Morning Digest: Fe. 6, 2014

Knee-Deep in Traffic-Jam Scandal, Christie Keeps Talking

He is Oscar quality, this governor, even during this walk across his bridge of sighs.

Chris Christie was on a New Jersey 101.5 FM show on Monday that was also live-streamed, and he had it all going on: the eyebrows hike, the wide-eyed disbelief, the hand to his chest — a self-deprecating fellow. Talking about the transit problems after the Super Bowl, he exuded executive assurance. “I’m on the phone with my chief counsel, my transportation commissioner, my authority chief,” he said. ” ‘What’s our plan going to be, guys?’ ”

As for these bridge investigations — he gave a wig-waggle of his hand as if a fly had circled too near his ear. “It can’t dominate me,” he said. “I’ll be damned if anything is going to get in the way of me doing the job.”

Those who write off New Jersey’s governor reckon without these performances. He has a tactile feel for his audience. Their love restores.

Carol Ann called in, and she loves this guy. I voted for you; how are you doing?

“I’m doing good, Carol Ann,” he purred.

Now, though, Carol Ann sounded perplexed. “Why, when it was closed down, why didn’t you call at the time to find out what the issue was?” The “it” were access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Mr. Christie’s default position when challenged is to talk, and so he set off on a rhetorical cross-country run. He talked of his ignorance of this distant bridge. Didn’t the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey say there was a traffic study? Four months later, he read in the newspapers about those emails. Right then he insisted his staff find out what was going on. (Powell/The New York Times) 



For Bergen Dems, County Exec’s race coming to nomination crossroads

HACKENSACK – While Bergen Democrats still wait to see whether Bergen County Surrogate Michael Dressler will seek their party’s nomination for County Executive in the November 2014 election, other candidacy scenarios are beginning to crystallize.

Bergen Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato told on Jan. 31 that he was “going to have an answer” from Dressler by the end of this week. If Dressler, who was first elected Surrogate in 1996 and has a solid record of service and a compelling backstory, decides not to run, other viable candidates wait in the wings.

According to Bergen Democratic sources, the prime potential candidates to take on Republican incumbent County Executive Kathleen Donovan are County Clerk John Hogan, Freeholder Tracy Silna Zur and state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) (pictured).

Former Freeholder Chairman Jim Carroll of Demarest declared his candidacy in May. The party will hold its county convention in March. (Bonmao/PolitickerNJ)

For Bergen Dems, County Exec’s race coming to nomination crossroads | Politicker NJ



Former White House advisor mounting CD 2 run  

A former White House advisor and manager of a tech start-up company is challenging U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2).

Dave Cole, 28, of Mantua, announced Wednesday his intention to seek his party’s nomination in challenging the incumbent Republican lawmaker. Cole worked in the White House from 2009 to 2011 as a senior advisor for technology and deputy director of new media, according to his bio. He’s the general manager of Mapbox.

“We are still hurting from the economic downturn with over 12 percent unemployment – one of the highest in all of New Jersey,” Cole said in a statement.

“We need to catch up,” he sia.d “Too many of our families, neighbors, and friends have been hit with layoffs, shrinking paychecks, and fewer hours on the job, and it’s harder than ever for South Jersey residents to get back on their feet.”

Cole also worked as a field organizer for Obama for America in 2008. (Arco/PolitickerNJ)

Former White House advisor mounting CD 2 run | Politicker NJ



Botched Process Denied Thousands of NJ Residents Millions in Sandy Relief

Report shows vast majority of homeowners won appeals after state corrected flawed damage estimates. 

Three-quarters of all those who appealed denial of federal Sandy aid from two popular housing assistance programs administered by the state of New Jersey wound up winning their appeals, raising new questions about the distribution of the funds.

As a result, the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center, which yesterday released new data it received from the state Department of Community Affairs as the result of an Open Public Records Act request, charged that the contractor hired — and subsequently fired — by the Christie administration “botched” the entire process of providing aid.

The center called for an independent audit of the $600 million Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program and the $180 million Resettlement program.

“When I see this scale of dysfunction, I can’t believe in the state doing the audit at this point,” said Adam Gordon, a Fair Share staff attorney. “It has to be someone who has independence.”

But Lisa Ryan, a DCA spokeswoman on Sandy recovery, said many of the initial denials resulted because the state had been using damage assessments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it found to be inaccurate. It sought and received approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to use applicants’ damage estimates from insurance companies or the U.S. Small Business Administration for their appeals and the result was the high success rate. (O’Dea/NJSpotlight) 




Christie Surprised, Skeptical of Eminent-Domain Bill – But He Already Signed it 

Could confusion be linked to scandals and investigations distracting NJ’s hands-on governor?

