Chris Christie Has a Cold: After Bridgegate, the Jersey Comeback Stalls

Humbled by a scandal that isn't fading and an economy that isn't recovering.

Illustration by Philip Burke.

Illustration by Philip Burke.

TRENTON—In early January 2014, Chris Christie was a man who never said “sorry”—not for the 132 corrupt officials he put in jail as U.S. attorney, not for the deals he cut to cobble together a winning coalition against incumbent Jon Corzine’s millions and not for notching a 22-point win over a Democratic opponent in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 700,000. In fact, when reporters first pressed him about the expanding Bridgegate scandal the previous month, the governor declared that The Wall Street Journal will “owe an apology to Sen. [Bill] Baroni and Mr. [David] Wildstein.”

Since then, “sorry” has become the hardest word.

Mr. Christie apologized to the residents of Fort Lee after accepting resignations from Messrs. Baroni and Wildstein. He’s left to cope with filling an $800 million shortfall following numerous credit downgrades for the state. And he has even apologized for his use of the term “occupied territories” when discussing Israel and Middle East politics.

Early in his first term, Mr. Christie earned a new nickname: The Trenton Thunder had arrived and staked out “small government pension-cutting” territory sure to earn cheers from conservatives across the country.

Teddy Roosevelt be damned. This new breed of YouTube-ready plainspoken leader had a motto for a new age: Speak bluntly and carry a big stick.

Mr. Christie squeaked into office after having been outspent by a Democratic incumbent by more than two to one in a state where Republican voters weigh in at less than 20 percent of the state’s 5.46 million registered voters. The former federal prosecutor campaigned on attacking the state’s fiscal woes with the same tenacity he had used to lock up corrupt pols and became the first G.O.P. candidate to win statewide in the Garden State in 12 years.


‘Why are you in Maine talking about Maine Republican candidates when you didn’t lift a finger in New Jersey?’


Taking on New Jersey’s economic calamity during the Great Recession would initially cause Mr. Christie’s approval ratings to take a hit after signing spending freezes and spearheading cuts to the state budget. But the dip (which wasn’t much) wouldn’t last, and residents of the deep-blue state would ultimately view Mr. Christie more favorably following his first year in office than they did in previous years compared to many of his Democratic predecessors.

He was, and remained throughout his first term in office, a juggernaut.

But behind the scenes, political insiders would catch a glimpse of what many would only dare whisper out of fear of reprisal and political payback: The governor is not a state builder. He’s not even a party builder. Mr. Christie is a brand builder.

“He made a calculation that New Jersey doesn’t matter, and he made that two-and-a-half years ago,” said one Republican lobbyist who works closely with the administration and legislature and agreed to talk to the Observer only on the condition of anonymity.

“They used Republican officials to the extent that he needed to and then walked away. He doesn’t need New Jersey anymore. … He’s doing his town hall meetings, and he’s trying to get out there and raise his credibility, and [national Republicans] are going to see that he raised $23 million for the R.G.A. in one quarter and that he’s going into states that he needs to go into,” the G.O.P. lobbyist said. “But you had to be with him.”

Simply put, “He needed to win big in a blue state, and he won by 20 points,” the source observed.

Before he would go on to scare off just about every Democrat mulling a gubernatorial bid, Mr. Christie first earned his hard-hitting reputation at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

U.S. ATTORNEY

The no-nonsense prosecutor left the office following his six-year tenure with a record of convicting more than 100 politicians for corruption.

As the “Soprano state,” New Jersey’s political history is shady enough to make William Tweed blush. As Mr. Christie put it when recalling a trip to Washington, D.C., as a high school senior with the Hearst Foundation’s U.S. Senate Youth Program a day after the Abscam scandal that ensnarled New Jersey’s senior senator broke, “We were the butt of jokes all week.”

