by MAX PIZARRO
MIDDLETOWN – U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie identified corruption as the top issue facing the state during a town meeting with three Republican legislators in Monmouth County last night and called on people to join him in the fight for better government by attending government meetings and voting in elections.
But the former Morris County Freeholder and fundraiser for President George W. Bush's 2000 campaign says that his town meeting tour — he held another one recently with State Senator Peter Inverso and Assemblyman Bill Baroni — is unlrelated to speculation that he might seek the Republican nomination for Governor in 2009.
"It's a fair question," Christie said when asked if he's running. "The answer is 'no.'"
Instead, the corruption-busting federal prosecutor said that popular disengagement has resulted in the takeover by powerful and moneyed interests of the “gift of democracy,”
“Political corruption is an attack on our way of life, on the idea that we the people can self-govern,” said Christie. “The entire concept of a civilized society is under threat by what is going on in New Jersey."
Christie spoke before a nearly-packed auditorium at Middletown High School North at an event hosted by State Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos, Jr., Assemblywoman Amy Handlin and Assemblyman Samuel Thompson.
Asked if his appearance with the three GOP legislators up for election this year could be construed as a signal that Kyrillos, Handlin and Thompson are uninvolved in the current probe of state legislators receiving personal financial gain through state budget items, Christie said he would not comment on any investigations, as a matter of policy. Three State Senators, the Assemblyman and a U.S. Congressman — all Democrats — have been subpoenaed in recent weeks.
“New Jerseyans are frustrated and far too often we read in the newspapers about gang violence, public corruption or other crimes. We wanted to provide a forum to interact with the U.S. Attorney and to hear what he is doing to restore pride to this great state,” said Kyrillos, the former Republican State Chairman.
Christie received a standing ovation here in the county where he secured sentences for numerous corrupt local elected officials from both parties — where his war on corruption even ended the political career of Harry J. Larrison, a Freeholder for decades and one of the county's most beloved politicians.
He bemoaned the effect of jailed or otherwise chastised politicians on the overall morale and health of the voting public.
“The song of cynicism” should be the state song, he said, as larger numbers of people succumb to the notion that all politicians are crooked, so why bother?
When Gov. Jim Florio ran for re-election in 1993, 69% of New Jersey’s registered voters participated in the election, Christie said.
“Twelve years later, in an election in which the two candidates — Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester — spent $80 million, or more than the last few contests combined, 46 percent of the registered voters voted,” said Christie. “That’s a 23% decline.”
Assessing the overall criminal element in New Jersey, Christie said organized crime is fairly well under control. Political corruption is rampant. And gang-related crime is on the rise. In 2000, Christie said a survey identified 7,000 gang members in New Jersey. In 2005, that number had risen to 17,500.
“That number has continued to grow exponentially,” said Christie. “There is an army in our state, which is selling drugs and killing our people all for profit and personal aggrandizement.”
The way people can fight gangs, said Christie, is the same way they must fight political corruption. They need to get engaged in the body politic.
At this point, voters no longer have the luxury of disengagement, Christie said. They cannot expect a U.S. Attorney, 16 lawyers and 24 FBI agents to police 566 municipalities, 21 counties, 612 school boards and a state budget totaling $33 billion.
“We cannot do it,” said Christie. “We cannot physically do it. The people who are going to fix the problem of corruption in the State of New Jersey are sitting in this room tonight."
Christie noted that laws against bribery go back 170 years.
"Everyone knows taking an envelope of cash in exchange for public favors is illegal. Laws are not going to completely change human behavior," he said. "Change will occur as we get back involved with our government.”
As Kyrillos escorted Christie toward the exit after the U.S. Attorney fielded some questions from the audience, Christie was asked how he would define politics.
“Politics is the process by which we solve society’s problems,” he said. “We no longer tell our children that politics is a noble calling. Who do we expect to run this place one day if we give them such a negative view? Politics is not simply power €” it is the process,” and he said it a second time, “by which we have to solve society’s problems.”