A little-noticed bill that passed the state Legislature last month gives extraordinary eminent-domain powers to a new higher education board in South Jersey.

But Gov. Chris Christie, embroiled in and perhaps distracted by two abuse-of-power scandals and investigations, said during a recent radio appearance that he didn’t know anything about the bill, which would allow a new joint Rowan/Rutgers University board to seize private property in Camden.

In fact, the governor expressed skepticism and disapproval of the idea, suggesting that such a proposal would face tough scrutiny if it ever reached his desk.

There’s just one big problem with this scenario. Christie himself signed the bill into law less than three weeks ago.

Read the full story and audio report by Richard Yeh of WNYC and Matt Katz of New Jersey Public Radio. Both WNYC and NJPR are partners of NJ Spotlight. (Yeh and Katz/NJSpotlight) 



NJ Transit hearings expanded; Super Bowl, website also are issues

Citing a “lackadaisical approach to planning,” the chairman of the state Senate’s Legislative Oversight Committee said Wednesday that hearings scheduled to look at why NJ Transit left trains in low-lying rail yards during Superstorm Sandy will be expanded to explore other high-profile problems with the state’s beleaguered mass transit agency.

Sen. Bob Gordon said the hearings will be broadened to include how the agency failed to efficiently move fans out of MetLife Stadium after the Super Bowl, why NJ Transit allowed the trademarks of seven of its logos to lapse and recent problems with the agency’s website.

Agency officials took down for maintenance in the middle of a blizzard last month as travelers were desperately trying to access train schedules and get home. And the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the registrations of several NJ Transit logos when the agency missed renewal deadlines.
Those incidents, as well as the problems at the Super Bowl, have been chronicled in The Record.

“In light of the events at the Super Bowl, the scope is expanding beyond the failures of Sandy to really encompass what I consider poor incident planning, whether the incidents are a man-made event like a Super Bowl or a natural disaster like Sandy. There seems to be a pattern of poor preparation and planning,” Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, said Wednesday.

Complaints about NJ Transit’s handling of fans during what had been dubbed the first “Mass Transit Super Bowl” began well before kickoff on Sunday. Thousands of game-goers from the region and beyond formed a human logjam when three trains unloaded passengers at Secaucus Junction at the same time. (Rouse/The Record) 




Analysis: Answers on GWB lane closures have subtle shades

They’re the quintessential questions when a politician faces scandal: What did he know and when did he know it?

Governor Christie has been steadfast in his assertion that he knew nothing about the plan to close down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge before it happened, a move apparently ordered by his deputy chief of staff and carried out by his appointee to the Port Authority.

But his story — told publicly four times since Dec. 2 — has changed in subtle ways. He’s changed his tone, first joking about moving the cones himself and a month later becoming sternly serious detailing his decision to fire an aide who lied to him about the matter. He’s changed when he learned about the closings; first saying on Dec. 13 it was from press accounts referring to an October Wall Street Journal story.

The latest change came Monday — three days after the lawyer for the Port Authority appointee said “evidence exists” that Christie knew about the closings and traffic nightmare while it was happening. On a radio call-in show, Christie acknowledged that he may have been aware of the traffic problems at the time, but in such an incidental way that it’s hard to recall.

“There is traffic every day at the George Washington Bridge, at the Lincoln Tunnel, at the Holland Tunnel,” Christie said Monday. “I hear those reports on the radio. We all hear about them. That’s not something that rises to the gubernatorial level.” Christie again said he knew nothing about the traffic jams, which he saw as normal congestion. (Hayes and Reitmeyer/The Record) 




Christie’s pain is Walker’s gain

As Chris Christie’s star falls, the party is giving a second look to another brash blue-state governor who stared down unions at home: Scott Walker.

Republican strategists say no one is in a better position to get a boost from the Christie Bridgegate scandal than Walker, who stepped into the national spotlight in 2011 when he won a union-fueled recall election in Wisconsin.

n conversations about the 2016 field with Republican strategists, operatives and donors in the weeks since the scandal first gripped the Christie administration, many volunteered Walker as the potential candidate they plan to watch and, unprompted, said he is getting renewed attention in conservative circles. (Palmer/Politico)




The Man Who Keeps Christie Up at Night

This being a story about New Jersey, it begins, of course, in a diner. Assemblyman John Wisniewski is just finishing up breakfast at the Sunnyside on Main Street in his hometown of Sayreville. Sitting with him this late January morning are a member of his staff and the mayor of another town in his legislative district. Wisniewski appears patient and thoughtful as he talks with the mayor about a possible development deal—but his fingers, nervously tapping on the table, give him away. The assemblyman clearly has something bigger on his mind.

