. “He has been dealt a serious blow.”

One poll saw his favorability rating fall to 44 percent among those surveyed Jan. 10-12, from 70 percent in February 2013. The survey of 541 adults by Monmouth University in West Long Branch had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

“We’ve seen a lot more humility in the governor and a lot less bravado,” said Patrick Murray, director of the poll. “The story was bigger than him. It was the first time I’d seen him not end a press conference in better standing than when he started it. He can usually outlast the press and come out smelling like a rose. Not this time.”

Bridge Imbroglio

The administration’s ties to the traffic messes came to light in a cache of e-mails and text messages obtained on Jan. 8 by news outlets. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the George Washington Bridge. “Got it,” Wildstein replied.

For four days starting Sept. 9, two of three access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge were closed. Typical half-hour delays on the New Jersey side stretched to four hours or more. Traffic backed up into the borough, affecting even emergency vehicles and school buses.

Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who hadn’t joined colleagues to cross party lines and endorse Christie for re-election, asked the governor’s appointees at the Port Authority whether he was being punished. He got no answer.

Third-Rate Burglary

“The analogy that keeps popping up is Watergate,” Murray said, a reference to the 1970s-era scandal that led to the only resignation of a U.S. president.

“Watergate started up as small-scale and an unusual act of breaking into a psychiatrist’s office to get dirt on someone,” Murray said. “And it got much bigger.”

On Jan. 9, a day after the e-mail trail was published, Christie apologized and said he was “outraged” and “saddened” by lies within his administration. He fired Kelly and cut ties to Stepien. The governor repeated what he told reporters in December: that he had nothing to do with the tie-ups.

His troubles grew Jan. 13, when the independent inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it was auditing Christie’s expenditure of $25 million in federal Sandy disaster aid on a “Stronger Than The Storm” ad campaign featuring Christie, his wife and their four children.

Fresh Furor

Then, this weekend, Hoboken’s mayor accused Christie’s administration of muscling her over the redevelopment project.

Christie’s office immediately rebutted the claims by Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat. But Zimmer said in a statement that she met Jan. 19 with federal investigators.

Her allegations will be included in lawmakers’ probe, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democrat leading his chamber’s investigation, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Christie ran up record public approval in the wake of Sandy in October 2012. As the state prepared for the most devastating natural disaster in its history, the governor abandoned campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Less than a week before Election Day, Christie praised and embraced Democratic President Barack Obama for Sandy relief, and later criticized Republican congressional leaders for delaying help, angering some in his party.

He won re-election by a landslide in November, beating his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, by 22 percentage points. Now, his approval among New Jersey independent voters -- who outnumber registered Republicans and Democrats combined -- has dropped 11 points in a month, according to the Monmouth poll.

“It matters what the public believes,” Woolley said. “It’s the tide of public opinion that will stay with him or turn against him. Where that tide turns, or doesn’t, is not always on the facts of the case.”

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