Among Mr. Christie’s takedowns was Sharpe James, the former mayor of the state’s largest city, who, prior to being sentenced in 2008 to more than two years behind bars for fraud, drove a Rolls-Royce and owned a 54-foot yacht while serving one of the poorest cities in the country.

During arrests, prosecutions and sentencing hearings, the governor-to-be garnered significant media attention and mastered the craft of delivering pithy sound bites to the press.

“In seven weeks, Sharpe James will report to federal prison,” Mr. Christie said at the former Newark mayor’s sentencing. “In seven weeks, he will be away from the house at the beach, the Rolls-Royce, the romantic strolls down Broad Street to catch the bus with regular people.”

The U.S. Attorneys’ Office was also an outlet to begin forging alliances that would become advantageous to Mr. Christie later on.

Such was the case with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a powerful Democrat who would later go on to endorse Mr. Christie’s re-election and be a frequent figure on the governor’s campaign stops.

Chris Christie rose to national fame astride a week of loving coverage. (Photo via Getty Images)

Superstorm Sandy was no match for the Trenton Thunder. But Chris Christie looks less sure-footed 18 months later. (Photo via Getty Images)

In 2002, when Mr. DiVincenzo first ran for county executive and was accused by an opponent in mailers of voting on public contracts as a county freeholder that he directly profited from, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office issued a letter declaring Joe D. wasn’t under investigation.

“It was almost unheard of,” said State Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, Mr. DiVincenzo’s opponent at the time. “It’s very rare for the U.S. attorney in that circumstance or any circumstance to kind of issue a letter saying that they are not investigating [someone].”

The episode didn’t sit well with skeptics. However, Mr. DiVincenzo disputes he ever directly spoke with the U.S. attorney.

“I didn’t request it; the campaign did,” Mr. DiVincenzo said. “I didn’t even know who Chris Christie was. I gotta tell you, when he became U.S. attorney, I never heard of him, and I never talked to him.”

The mailers were attempting to paint Mr. DiVincenzo as the status quo candidate, he said, noting the fates of previous Essex County executives. James Treffinger, a Republican, was convicted by Mr. Christie’s office for mail fraud and obstruction of justice; Mr. Treffinger’s predecessor, Thomas D’Alessio, was convicted and jailed for extortion, bribery, money laundering and other charges. All the letter did was set the record straight, Mr. DiVincenzo asserted.

Of course, once elected as county executive, the two eventually did talk.

“After I got elected, I called Christie, because the last two guys [before me] went to jail,” he said, explaining how he petitioned the prosecutor’s office to send an overseer of sorts to Essex County to ensure the law was being followed.

“He said, ‘Listen, Joe, we already have somebody there,’” Mr. DiVincenzo recounted.

Mr. Christie would later take part in “ethics seminars” for county employees that Mr. DiVincenzo would host twice per year. When it came time for the U.S. attorney to resign in preparation for mounting a gubernatorial bid, the county executive hosted a party for him at the Essex County courthouse.

“I did it to pay him respect for what he did for us,” said Mr. DiVincenzo. In 2009, Joe D. backed fellow Democrat Jon Corzine for re-election, but many Essex Dems read the halfhearted endorsement as a dog whistle—that it was safe to vote for Mr. Christie, who had been born and raised in Essex County.

I WIN

When he was re-elected in 2013, Mr. Christie became the first statewide Republican candidate to garner more than 50 percent of the vote in 28 years. He did it with support from Democratic figures like Joe D. A year after Republicans failed to defeat a struggling president, Mr. Christie’s ability to appeal to Democrats and independents seemed to offer a clear path to the White House.

“We are not a debating society. We are a political operation that needs to win,” Mr. Christie told an audience at a Republican National Committee luncheon at its summer meeting in 2013. “I believe my job is to win. Our job is not to be college professors.”

But in New Jersey, winning came at a cost.

“I love the governor. But the same as with me, he’s not without fault,” said one Republican State House lawmaker. “Why are you in Maine talking about Maine Republican candidates when you didn’t lift a finger in New Jersey?”