Wisniewski is the reason the world knows about the political disaster that is Bridgegate. As chair of the state assembly’s transportation committee, he was the one who unearthed the smoking gun email from Governor Chris Christie’s fired Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Kelly—”Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”—to Christie’s Port Authority appointee David Wildstein. It was a discovery that would turn lives upside down, Wisniewski’s among them. The formerly obscure state lawmaker has made Christie seem scattered and frantic, and as the scandal continues to unfold, it threatens to knock the once seemingly invincible governor out of contention in the 2016 presidential race, or worse. 

To hear Wisniewski tell it, no one was more surprised by the revelations in those documents than Wisniewski himself. When he first started looking into the lane closures, he tells me, he figured this was just another example of disorganization at the Port Authority, which manages the George Washington Bridge. “But then, when you start digging into it,” he says, “that’s when you start asking questions, because it made no sense.”

Chief among the things that continue to make no sense to Wisniewski is Governor Christie’s version of events—particularly Christie’s claim that he didn’t learn about his staff’s involvement in the lane closures until Jan. 8, the day before his now-famous press conference.

Wisniewski points to the fact that key Christie staff members had been forwarded emails from Wildstein and Bill Baroni, another Port Authority appointee, as early as Sept. 12. One of those emails was from Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, indirectly accusing Wildstein and Baroni of breaking state and federal laws. Are we supposed to believe, Wisniewski asks, that Christie’s staff left him in the dark about all this? In the middle of a re-election campaign? (Nuzzi/Politico) 




Is NJ the Most Corrupt State in America?

As the Bridgegate investigation continues, South Jersey Congressman Rob Andrews has announced he’s stepping down while a House Ethics Committee investigates his campaign spending, and Trenton Mayor Tony Mack awaits the verdict in his federal corruption trial.

For many Garden State residents, it seems like business as usual.

With such a long and rich history of wrongdoing by public officials, ”New Jersey might be nicknamed the Corruption State, or at least the Strong-Arm State,” at least in the opinion of Fairleigh Dickinson political science professor Peter Woolley.

“There’s something about being in public service, generally, that offers you temptations to do things you probably shouldn’t do,” Woolley said. “Wherever there is a lot of local control and a lot of money flowing through the system, there’s going to be a lot of temptation and a lot of people wandering into grey areas and then into illegal areas. It’s as if many of our public figures are really in real estate development rather than public service.”

Woolley said it’s true that states like Illinois, Louisiana and even Massachusetts also have ethically-challenged politicians at every level, but New Jersey is right up there at the top of the list.

According to the professor, New Jersey residents have become so used to wrongdoing by public officials that sometimes, if someone is accused of something, “the facts matter less than the perception — and so that works for some politicians and it works against some politicians,” Woolley said. “Even if you haven’t done something wrong, or gravely wrong, your reputation can be damaged.” (Matthau/NJ101.5) 



Unemployment Tumbling in New Jersey as Many Leave Labor Force 

The unemployment rate in parts of southern New Jersey dropped the sharpest in the country over the course of 2013, though it was likely because more people dropped out of the workforce rather than found new work. 

Unemployment in the three metropolitan statistical areas around Atlantic City, Ocean City and Vineland remained above 10%, according to a Labor Department report released Wednesday. A slowdown in the casino industry in Atlantic City could be one reason for higher unemployment there. Newer gambling spots outside Atlantic City, including in neighboring Pennsylvania, have taken business from New Jersey.

But even though the rates are high, they were down by four percentage points or more in each area in December 2013 from a year earlier. Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged much of the Jersey shoreline in October 2012, could be partly to blame for the areas’ particularly elevated unemployment rate in 2012, said Patrick O’Keefe, director of economic research at CohnReznick, an accounting and advisory firm.

The overall decline also is likely because so many people in New Jersey have dropped out of the labor force. Some 63.9% of people in the state were working or looking for work in December 2013, down from 66.4% at the start of the year. That 2.5 percentage point drop in what is called the labor force participation rate compares to just a 0.8 point drop in the national rate. (Portlock/Wall Street Journal) 



Chris Christie seeing bridge scandal taking a toll on his poll numbers 

TRENTON — On Jan. 9, a new poll from Quinnipiac University dubbed Gov. Chris Christie the “hottest” politician in the nation.

He had just won re-election in a landslide. He had been touted on the cover of Time magazine as the potential savior of the national Republican Party and a clear contender for the White House in 2016.

