Every time U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie puts on the cape and lands on the steps of a federal building in either Trenton or Newark, inevitably there are those who want to try to drive over a mud puddle and spatter the fearless crusader.
What Christie has had to stare down in particular over the past year is the criticism that under the guise of Captain Americanism he’s little more than a lowly spear carrier for the Bush administration, serving a subpoena to Democrat Robert Menendez in 2006, and in ‘07 going after urban and mostly African-American lawmakers who represent poor Democratic districts.
His name was on a list of U.S. attorneys the Bush administration wanted fired, and then off the list following the Menendez subpoena last year, a persistent reminder out there in the blogosphere that at the very least twists the "S" on Christie’s chest into a question mark. But the criticism of the lawman as a singularly voracious political animal when it comes to the prosecution of these corruption cases doesn’t bear scrutiny, according to those who have observed him over the last six years of his tenure.
"I don’t get a sense of this being overly political," said Seton Hall Political Science Prof. Joseph Marbach, following yesterday’s appearance in federal court of 11 public officials – 10 of them Democrats – caught in a bribery network prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. "Christie’s made so many of these types of arrests. It doesn’t seem to hold up," Marbach said. "There doesn’t seen to be a smoking gun."
Christie has spear-headed over 100 prosecutions, and he’s toppled members of both parties, including a carload of Republican mayors in Monmouth County two years ago. To the criticism that he’s targeting African-American public officials in his latest string of cases, Marbach and others answer that some of the U.S. Attorney’s highest profile take-downs in the past have been white males: Jim Treffinger, Harry Larrison and John Lynch.
Newark City Councilman Ron Rice, Jr., likewise acknowledged that it’s a mistake to get stuck on the notion that Christie is going after minorities, and insisted the focus should be on fighting political corruption, in the suburbs and in the cities.
Confronted with Thursday’s image of black and Latino public officials marching into a courtroom in handcuffs, "My initial response is I can’t help but make some notation that these are my folks," Rice said. "I also know with an abiding faith that for every one who is corrupt, there are 50 African American or Latinos who are ethical, transparent, and open, who indeed support ethics reform, and I am one."
Rice said an equally common error is for people to assume that problems of political corruption are worse in urban or poor districts.
"What we saw yesterday is in no way emblematic of urban problems," said the councilman. "In New Jersey, corruption is historic, it’s deep. It has a history in every town or county among blacks and whites."
Ingrid Reed, N.J. project director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutger’s University, agreed with Rice’s point about race and Thursday’s arrests.
"Unless there’s real evidence, I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by focusing on ethnicity here," said Reed. "These are people who are not representing the public as public officials.
Addressing the political fallout from yesterday’s bust, Marbach and Reed both said they doubt the Republicans can convincingly inflate the 10-man cabal into a Democratic Party corruption bacchanal.
But that’s not preventing the GOP from trying, and trying hard in close-quarter districts.
In the battleground 12th, GOP Assembly candidates Declan O’Scanlon and Caroline Casagrande held a press conference in Freehold on Friday morning where they were joined by some real-life grandfathers mockingly wearing dual office t-shirts. The candidates criticized Democratic state Sen. Ellen Karcher and her running mate Assemblyman Michael Panter for championing a dual office ban that grandfathers double-dipper members of the Assembly, most of whom are Democrats, and one of whom is significantly Assemblyman (and Orange Mayor) Mims Hackett.
Hackett was charged in the bribery ring on Thursday.
It was O’Scanlon and Casagrande’s running mate and Karcher’s challenger, Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, who in June leveled a withering attack on Panter in the chamber, criticizing her cross-party rival for failing to toss the grandfather clause in his reform legislation.
Asked Friday if he would consider giving up his Bayonne City Council seat in order to hold only one office as an Assemblyman after a presumptive November win in district 31, a Democratic Party stronghold, Anthony Chiappone said, "In my situation, I wouldn’t. In my situation, my constituencies (Bayonne and part of Jersey City) are essentially the same. In this small dense area there is the same common ground."
To be sure, Democrats in tight races are issuing their own appalled press releases denouncing double dippers, and making sure the record is set straight in those local districts where the accused have roots.
"Thugs and criminals," is how district 2 state Senate candidate Assemblyman Jim Whelan describes the Callaways, including former City Council President Craig Callaway and his brother David. Another brother, former Pleasantville School Board member Maurice "Pete" Callaway, was among those caught this week in the statewide dragnet.
"Clearly for over a dozen years I’ve been fighting with these guys," said Whelan, the former mayor of Atlantic City. "I fought and won two court cases with them. They followed me around with a bullhorn and insulted any African-American who associated with me."
Whelan said the Callaways were not on the political scene in 1990, when he first ran for mayor. In 1994 and 1998 they campaigned hard against him then backed a candidate who beat Whelan in 2000, Whelan said.
As recently as this year in his political reincarnation as an Assemblyman, Whelan teamed with County Democratic Party Chairman Ron Ruff to block a Callaway-backed candidate from becoming the party’s freeholder nominee, Jayson Adams – who incidentally was another former public official stung in the federal action yesterday.
In the minute-to-minute blitzkrieg of contemporary news, however, the political experts said they don’t believe this week’s arrest will overall create much of an impact come Nov. 6th.
"It may be far enough out that it will be forgotten," said Marbach. "It may have an impact on local races, but overall I don’t think it will hurt the Democrats that much."
Marbach said he believes between his flip-flopping toll roads leasing scheme and the Rocco Ricco-Carla Katz flap, Gov. Jon Corzine has provided more ammunition to the Republicans than the 10 arrested Democratic Party officials.
"I think people look at something like this, shrug their shoulders at another politician," said the Seton Hall political science professor. "But this thing with the governor, where he was caught in a lie, that calls into question his judgement and his forthrightness. That’s where the Republicans can make inroads."
Reed agrees that most people understand the culture of corruption as so entrenched that’s hard to provoke and sustain a stunned reaction. "The fact that we have to put the word ‘continuing’ in front of the continuing Carla Katz story and the continuing story of ethics means it’s very hard to gauge if people are inoculated against the state’s culture of corruption," said Reed.
Like Marbach, Reed said she believes the impact of Hackett and Assemblyman (and Passaic County Undersheriff) Alfred Steele and the others in hand cuffs and manacles will be felt at the local level.
But "I’m not sure the ethics issue plays except in these individual races,’ said Reed. "In 2003, when Ellen Karcher won her senate seat, it was because of very specific ethics issues tied to her opponent, (state Sen. ) John Bennett. In the 14th district, Bill Baroni won because of the particular ethics troubles of Gary Guear."
"New Jerseayans are disturbed by ethics issues," Reed added, "but I think may of them probably see it as more of the same. This case just reinforces the stereotype of all politicians. There’s also just a very low level of interest in state politics."
And that was the same point Christie made on the steps of the federal building in Trenton yesterday, a point he makes often, which is that ultimately the health of the system doesn’t depend on crime-busting government employees as much as it does on everyday private citizens who are willing to get involved and police their public officials.