The national fixation on Gov. Chris Christie as a presidential prospect combined with the governor’s argument that New Jersey can teach a lesson to Washington, D.C., inevitably creates speculation about which New Jerseyans Christie would enlist for his presidential cabinet.
Christie’s rhetoric suggests that if he could, he would airlift the alliances he built here in his home state to D.C., and his allies across-the-aisle appear routinely willing to indulge his favorite narrative of sleeves-rolled-up bipartisanship.
“This is a great day for New Jersey,” Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) said last week on the occasion of United Airlines announcing the creation of flights from Chicago and Houston to Atlantic City. “It couldn’t have happened without the governor. This is what government’s supposed to be about: Democrats and Republicans working together to get things done. …It’s not D.C. New Jersey’s got it right.”
Certainly what follows is a very preliminary list of contenders for these seats of federal power in a Christie cabinet, and arguably not entirely politically viable when one considers the demands of national-level party politics.
A cursory look at the demands of each job and what Christie would have to work with suggest right away that New Jersey’s innate parochialism makes it highly unlikely that he would recruit a secretary of state from his home state. Central Jerseyans might beg to differ and offer U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4) on that front.
In any event, don’t rule out the following cabinet members and cabinet level officers…
1. Chief of Staff : Bill Palatucci
Christie’s longtime confidant, benefactor, fundraiser and mentor has that iron grip in his eyes that could melt the will of anyone who arrives in the halls of power without his/her own steady diet of resolve. People who don’t live here don’t know anything about New Jersey except what they get from television, and a superficial reading of Palatucci invites all the mysterious NJ stereotypes that must haunt the most Midwestern of imaginations. More importantly, indeed singularly – Christie values loyalty. It’s a theme echoing through this list, and given their longstanding friendship – and the fact that it was Palatucci’s closeness to George W. Bush that landed Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to begin with – make this the most obvious first phone call for a President-elect Christie.
Runner-Up: Joe DiVincenzo
Go ahead and laugh. Surely those Democrats who watched their beloved county executive forced to roam the sidewalks of Essex don’t believe this assignment would ever occur. Sources in the Democratic Party say DiVincenzo trusts implicitly in his friendship with the Republican governor, but that if Christie truly considered DiVincenzo a friend, he wouldn’t have insisted on the county executive putting himself in his current political pretzel by endorsing him. It’s not that Joe D. won’t win re-election. The mechanics of Essex power-politics make him a strong favorite to secure a fourth term. But people around him suffer the association of his perceived party betrayal. If Joe D was simply a convenient prop to enhance Christie’s desired narrative of Republicans and Democrats working in harmony, don’t look for a federal resurfacing. But if the friendship is indeed real, contradicting Democrats who say Christie got what he wanted and moved on, look for a public gift, and a genuine recognition by Christie of DiVincenzo’s organizational skills, which would make him prime COS material. Of course, if an ongoing ELEC investigation drains DiVincenzo, Christie will have an easy excuse not to reward him.
Second Runner-up: Kevin O’Toole
Close to the governor, he didn’t get the minority leader job, but the Essex GOP senator’s icy, no-nonsense demeanor could cement Christie’s will in close-quarters staff encounters.
2. Secretary of Defense: Ray Odierno
People who don’t have ties to Morris County forget that the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff hails from Rockaway Township. The West Point graduate served in Desert Storm before commanding the U.S. 4th Infantry Division during the second Iraq War from 2003-2004. We don’t know if Odierno and Christie know each other or if they have any history together, but it looks like a natural fit.
3. Attorney General: Jeff Chiesa
Christie showed the depth of his trust and affection for Chiesa when he tapped him to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat caused by the death of Frank Lautenberg. Before that, Christie demonstrated his confidence when he selected Chiesa to serve as Attorney General. Given the history, it’s wholly possible that Chiesa, having fulfilled his duties as an acting U.S. Senator, can now retreat to private life with his family until he gets that phone call from a President-elect Christie.
Runner-up: David Samson
Heavyweight law firm partner Samson – Chiesa’s boss no less – is another obvious choice. Loyal to Christie, many in the party thought he would be Christie’s acting U.S. Senator choice on the death of Mr. Lautenberg.
4. Secretary of Transportation: Frank LoBiondo
There’s a bond there. LoBo was in the mix for LG in 2009. He was on the phone to Gov. Christie throughout the fights within his own GOP caucus as New Jersey tried to secure federal Hurricane Sandy relief funds. But the South Jersey GOP congressman’s expertise in transportation – he sits on the Congressional Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure – make this a good landing spot for the veteran.
Runner-up: James Simpson
Simpson currently serves as New Jersey’s commissioner of transportation, and brings a big resume to any job assignment, including a stint as federal transit administrator for George W. Bush. He’s also close to Christie’s old pal, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who appointed Simpson to an honorary police commissionership with the NYPD.
5. Secretary of Labor: Ray Pocino
When Pocino’s Laborers backed Christie’s 2013 re-election, Pocino instantly entered the realm of heavy speculation as a future labor secretary. The powerful vice-president of Laborers International Union of North America, Pocino in his endorsement last year of Christie cited the GOP governor’s accomplishments, including his signing the Higher Education Bond act, which he said will lead to more than $1 billion in construction, including new classrooms and labs; authorization of the Transportation Trust Fund for roads and bridges improvement totaling an estimated $5 billion, and his support for the Revel Casino project and the Bayonne Bridge. “Justice, honor and strength,” Pocino said in summarizing Christie’s leadership qualities. Those are the kinds of words that people etch in stone – and useful when powerful presidents-elect look to form cabinets made up of staunch allies.