But on the same day that poll was released,Christie held a two-hour Statehouse press conference apologizing to the people of New Jersey for controversial lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.

Since then, the scandal has become a fixture in the national press. And Christie’s poll numbers — both in New Jersey and across the nation — have tumbled.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Christie enjoyed job ratings that were high not only for a Republican in a heavily Democratic state but also for any New Jersey governor. A Quinnipiac poll in February of last year showed 74 percent of voters approved of his performance.

That number dropped 19 points to 55 percent in a poll released Jan. 15. (Johnson/Star-Ledger) 




NJ records 23 percent reduction in toxic chemical releases

TRENTON — The amount of toxic chemicals released in New Jersey in 2012 decreased 23 percent from the previous year, according to new data from federal government.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the drop was largely because of a 40 percent reduction in releases by DuPont Chambers Works in Deepwater, which stopped accepting waste from outside facilities.

DuPont is one of 382 facilities that released toxic chemicals to New Jersey’s land, air or water during 2012. The amount of toxins released fell from about 11.2 million pounds in 2011 to about 8.6 million pounds in 2012.

The figures are part of the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, which is published in an annual report. (Hutchins/Star-Ledger) 



From the Back Room


Report: Fellow RGA members publicly back Christie; other GOPers not so sure

As Governor Chris Christie continues to take fire over the George Washington Bridge closures and alleged wrongdoing over Hurricane Sandy relief, he retains the public backing of most prominent Republicans, including his fellow members of the powerful Republican Governors Association (RGA), according to this Pando report.

However, investigative journalist Murray Waas has discovered that at least a few prominent Republicans are beginning to break ranks. According to Waas, “Former Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has said it makes ‘sense for [Christie] to step aside’ from his chairmanship of the RGA.” This despite the fact that the RGA funded Cuccinelli’s race and that Christie “personally raised” a portion of those RGA funds. (PolitickerNJ)

Report: Fellow RGA members publicly back Christie; other GOPers not so sure | Politicker NJ



Report: Sandy-aided developer had no affordable housing experience

Contrary to claims made by the Christie administration, it appears that the recipient of $4.8 million in Hurricane Sandy relief funds, Boraie Development LLC, never before provided affordable housing in New Jersey. (PolitickerNJ)

New Brunswick Today has the story.

Report: Sandy-aided developer had no affordable hosuing experience | Politicker NJ




Chris Christie: Denial and defensiveness aren’t a winning game plan

If Chris Christie’s second term as governor turns out to be as disastrous as appears likely, you will be able to trace the governor’s fall to two transportation-related events that occurred on Dec. 9.

One took place at the Secaucus Junction train station. There, state officials joined with the NFL to announce plans for “the first mass transit Super Bowl.” The plans involved cutting the number of parking spaces in half, banning shuttles and taxis, and imploring fans to take public transit to the big game. The flaws in the transit part of the planwere obvious even then, as was the negative effect it would have on local businesses. But Christie did nothing.

The other took place in the Statehouse. There, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye went before the Assembly Transportation Committee and told the members that there was no validity whatsoever to the George Washington Bridge “traffic study” that a Christie appointee had used to inflict gridlock on Fort Lee. Again Christie should have acted to take responsibility and apologize to all those affected. Instead he tried to shift the blame.

Those two events had something in common with another transportation debacle that occurred in Christie’s first year in office.

That was the massive blizzard that hit the day after Christmas in 2010. Christie escaped the storm with his family on one of the last planes out of Newark Liberty International Airport. He spent the week at Walt Disney World while Jersey drivers were immobilized by the state’s failure to plow the highways. (Mulshine/Star-Ledger) 


Christie officials drag feet on integrity monitors for Sandy aid

Gov. Chris Christie reminded Hurricane Sandy victims Tuesday that with nearly $40 billion in damage from the storm, there have been more needs than resources to go around.

This has led to some frustration, he acknowledged: “We don’t live in a fair world,” the governor said.

This is true. And that sad fact of life is also observable in Christie’s personal steering of $6 million in federal Sandy relief to Belleville, a town with hardly any storm damage — but a Democratic mayor willing to endorse his re-election.

In a fair world, that money would had gone to actual victims of Hurricane Sandy.

There is no question that the administration can’t meet every Sandy need, because it doesn’t have enough federal aid to do so. But isn’t that all the more reason not to use what money we do have as a political slush fund? Or to spend millions of it on television ads featuring the governor and his family during his re-election campaign? (Star-Ledger Editorial Board)

Morning Digest: Fe. 6, 2014