Asked if he has heard of Republicans in the state dissatisfied by some of Chris Christie’s actions, Tom Kean Sr. responded, ‘I have.’


The lawmaker, who, like others, would only speak on the condition of anonymity because of the governor’s perceived penchant for retribution, referred to Mr. Christie’s support, or lack thereof, in the recent statewide elections.

“We thought we were close to the promised land,” the lawmaker said, explaining how the G.O.P. failed to add even a single seat despite the entire Senate and Assembly being on the ballot with Mr. Christie. “When it didn’t happen, there was certain disappointment,” the lawmaker said, expressing similar frustration that was shared with reporters off the record following the recent election that propelled Mr. Christie to victory.

In October 2013, Observer sister site PolitickerNJ.com was the first to report Mr. Christie’s re-election campaign injected resources into three legislative district races. But the cash arrived less than a week before election day, though polls indicated all along the incumbent governor would sail comfortably into a second term.

“We’ve maintained from early on in this campaign that there was a lot of opportunity for pickups in the legislature,” Mr. Christie’s campaign spokesman, Kevin Roberts, said at the time. “And based on polling data and other factors, we believe that investments from the governor, both financial and of his time, in these districts have the opportunity to put us over the line.”

Less than a week later, on Election Day, Mr. Christie told reporters outside of his polling station in his hometown of Mendham that a Republican Senate and Assembly would make his second term “very productive” but declined to speculate on the outcome of the day’s election and suggested a Republican sweep was unlikely.

“I hope so, but—you know, I’ve said this before publicly—I think we’re in very uncharted territory here. This is the first time under the new legislative map with a governor at the top of the ticket, and so I really have no idea what’s going to happen, and I think anybody who tells you that they do is just talking out of their hat,” Mr. Christie said.

It was a big miss for a governor who was expected to have long coattails.

Not only did the three G.O.P. candidates in districts Mr. Christie supported fail to clinch a victory, but the makeup of the Democratic-controlled legislature went untouched.

Chris Christie rose to national fame astride a week of loving coverage. (Photo via Getty Images)

Chris Christie rose to national fame astride a wake of loving coverage. (Photo via Getty Images)

“There are some that speculated that maybe that was a little too late,” said Peter Inverso, a former state senator who was popular during his tenure and ran against a Democratic incumbent in one of the three legislative districts in which Mr. Christie offered some support.

“The Democrats put in a couple million dollars against me, and we couldn’t match that, and there was no intention that we were going to be able to,” he said. “I suspect timing is everything.”

Mr. Christie honored his word to give Mr. Inverso’s campaign support, he said, explaining, “He didn’t just abandon me,” and he pointed out the governor hosted fund-raisers for him earlier in the election cycle.

Additionally, those close to the governor argue any narrative that suggests Mr. Christie didn’t lend his full support to the party is misguided.

“Those critics are cowards, number one, and secondly a very small minority,” said Bill Palatucci, the governor’s longtime confidante and fund-raiser.

“If you take a step back and look at the party building the governor has done over the past five years, [you will see] he has a tremendous record,” he said. “It’s key to remember that we lost the legislative redistricting map, so the Republicans started with a great handicap. … And a lot of these people have short memories. Over the last five years, the governor has raised millions, literally millions, for both the state party and for legislative state candidates.”

The right-hand man to the governor says any argument within the G.O.P. is “one over strategy” within the party, “not the governor’s commitment and effort” to support the G.O.P.

“When we took over the state party in December 2009, the state party was $500,000 in debt. I walked into the state party offices and was given a balance sheet that was a horror story,” added Mr. Palatucci. “The party was broken with no message and no leader.”

Still, the governor’s critics, according to some in New Jersey’s State House G.O.P. caucus, say that Mr. Christie worked too closely with Democratic Party “bosses” in the state in the lead-up to the election—in particular, South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross III, an insurance executive whose bankrolling of southern Garden State politics has resulted in influence over the largest voting bloc in the state legislature.

