Christie Talks About Second Chances as Bridge Trial Takes Tollby and
Options dwindle with approval rating as subordinates talk
Case reveals workings of an administration sold on reform
As Chris Christie stood before reporters this week, he talked about redemption.
“I’m an advocate for second chances,” he said at a news conference on drug-addiction treatment alongside former Governor James McGreevey, who had resigned in 2004 after disclosing an extramarital affair with a man he had placed on the state payroll.
Now Christie, 54, needs his own second chance. His reputation -- and perhaps his chance at being attorney general in a Donald Trump administration -- is at stake at a trial of former allies accused of closing lanes at the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor for refusing to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Though Christie hasn’t been charged, statements in court contradict his insistence that he didn’t know about the closings as they were happening.
“What this trial is doing, even though the governor himself isn’t on trial, is pulling back the curtain on how Chris Christie did business,”’ said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. “That type of exposure typically shapes peoples’ impressions."
Dworkin said that the lane closings at the world’s busiest bridge will be weighed as part of Christie’s legacy along with the overhaul of Rutgers University, changes to teacher-tenure guidelines, his failed effort to fix the state pension system and the decision to cancel a major rail tunnel to New York.
Just 23 percent of registered voters in New Jersey have a favorable opinion of Christie, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Sept. 19.
“With Bridgegate unlikely to go away any time soon, the Transportation Trust Fund and gas tax unresolved, and a still-struggling economy, it’s no wonder that views on Governor Christie and the state as a whole have slipped to new lows,” said Ashley Koning, interim director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers.
Dworkin said Christie’s ability to mount a comeback will be determined by what he decides for his next step: He’s publicly stated he’d rather drown himself in the Potomac River than serve in the U.S. Senate and he won’t get another chance to run for president for at least four years. Provided there’s no death blow in the trial, that affords him the luxury of time in terms of a potential comeback, Dworkin said.
A former U.S. attorney with a record of going after corrupt politicians, Christie took office in 2010 with a pledge to fix a state with shaky finances and a reputation for political patronage. He made a national reputation for taking on interests such as the teachers’ union and the flagging pensions, posting video of his arguments with constituents.
He boasted of his ability to bring Democrats with him and began collecting mayoral endorsements for his re-election, laying the ground for his own presidential run and also setting the stage for Bridgegate.
During this month’s trial, David Wildstein, the government’s star witness, testified that he told Christie about the plot as it was happening. He also said the governor’s office rewarded mayors who endorsed him, and sought to fire Democrats at the Port Authority to make room for Republicans.
Christie abandoned his White House campaign in February as Bridgegate revelations swirled around him. The governor has more recently focused on his role as surrogate and adviser to Republican nominee Trump, who during the primary campaign mocked Christie’s professions of ignorance about the lane closings. The governor is chairman of Trump’s transition effort, putting him in charge of filling more than 4,000 federal positions and shaping the incoming administration.
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, didn’t return an e-mail seeking comment on Christie’s standing within the campaign.
With 16 months left in Christie’s term, New Jersey’s pension deficit continues to grow after skipped contributions, its unemployment rate has climbed for six straight months and it has no money for state road projects.
Christie’s approval, which reached 70 percent during his first term, began to slide in 2014 after e-mails revealed the traffic plot. The scandal continues to raise doubts about the people the governor has hired and how his administration works, said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican from Somerville who may run for governor next year.
“Whether or not the governor is ever implicated in terms of violating any laws, I don’t see how he comes back," Ciattarelli said. “Bridgegate was a nightmare for New Jersey and people close to the governor seem to have exploited their power."
"It will absolutely be a chapter of his legacy," said Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, a Democrat from Cherry Hill. "Whenever anybody talks about his tenure, it’s going to be hard to discuss that without mentioning it."
Christie, meanwhile, ended his press conference Tuesday speaking about how people should be remembered for their contributions, not lapses of judgment.
“There’s not a person in this room, myself included, who hasn’t made mistakes,” Christie said. “There are people in public life who put much too much of an emphasis on their mistakes and much too little emphasis on the contributions that they make in public life.”