A Bridge Too Far: The Chris Christie Story

chris-christie
You failed to make much of an impression as a presidential candidate. Your state largely hates your guts. You weren’t selected by Donald Trump as his vice presidential pick. Well, Chris, it can’t get much worse. Can it? (Photo Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

It is not until November 7, 2017 when the state of New Jersey can officially vote on a successor to Chris Christie for the office of governor following his two-term maximum in this role. If you ask a number of New Jerseyans, including myself, however, this date could not come sooner, and in the event of an impeachment, it could actually, in theory, come to pass even earlier.

Before we begin singing the Ballad of Chris Christie, however, full disclosure: I voted for Christie in his bid for re-election as governor. I am not particularly proud of this chapter in my history at the polls, but I’ll admit it. I have no excuses for choosing as I did. I can only explain my thinking at the time, and my dominant thought at that moment was, “Who the heck is Barbara Buono anyway?” Buono, his Democratic challenger in 2013, before opting to run for the governorship, had served in the New Jersey General Assembly from the 18th District (the Fightin’ 18th!) from 1994 to 2002, and then in the New Jersey Senate from 2oo2 to 2014.

According to Wikipedia, among Barbara Buono’s notable stances and achievements during her tenure as a lawmaker were sponsoring legislation prohibiting predatory lending, voting for the legalization of medical marijuana (a measure staunchly opposed by Chris Christie), and perhaps all too appropriately given the disposition of her opposition in the gubernatorial election, authored the “Anti-Bullying Law” (more on that aspect of Christie’s character later). Since getting soundly defeated (or as Donald Trump would have it, “schlonged”) in 2013, Buono not only appears to have left politics, but the state altogether, moving to Portland, Oregon. Maybe it was the shame of losing so badly to a Republican in a state that traditionally tends to vote blue. Maybe she just wanted to get as far away from Chris Christie as possible. All I know is I hardly knew Barbara Buono then, and seem to know only marginally more about her now. Oh, well.

Chris Christie depicted himself as a no-nonsense, confrontational sort of governor early on in his tenure. I suppose this was something of a continuation from his time as Chief Federal Law Enforcement Officer in New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, wherein he pledged to make terrorism and public corruption his top priorities. Indeed, some 130 officials at various levels of government were either convicted or pleaded guilty as a result of the work of Christie’s office. Of course, Christie was not above scrutiny or controversy on his end. On the corporate dimension, Chris Christie negotiated a number of deferred prosecution agreements that allowed companies to avoid prosecution with limited or no admission of guilt, and obviously similar lack of public exposure.

Certainly, Christie is not the only prosecutor to make use of this procedure, as in recent years their employment has increased significantly, but it does reflect a nuanced willingness to more privately pursue fraud in the private sector while making a very public show of going after public officials. There were also murmurs about impropriety in his office’s decision to appoint the Ashcroft Group—owned by his former boss, John Ashcroft—as outside monitor in a DPA case against Zimmer Holdings, as well as a stipulation in a DPA deal with Bristol Myers to dedicate $5 million to a business ethics chair at Seton Hall University School of Law, where Christie just happened to go to school. As we’ve seen in the case of Eliot Spitzer, those who make it a point to target the misdeeds of others in an air of self-righteousness might not be without sin in their own right. The idea is worth noting, at least.

At any rate, Chris Christie, like a corruption-fighting white knight, rode his horse (presumably one which could support his weight) right into the Governor’s Office, defeating incumbent Jon Corzine, a man whose later financial dealings—especially those concerning MF Global, a multinational futures broker/bond dealer which went bankrupt and saw $1.2 billion of client account funds “go missing”—would prove to be decidedly and ironically suspicious. Not soon after getting sworn in, however, Christie succeeded in doing something which seems well-suited to his cantankerousness: pissing people off.

Fiscally speaking, Christie vowed not to raise taxes, even though reductions were made to the earned income credit, among other items, as well as nearly $1 billion in budget cuts in 2011, including spending that would otherwise have gone to areas like child care, higher education, Medicaid, museums, nursing homes, and urban aid. So, great—no new taxes, but if you were poor, you were essentially now told to get f**ked. Also part of Chris Christie’s legacy as governor of the Garden State? New Jersey’s credit rating being downgraded nine times during his tenure by Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service, and Standard & Poor. Nine times! Only Illinois has fared worse on this dimension during this span. But, hey, the man has delivered balanced budgets ever year, right? Yes, but he’s bound by the state constitution to do so, as any other governor would be. This is not an achievement on which to hang one’s proverbial hat.