“He cut the deal with George Norcross. That’s why he didn’t raise any money down here,” South Jersey Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown told a radio host during an hour-long live interview in November.


Even the mainstream media, which for four years found in Chris Christie the ‘reasonable Republican’ they like to trot out, turned chilly. ‘Not long ago, people were talking about the New Jersey miracle. Now suddenly, the news is not so good about New Jersey.’


Later that same day, Mr. Brown quickly walked back his comments and said that suggesting Mr. Christie worked in tandem with Mr. Norcross was “certainly not” what he meant to say. Mr. Christie would later write the whole thing off during a State House news conference: “One, I had no deal with George Norcross on politics,” he said. “And two, if I had a deal, I sure as hell wouldn’t tell Chris Brown.”

But the lawmaker’s comments only put a face to the question that many were already asking.

“This guy should have broken up the boss system, but for his own political aspirations, he decided he was going to ride it,” said another state Republican lawmaker currently serving in office.

“It’s pretty bad. What do we stand for? What are we pushing? We have nothing,” the lawmaker said, referring to the state’s Republican Party. “It’s actually worse than having a Democrat as governor, because now you can’t say shit. Your district gets treated the same or worse, and now you can’t say anything about it.”

One of the governor’s first actions following his re-election involved lobbying Republican state senators to oust Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. from his leadership. Mr. Christie wanted to replace Mr. Kean with his ally in the state Senate, who accused Mr. Kean of having a faulty plan to make gains in the recent election and thus ruining the G.O.P.’s opportunity to grab additional legislative seats. Regardless of Jr.’s culpability in the embarrassing electoral failure, the attempt to sack the son of a beloved governor was viewed as a callous, maladroit move.

The coup failed.

For the first time, Republicans publicly bucked the governor.

Cracks between the governor and his own party in the state legislature have also developed over legislation, especially in the cases where G.O.P. lawmakers support a particular bill only to have Mr. Christie reject it later.

“There’s not a lot of communication between his people and the legislature,” said a third Republican lawmaker. “His ambitions have become our policy, especially on some of these bills he’s vetoed or pocket-vetoed,” the lawmaker said.

“His agenda becomes our agenda, good, bad or indifferent.”

“Everything is controlled in Trenton,” one lawmaker groused, echoing the sentiments of many others, explaining they don’t dare cross the governor.

“Legislators often make judgments based off of their own individual relationships with the governor,” said former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., a man Mr. Christie considers a mentor and father to the state lawmaker the governor attempted to oust from his leadership position.

Asked if he has heard of Republicans in the state dissatisfied by some of Mr. Christie’s actions, Mr. Kean responded, “I have.”

“But I’m not sure that’s unusual,” he said, suggesting the sheer number of different viewpoints combined with the amount of state lawmakers means conflicts will always arise between an executive and members of the legislature.

“I just don’t know; I’d just have to really ask questions, and I haven’t,” Mr. Kean said.

THE JERSEY COMEBACK?

But if the calculation is that New Jersey “doesn’t matter” anymore, as the G.O.P. lobbyist suggested, then Mr. Christie’s brand will now be tested against a sizable roadblock that some suggest could be as damaging to a 2016 White House campaign as Bridgegate.

Last week, Mr. Christie announced at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s annual Fiscal Summit that he would unveil a proposal this week to plug a $807 million shortfall in the state’s budget—a figure that emerged as the state closes in on its budget deadline.

The shortfall comes after years of rosy budget projections that have resulted in New Jersey bringing in billions less in tax revenue than the administration had forecasted.

Also last week, Moody’s lowered New Jersey’s credit rating for the second time. The downgrade marked the sixth one by a ratings agency since Mr. Christie took office and tied the record for a New Jersey governor set by former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey (though Mr. Christie’s predecessor set the bar in less than three years).