Runner-up: Steve Sweeney
Sweeney wants to be governor. Fiercely focused on his own 2017 run, the ironworker lawmaker won’t bend his will to some lower rung position in a Christie White House (see No. 5). Christie knows that. It’s far more likely that Christie and company will leave behind Kim Guadagno, who for all her rubber chicken diligence still offers a Republican roadkill vibe in the coming atmosphere of a NJ without Christie. Another dreaded factor for Guadagno would be the curse of having to run a year after a Republican victory at the national level, which history has invariably awarded to a Democrat; just as a Democratic victory in presidential politics produces a Republican NJ win in the following gubernatorial year. But if Sweeney somehow got flushed off course from his own ambition, and U.S. Senator Cory Booker and DiVincenzo weren’t available – or feasible – to lend the Christie cabinet that warm NJ bipartisan glow, maybe Sweeney would surface in such a capacity. Or at least get that friendly phone call.
6. Secretary of Education: Cory Booker
The most jaded of jaded Jersey operatives say the U.S. Senator would best serve the role of an ambassadorship of the Court of St. James or some other such symbolic foreign assignment.
But if Christie’s able to get through a GOP Primary by making the case that the country needs an executive leader who can work effectively with both sides, and not a political ideologue, he will want a longtime ally to reinforce that image in a cabinet position in his White House.
It’s unlikely Booker would take the job. Booker wants to tweet with impunity, and notwithstanding their routine mugging for the cameras, shades of Rod McKeon in Booker’s Twitter Pulpit moralizing likely don’t fill Christie with delight. But Booker’s brand name – and their obvious education alliance built on a mutual favoring of school vouchers, teacher merit pay and more charter schools – would require the phone call, at the very least. By all accounts, though, Booker wants to be president, not flip the switch on another politician’s ego.
Runner-up: Cami Anderson
If Christie could at best succeed at an overture to Booker for the job, surely he’d have no trouble landing the superintendent of the Newark Public Schools System, who spear-headed teacher tenure reform.
7. Housing and Urban Development: Brian P. Stack
Go to Union City sometime and ask someone on the street who looks like a local resident about who one sees if he wants to get a room for rent in town. The invariable answer? Mayor Stack. We can picture Christie sifting through a stack of resumes of highly qualified Ivy Leaguers who to a man can demonstrate little deep impact credentials to rival Stack’s in actually putting roofs over the heads of people in need. Again, as with DiVincenzo in No. 1, it is possible that Christie’s stagecraft with his famous New Jersey Democrats ended on Election Day. He and Stack have a complex political relationship, and the governor was furious in 2009 when the mayor of Union City stopped short of issuing an endorsement. There’s also the possibility that Stack’s Hudson County street cred could simply frighten prospective cornfed congressional ivory tower-type inquisitors and make the mayor a non-starter.
8. Secretary of Energy: Leonard Lance
We know what you’re thinking: he’s a much more likely candidate for judges’ robes. The 7th District Republican Congressman also built a longstanding record in the state Legislature as an environmentalist and conservationist, making him a potential Interior Security pick. But Lance has spent his time in federal office as a member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. A cabinet appointment would take the well-regarded Lance off the treadmill every two years of having to prove to the residents of the 7th District that he can live to the right of perennial GOP Primary challenger David Larsen.
9. Homeland security: Tom Kean, Sr.
Following this latest mess with the son, Christie would have to make that mea culpa phone call and offer homeland security to the chairman of the 911 Commission and beloved former New Jersey governor who Christie says was his hero. New Yorkers would see Rudy Giuliani as the obvious first pick, but Christie could make a statement by identifying Kean as his first choice – and accepting the glove-slap of a Kean rejection as payback for what Christie tried to do to his son. Christie handlers after the election hit the eject button on Kean Jr.’s Senate minority leader seat, but the son of the former governor hung on and won the approval of his caucus. GOP sources continue to say this week that the Kean Jr.-Christie kerfuffle isn’t over, and party members await Christie’s meting out of punishment to Junior in some other way. Maybe it will ultimately come in the form of a Christie henchman, acting on orders from a prez-elect boss stung by the elder Kean’s rejection and looking only to report on the reaction, offering the younger Kean a job as assistant to Deputy Chief of Staff O’Toole in a Christie White House.
Runner-Up: Rudy Giuliani
Christie loves him, so much so that it seems wholly plausible to picture Christie’s handlers letting float news of that phone call of Christie requesting Rudy to serve as his vice presidential running mate. The realities of ticket-matchmaking mean Giuliani would offer very little to such an equation other than ethnic shades of Cuomo-Giuliani 1994, which was great for New York but hardly helps in Ohio or Florida. So it seems more likely that Christie would appear post-election with America’s mayor to try to install him as head of homeland security.
Second Runner-up: Jerry Speziale
Bruce Springsteen with a badge turned into an unglamorous Port Authority of New York and New Jersey underling, kicked around the prospect of a return to countywide office as a Republican, then faded to the Deep South where evidently he now lives the quiet quasi life of some latter day resurrection of Chief Bill Gillespie. Clearly, it’s unlikely that Christie would pluck him from those depths of obscurity for a sudden reanimation in federal life. Certainly, too, stories circulated about the unconventional departure of Speziale from the sheriff’s office.
10. Press Secretary: Mike Drewniak
The governor’s chief public gunslinger was Christie’s spokesman at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and his spokesman for four successful years in Trenton, making it wholly believable to picture the time-tested and trusted Drewniak standing – again – in front of a federal microphone.