Former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli looked like he was on the fast-track to higher callings when allegations of misconduct slammed the brakes on his career. In an ethically-nefarious controversy involving suspicious bribes and a grandfather clock, Torricelli’s reputation was all but completely tarnished when a federal investigation found he had accepted illegal campaign contributions from multiple donors. He was never actually convicted of any wrongdoing, but the incident forced him from public service under a cloud.
Torricelli is an apt example of how a promising public official could find his or her career quickly sunk in the quagmires of New Jersey’s political landscape, if they’re not too careful. In a state where real estate values are among the highest in the nation, sweetheart deals with private contractors can pay off big, and double-dipping is business as usual, temptation to do wrong abounds, creating an atmosphere where politicians and party bosses sometimes look like they’re competing with one another for the role of Vito Corleone in the Godfather. It’s this seemingly pervasive culture of corruption and crookedness that’s earned New Jersey the nickname the “Soprano State”, and one doesn’t have to go far to find other examples to reinforce the argument.
New Jersey’s political history is chock full of officials — elected or otherwise — who’ve been caught up in situations that nearly or totally destroyed their careers.
Of course, the most immediate and obvious example of the trend is Chris Christie, the state’s enterprising current governor, under whom many have argued the saga continues. Christie — already dogged by Bridgegate and a sundry of other lesser, more discrete controversies — is back under the microscope this week following news that federal prosecutors have launched another criminal investigation into decisions and deals made during his tenure. According to a report by the International Business Times, federal law enforcement officials are now pursuing allegations the governor’s staff broke the law when they quashed grand jury indictments against Christie supporters.
Christie’s tendency to find himself associated with dubious deals and figures is enough to give any politician a headache, but it’s especially stinging for the Republican governor because of his apparent political ambitions: the man looks poised for a presidential run, putting him on the cusp of the kind of career success few politicians in New Jersey have managed to touch, let alone attain, in recent years. That Christie is considered in at least some circles a serious contender for the Republican nomination in 2016 is itself a somewhat historic feat — political observers would have to go back as far as the late president Woodrow Wilson, a former president of Princeton University, at least, to find a Garden State figurehead who make it up and out onto the national political scene even partly unscathed.
Which all begs the question: What is it that makes political scandal so inevitable in New Jersey? Why do corruption and New Jersey politics seem such reliable bedfellows?
In Christie’s case, according to Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-34), a veteran of the state’s legislature, it’s partly in the nature of the office he occupies: the governor’s seat in New Jersey is one of the strongest in the nation because of “the concentration of power.”
“I think it’s a double edged sword, in the one you have a lot of power to select judges and appoint prosecutors — the governor is the only statewide elected official. But I think it presents problems when these situations crop up,” Giblin said.
Asked about the seeming inability of New Jersey politicians to move up the career ladder without marring their names, Giblin was the one who proposed as example Torricelli, also known as “the Torch”, who resigned in 2003 amid allegations he had improperly accepted gifts from businessman David Chang, also a major campaign contributor. If Torricelli looked like he could have gone further — Gilblin says some considered him VP material — his reputation ultimately failed to withstand the pressure, leaving office in disgrace while under investigation by a grand jury and the Senate ethics committee.
Now, it’s probably too early to include Christie’s name in the annals of scandal-scarred politicians and mafioso-like power brokers whose careers flamed out under the specter of corruption. Christie still has momentum, and while he may be feeling the heat from some of the cases currently under investigation, he’s not yet been tied directly to any of them (indeed, he’s maintained innocence in the face of most charges). But as the Bridgegate scandal continues to grow from minor traffic jam to a sprawling federal investigation with multiple legs, and other, less conspicuous controversies continue to pile on, Christie could face the challenge of mounting a national campaign with some serious baggage trailing him.
To Giblin’s point, the allegations involved in Christie’s scandals have also tended to be of the abuse-of-power kind — making the governor’s seat a potential liability for anyone who doesn’t watch closely the office’s staff and operations. (Case-in-point: Christie has chalked Bridgegate up to decisions made by rogue members of his inner circle, unbeknownst to him).