Other policies and stances of Chris Christie’s, whether based on legitimately held beliefs or designed to burnish his conservative credentials, did not really endear him to those outside the traditional wealthy, white, male Republican base, and however you slice it, Christie has taken positions that at times seem frustratingly contradictory. He has repeatedly cut pensions for public workers, including firefighters and law enforcement, though he has compromised with Democrats when necessary to reform employee pensions and benefits or to pay the state pension fund. He has supported exploration of alternative energy production, yet has rejected permanent bans on fracking, has pulled New Jersey out of an initiative designed to cap and reduce carbon emissions, made it a priority to weaken the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, and settled with Exxon Mobil for environmental damages for less than 5% of the initial figure sought by state lawyers. He has repeatedly vetoed a state minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $8.50. He believes homosexuality is innate and not a “sin,” but has opposed gay marriage. He once was pro-choice, but now opposes abortion. He favors allowing the states to determine applicable gun laws, though he believes in upholding those in place in his state, among the strictest in the nation. On one hand, this all can be construed as Chris Christie possessing nuanced views on the various core issues facing New Jersey. On the other hand, the criticism may be equally, if not more, valid that Christie will express one stance to one audience and a conflicting position to another party. Accordingly, for all his tough talk about wanting to keep Hillary Clinton out of office, and her tendency to waver on positions, it’s a bit of a pot-kettle situation.

To the average New Jerseyan, however, Chris Christie may have been doing a fine job. Certainly, he seemed to be a capable leader in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a storm whose wrath was felt all the way up north in the Garden State and from which parts of the Jersey Shore are just beginning to truly recover. The response of his office, in large part, explained the upward trend in his prospects for re-election, which were more of a coin toss before that point, and come time for voters to choose between he and Barbara Buono, Christie was poised to hold the governor’s seat for a second term. In particular, his working with President Obama and welcoming him to New Jersey to survey Sandy’s damage so close to the election, and his verbal lashing of House Republicans for failing to more expediently approve a relief package for his state, helped boost his approval rating among his constituents.

Moreover, the identity he cultivated as an “outsider” and a no-holds-barred politician made people take notice on a national level, and the earliest musings about Chris Christie as a potential GOP presidential candidate began to manifest. Despite his, you know, lack of political experience and the notion he hadn’t really accomplished much during his tenure as governor of New Jersey. This is the Republican Party we’re taking about, though. As the litany of candidates who vied for the party nomination in advance of this presidential election have indicated, political experience, policy ideas, and general regard for human decency aren’t necessary to apply.

Ah, but there was still that critical second term to traverse, and as the results have borne out, there was plenty of room for Chris Christie’s approval ratings to fall. Christie had already exhibited a questionable decision-making ability in instances such as the 2010 cancellation of the Access to the Region’s Core project, which would have created two new tunnels under the Hudson River and a new terminal in New York City for NJ Transit trains. The corpulent governor insisted concerns about cost overruns informed his decision to nix the planned expansion and renovation, but killing the ARC project also meant thousands of jobs were not created and those “tubes” underneath the Hudson, of which their estimated future useful life is only about 20 years, were left unimproved. And in terms of going forward, most of whatever ARC money available that didn’t have to be returned to the federal government has since been spent, and a discussed Gateway Project by Amtrak has yet to be funded. Chris Christie’s move to put the kibosh on the Access to the Region’s Core project was criticized at the time as one of the worst public policy decisions in New Jersey history, and some five years later, it’s hard to argue to the contrary.

But yes, about that second term. When ineptitude wasn’t a hallmark of a particular decision or bit of happenstance of Christie’s administration, as with New Jersey missing out on $400 million of Race to the Top federal education funding due to administrative mishandling of the application, it was political scandal characterized by Chris Christie’s desire to play favorites with those politicians who played ball with him. Though an investigation commissioned by the governor’s office purported to debunk her claims, Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer alleged that more Hurricane Sandy relief funds were offered in exchange for accepting a proposal by the Rockefeller Group to construct an office building in her city. When Steven Fulop, mayor of Jersey City, refused to endorse Christie in the 2013 election, according to Fulop, numerous scheduled meetings with state commissioners were quickly cancelled, and subsequent requests for meetings were rejected, as retaliation for not endorsing. Thus, whether it was incentive in the form of a quid pro quo, or punishment for not paying lip service, Chris Christie has seemed to operate under a conditional, transactional relationship model, which does little to take the public’s mind off the ugly side of politics.