Even the mainstream media, which for four years found in Mr. Christie the “reasonable Republican” they like to trot out, turned chilly. “Not so long ago, people were talking about the New Jersey miracle,” said CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. “Now suddenly, the news is not so good about New Jersey.”

In 2012, the governor touted the “Jersey comeback” at his town hall meetings across the state and predicted in his budget that the Garden State would have the highest revenue growth rate in the nation. The growth never materialized.

Even one of Mr. Christie’s biggest talking points—the state’s private-sector job growth—has not always held up when examined under closer scrutiny. According to a recent report from The Star-Ledger that examined federal data, only New Mexico has generated private-sector jobs at a slower pace than New Jersey. The report found the Garden State “is tied with Mississippi for 48th in the nation,” with labor growth in the private sector from February 2010 to March 2014.

“I think it’s going to be as big as anything,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. “A sluggish economy and an economy not doing as well as the rest of the nation is a problem.”

Not only is it a problem for Mr. Christie’s brand, but during a presidential run, the criticism will not be coming from those on the other side of the aisle.

“Remember what happened with Mitt Romney. … A lot of the attacks that [President Barack] Obama would later use were first used by Newt Gingrich,” said Mr. Zelizer, referring to the former presidential contender’s ads that criticized Mr. Romney for his time at Bain Capital.

The governor contends his administration is bearing the brunt of years of mismanagement in Trenton.

“The bigger issue is how do we avoid this in the future? And the only way is to stop the insanity of a defined benefit pension system that we cannot afford,” Mr. Christie said at the fiscal summit.

Mr. Christie routinely argues that, in a state with Democratic Party registered voter advantage of more than 700,000, he needed to either build a relationship with the opposing party or find himself out of office.

But his critics say the governor’s exclusive focus on personal brand building and upward political mobility on the national scale deprived the G.O.P. here of driving a real financial reform agenda in the state, where those surviving Democratic Party machines that helped plunge the state into financial crisis found a friend in the Trenton Thunder.

And speaking of thunder.

In “Thunder Road,” the Boss sings about “one last chance to make it real.” Last Sunday, at the Champions of Jewish Values gala at Cipriani, with a room filled with Jewish donors and at least a couple of billionaires, Mr. Christie got an opportunity to make up for an incident at a Republican Jewish Coalition event in March, in which he had mentioned “occupied territories.” That gaffe, for which the governor issued a rare apology, elicited audible gasps and even a few boos from a reliably rah-rah crowd. Sunday’s speech at the Jewish Values Network event, with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson in the crowd, was widely viewed as a mulligan, one last chance for the biggest Bruce fan there is to make it real. The governor swung and sliced it, at best.

In a foreign policy speech that failed to mention “Israel” a single time, the governor made some lucid points but also rambled. Where was the thunder?

Even more striking, seated at a table with the biggest G.O.P. donor in history, Mr. Christie appeared not to participate. His famous warmth and outsize personality, amplified by YouTube into a national phenomenon, were nowhere to be found. Several people present described him as “distracted” or “not engaged.” The governor, given a second chance to make a first impression, delivered his remarks and then followed his entourage out of the room.

The man who notched a perfect record as a crusader against corruption, defied devastating registration and financial disadvantages and put a hurricane-battered state on his broad shoulders seemed to have succumbed to the impossible. Mr. Christie, a force of nature, seemed tired.

In less than a year, the 2016 presidential race will begin in earnest. Any national ambitions Mr. Christie harbored have been damaged by six months of Bridgegate. But with no indictments or smoking gun tied to the governor, the damage isn’t fatal. It’s dangerous to be against Mr. Christie, and it would be a mistake to call the fight before a 10-count. But what might prove even more damaging to the governor than Bridgegate itself, even more damaging than the continued misery of New Jersey’s economy, is the wounded spirit that has slowed this one unstoppable force.