The Republican gubernatorial primary campaign between Chris Christie and Steve Lonegan has gotten personal before, but Lonegan’s chief strategist, Rick Shaftan, feels that some messages that Christie’s brother Todd sent to him through a popular social networking Web site crossed the line.
On April 6, Todd Christie sent Shaftan a private message on Facebook.com, writing “Can't wait to dance on your political grave.”
Three days later, Shaftan responded, “Lighten up dude. This is nothing compared to what's coming up. It just gets better!”
Todd Christie wrote back with what Shaftan took as an ominous message: “This is fun for you messing with peoples lives. Payback comes in many forms,,,,at any time. Enjoy.”
According to Shaftan, that was the third and final exchange between the two men, who have both become lightning rods in the primary campaign — Shaftan for his disdain for the state’s Republican establishment and brash on-the-record remarks, and Todd Christie for heading up a trading company whose practices ultimately brought sanctions from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“When I threaten people, I do it face-to-face — never in writing,” joked Shaftan. “This is exactly what [The Christie campaign] been doing to people all over the state of New Jersey: ‘If you don’t back Chris, you’re going to pay.”
Shaftan said that Todd Christie was upset over the Lonegan campaign’s embrace and promulgation of a story about David Kelley, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, allegedly overlooking Todd Christie when he unsuccessfully prosecuted fifteen other members of his financial firm for illegal trading. Christie later gave Kelley a seven-figure no-bid federal monitoring contract overseeing a medical implant company, but has strongly denied any quid pro quo agreement.
“We’re not saying he’s guilty of anything, or has done anything wrong. All we’re saying is Chris Christie exercised very poor judgment giving this monitoring contract to Kelley,” said Shaftan.
Chris Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien said that Shaftan initiated contact with Todd Christie and goaded him into the response.
“This is ridiculous – a paid campaign staffer initiating and then purposefully provoking an opponent's family member in an online chat, and then forwarding the exchange to the media. This is nothing more than a distraction from the real issues of the campaign,” he said.
Shaftan, however, said that although he had had two exchanges with Todd Christie before this one, he initiated neither. The first began on March 19, when Todd Christie sent a message to Lonegan asking him to call him over his name appearing in Shaftan’s campaign emails. The second started on April 3, when Todd Christie messaged Shaftan to say he was spreading lies.
The flap probably won’t play much into the actual election, but it’s enough for Christie’s critics to latch on to, said Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison.
“Typically what a candidate can do in this situation is fire that staff member and distance themselves from that person’s name and therefore abdicate any responsibility,” she said. “It’s really tricky to fire your brother.”
Todd Christie, while a major Republican donor and fundraiser who acted as a surrogate for his brother at the Republican National Convention, does not have an official role in the campaign.
Harrison noted that some siblings of high ranking officeholders are seen affectionately by the public, but that they can have a more unpleasant effect on candidates.
“Particularly when it’s a candidate that voters are just getting to know, there can be some baggage associated with it,” she said.