All these considerations come to a head with the ongoing embroilment that Wikipedia refers to as the “Fort Lee lane closure scandal,” but known colloquially as “Bridgegate.” Let’s set the scene. As with Steven Fulop, Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, opted not to endorse Chris Christie in his bid for re-election. The apparent result? A plot to intentionally use lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as payback. On August 13, 2013, Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, E-mailed David Wildstein, the Port Authority’s director of interstate capital projects, with the simple message, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to which Wildstein replied succinctly, “Got it.” About a month later, on Monday, September 9, 2013, two of three dedicated toll lanes on the upper level of the bridge were closed to local traffic, causing massive congestion and delays. By September 10, Sokolich texted Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority and Christie appointee, about the need for help with the traffic situation, with no apparent response. By September 11, evidence suggests Bill Baroni, Chris Christie, David Samson (chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority and also a Christie appointee), and David Wildstein, together at a commemorative event for 9/11, discussed the deteriorating situation on the Fort Lee side of the George Washington Bridge, but did so in a joking, deprecating fashion, suggesting they knew full well of that situation in advance of this chat. By September 12, John Ma, chief of staff to Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye, tipped off Bergen Record columnist John Cichowski to the idea the lane closures were politically motivated, a notion Cichowski passed on to the local media. It was not until September 13, four days after the initial closures, that Foye ordered the lanes reopened. Four days.

It would be one thing if Chris Christie’s office, his political appointees, and officials at the Port Authority conspired to, say, put cones on Mark Sokolich’s car for four days. It would’ve been pretty stupid revenge, mind you, but it wouldn’t have affected commuters and Fort Lee residents who rely on the George Washington Bridge for transportation. The lane closures were particularly egregious because of the collateral damage of Christie’s and his lackeys’ machination. At least one person died as a direct result of the congestion, with emergency medical services unable to get to an elderly person having a heart event because of the diverted traffic, and there were likely material financial costs from the delays as well. But what seems to be particularly galling to many in the aftermath of Bridgegate is the brazenness of the actors involved. Chris Christie and his partners in crime knew about the closures, laughed about them privately, didn’t tell Mayor Sokolich and others ahead of time about the planned operation, and showed no regard for the public’s safety. It’s a level of arrogance that exceeds even what we might imagine of politicians at their worst. What’s more, for all the goodwill earned by Christie in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in light of his response, with the all the revelations from the criminal investigation into Bridgegate’s central figures, that all has been thrown away. Add to this Christie’s obvious politically motivated backing of Donald Trump, a move that, if intended to curry favor with the Republican presidential nominee in hopes of earning him a vice presidential pick, didn’t succeed, and the plus-sized New Jersey governor has since all but destroyed his credibility as a serious political candidate on a national stage.

As of this writing, closing arguments have been made in the trial of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, each charged with nine counts including conspiracy, deprivation of civil rights, misapplying Port Authority property, and wire fraud. Yes, wire fraud. Of course, prosecution of Baroni and Kelly is important in its own right, but what about the biggest fish of them all? It’s possible that Chris Christie doesn’t get off scot-free in a separate investigation, an official misconduct case to be heard by the Bergen County prosecutor’s office in November of this year. Of course, it would be great if they throw the book at Christie, but more realistically, it would be all-too-appropriate if Christie, the former prosecutor who negotiated a number of deferred prosecution agreements, was forced to take a deal himself. The indignity of it all.

Looking back at Chris Christie’s tenure in its totality, a vote for his re-election seems particularly egregious now. Let my cautionary tale of woe and regret guide you in your decision-making then. Mere visibility alone should not be enough to earn a candidate your vote. In Christie’s case, because he is loud and confrontational, he is very visible. Besides, the guy is rather full-bodied. I mean, seriously—you can’t miss him. But does this make him a good leader? I submit no, especially when his modus operandi involves bullying and intimidation, as with a certain presidential nominee you may have heard of. The popular sentiment is that Chris Christie has tarnished his reputation to the extent he won’t be able to do more than wax political on Fox News or some Glenn Beck vehicle on the national stage. As a concerned New Jerseyan, meanwhile, I am convinced he was worn out his welcome not only across the country, but in his home state. So, though it may be another year until the Garden State chooses his successor, let me be one of the first to wish him well on his time after the governorship. Happy trails, Chris. You won’t be missed.

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