“Whether he didn’t know what’s going on, or he wasn’t paying attention, or he did and he’s complicit — either way, it doesn’t look good,” Giblin said.
“Sometimes there’s no such thing as a free lunch, if you know what I’m saying,” he added.
And yet Christie isn’t the only public official in the Garden State right now who finds himself pawing at the national stage while questions of ethical integrity surround him at home. U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a ranking Democrat in Washington who could find himself under consideration for a promotion should the party maintain control of the White House in 2017, also could face explaining more unsavory aspects of his career to a scrutinizing public.
Appointed to the Senate in 2006 and elected to full terms that year and in 2012, Menendez is under widening federal investigation over allegations that he may have improperly used his office to assist campaign contributors, an accusation he and his staff have vehemently denied but one that continues to pose a test to his future political ambitions. That investigation expanded last year when prosecutors began looking at two Ecuadorian fugitives Menendez helped keep in the U.S., despite being wanted in their home country on charges of embezzling money from their failed bank.
Menendez’s past came back again last week when the secret testimony of a top executive from the Virginia company that first proposed the Xanadu project in the Meadowlands resurfaced during a grand jury hearing in the case of former Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero. Jim Dausch, the executive, said his firm was asked to raise $50,000 for Menendez in 2005, when the senator was still a congressman.
But Giblin is quick to add that Menendez — unlike Christie at the moment — has been able to keep much of the public spotlight on these investigations at a minimum, reducing their chances of impacting his upward career climb. He also notes that Menendez is unique in that he “worked himself up the old fashioned way” — from the son of Cuban-born immigrant parents to state assemblyman to senator — potentially allowing him to have avoided many of the pitfalls that come with having to rely on dubious political support and connections as a way to the top.
“Unless you’re a self-made person, so to speak, that’s unfortunately the way it’s kind of developed,” Giblin said.
Still, it’s unclear to some political observers exactly how much of an impact scandal has on the careers of politicians like Menendez and Christie, especially among the general populace in a national election. Christie’s involvement in ongoing federal investigations may be affecting his popularity and credibility at home — his job approval rating continues to tank among New Jersey voters — but it’s less predictable what sort of impact they’ll have on his presidential prospects when he’s up on the national stage, they say.
“Most Americans’ view of politics and politicians is not that wonderful, so they think [some of these scandals] are just part of the game,” said Robert J. Guttman, director of the Center for Politics and Foreign Relations at George Mason University.
Guttman pointed to former governor of Texas Rick Perry, who was indicted by a grand jury last year for alleged abuses of power but who nevertheless seems to be gearing up for another run at the Republican nomination next year.
“He’s been indicted, and he’s running for president. He’s laughed it off. I don’t think that’s happened before,” he said.
That’s because controversies like Bridgegate or Perry’s indictment often fail to gain the same traction on a national stage as they do at home, where people are directly affected, Guttman suggested. In it’s especially true in a place like New Jersey, where some level of scandal is considered an unfortunate but often inevitable side effect of everyday politicking.
“People in a lot of Christie could brush it off as politics in New Jersey, that people are out to get him. Then it might be OK,” he said.
“And the rest of the country could care less about closing a bridge,” he added.
He also added that Christie, should he make it through these controversies without “landing in a jail cell”, might even come away from them in a better position than before.
“He was the frontrunner, now he’s been shot down. It shows he can take a hit,” Guttman said, who called Christie a “tough SOB”. “And as I said if he’s not convicted, he’s still going to be a first tier candidate.”
(UPDATE: Multiple outlets today are bringing into question IBTime’s original reporting that Christie is in fact the subject of a new federal investigation. Still, there are others we might point to — the new leg of the Bridgegate investigation looking into former Port Authority exec David Samson’s travel records, for example, or the New York Time story about scrutiny over Christie’s luxury tastes — that show Christie under increased pressure from the press and political world as he inches closer to 2016.
Also: an inveterate political insider reminded PNJ upon reading this piece that former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley had some success on the national stage — he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2000 — while managing to stay fairly ethically irreproachable throughout his career. Of course, by the insider’s judgement, that might also explain why Bradley left behind so few major legislative achievements).