On Nov. 3, 2009, the newly anointed Republican governor-elect of New Jersey walked onto the stage of his Parsippany headquarters to a crowd of cheering supporters as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blasted through the loudspeakers.
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“Way to go big guy!” one supporter shouted, as chants of “Yes we did” broke out in unison. In a decisive win over Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine—49 percent of the vote—Chris Christie became the first Republican voted into statewide office in more than a decade, largely due to popular campaign promises to rein in government spending and tackle the state’s ever- increasing taxes.
In his victory speech that night, Governor-elect Chris Christie told the state of New Jersey: “We’re going to pick Trenton up and we are going to turn it upside down.”
However, a little over seven years later, it feels as if Gov. Christie is the one who has been turned upside down. After riding a wave of record-high approval ratings following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Christie’s 2016 poll numbers steadily declined, reaching a dismal 19 percent approval rating according to a December 2016 Quinnipiac state poll. New Jerseyans made it clear: Christie had let them down. There’s no shortage of speculation as to the causes for this plunge: hubris, his in-your-face style, Bridgegate. Was it one thing or a combination of factors that slowly tore down the Teflon façade of this once-rising star of the GOP?
A different kind of politician
In the 2009 governor’s race, Christie went up against Gov. Corzine who was facing relatively low approval ratings himself at the time. Despite this, Christie’s win was seen as an upset considering New Jersey’s preference for a moderate Republican candidate.
“The consensus before 2009 was for a Republican to be moderate, specifically pro-choice, and that was based on two prior Republican governors we’ve had,” says John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics and the director of the Rutgers Center on the American Governor.
“Christie wasn’t [moderate]. It was clear he was opposed to choice and he won despite that. It made his victory more impressive,” says Weingart, who adds that it was particularly interesting to see a Republican victory coming on the heels of President Obama’s election.
Christie also excelled in speaking, thanks in part to his years as a U.S. Attorney for the state of N.J. “Corzine was seen as indecisive and inarticulate. Christie was different. He is very good on his feet and sounds knowledgeable about things, even if he may not necessarily be, and that’s good for voters,” Weingart says.
Almost overnight Christie gained national attention. “The New Jersey governor-elect almost always gets a short period of national attention because the election is in an off year. In Christie’s case, [the attention] blossomed,” says Weingart. “Part of it was his strengths, being articulate, and also the way he dealt with his weight. It was admirable how he dealt with it. He could joke about it and not be defensive. That contributed to his image as a straight-talking, down-to-earth person and it helped make him memorable.”
It became clear that Christie didn’t mind being in the spotlight. His town hall forums have become something of legend: There’s Christie, suit jacket off, micro- phone in hand, surrounded by constituents. And then came the sound bites.
“If you want to put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well then I have no interest in answering your questions.”
“Do you wanna hear the answer or don’t you?”
“Damn, man I’m governor could you just shut up for a second?”
In those moments, he simultaneously displayed the New Jersey attitude its residents take pride in while portraying their worst stereotype.
“He was a captivating personality,” says Matt Katz, a political reporter for WNYC who has covered Christie since 2011, and author of American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption. “He was particularly effective in back- and-forth [scenarios] with reporters and constituents. He could be charming or aggressive or funny. He has a quality people are drawn to.”
Christie’s team saw this as an opportunity and hired a taxpayer-funded production team to package videos specifically for YouTube. “These town halls were set up by people who had degrees in stage management and lighting. They figured out that the theater in the round was the best setting, putting Christie at the center. He’d come out from behind this curtain, trash Democrats for 20 minutes then field questions for an hour-and-a- half. The whole time a social media team was filming and then cutting clips to post online and email to media entities before the reporters covering the event could even get back to the newsroom,” Katz says. “He essentially created his own news channel and these clips would get the attention of cable TV news producers and he’d end up on air as a guest. He was building that national persona.”
He also took some unpopular positions among conservatives, namely in standing by his nomination of a Muslim judge whom he appointed to New Jersey’s Superior Court of Passaic County. Repub- licans at the time voiced concerns that nominee Sohail Mohammed was a terrorist who would impost Sharia law. Christie vocalized his disagreement with his party members, calling them “crazies.”
People saw progress being made in Christie’s first term, too, which kept him in the headlines. He became known for striking deals across the aisle and working with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D). Sweeney did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Debra DiLorenzo, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey says she feels Christie did a lot to improve the business climate of New Jersey. “He instituted a series of business tax reductions and cuts phased in over his tenure,” she says. She specifically cites loss carry-forward relief for small business, “which will allow losses to be carried forward and used to offset gains in subsequent years,” and a “reduction of the S-Corporation minimum tax to put New Jersey on equal footing with neigh- boring states—all of whom had lower S-Corp minimum taxes than New Jersey.”
Christie notably set his sights on addressing New Jersey’s budget woes, which he declared a “state of emergency,” and he shook up the status quo in the process, proposing cuts to state subsidies, pension contribution and school aid.
It was in this realm of pension and health care contribution reform that Christie found one of his most prominent and long-lasting adversaries: the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s largest teacher’s union. Within the first two months of Christie’s term, the Senate passed bills that would curtail pensions for new public employees, including teachers. To the NJEA, it was a blatant slap in the face of a campaign promise made by Christie.
In a letter to the NJEA as a candidate, Christie told members he “will protect [their] pensions. Nothing about [their] pension is going to change when [he is] governor.”
Steven Baker, spokesperson for the NJEA, says Christie’s track record with the union has been full of lies. “One of the first things Christie did as a candidate was to lie to NJEA members about his intentions on pensions,” he says. “As soon as he got into office, he broke that promise and began a campaign of name calling and personal attacks that had nothing to do with education and every- thing to do with his insatiable political ambitions.”
His verbal spats with teachers during town halls are among the many YouTube clips that went viral and helped elevate him nationally. “Chris Christie was hostile and negative from the very beginning,” says Baker. “He never made any decision based on what was best for schools or students, but only on what served his political agenda and his national ambitions.”
It didn’t take long before people started speculating whether Christie would consider a bid for the White House in 2012. He had barely been governor for a year.
Sandy delivers a second term
Christie officially ruled out a 2012 presidential run in October 2011, saying he had a job to get done in Trenton. While this may have been the public statement, according to Katz, there was little confidence Christie could beat Obama. “His calculation was that Obama would win regardless and he would opt for an open race in 2016,” Katz says.
Christie did support his party’s nom- inee Mitt Romney, campaigning with him and criticizing Obama on the trail. Then, about a week before the general election, Hurricane Sandy’s assault on New Jersey delivered what is widely regarded as Christie’s shining moment as governor.
“He was pretty popular before [Sandy], but he was so much the voice, the picture of responding to that storm,” says Weingart. “He was a model of a public leader, being both comforting to victims and seemingly engaged in getting the government and nonprofits to help respond to the storm relief.”
It was Obama’s visit and Christie’s subsequent compliments about him that drew criticism from the GOP but accolades from the people of New Jersey. The images of Christie greeting Obama on the tarmac, shaking hands before touring the devastation, both politicians consoling residents who had just lost so much, became iconic.
“It was just days before the election and Christie was publicly complimentary of how helpful Obama was. It’s really almost like he was going out of his way to say how important his relationship with the president was at that time,” Katz says.
In an appearance on Fox and Friends on Oct. 30, 2012, Christie delivered one of his most memorable quotes. When asked if he would be inviting Romney to tour the area, Christie rattled off a list of priorities, citing the millions of people without power and the flood devastation, and looked right into the camera, saying, “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics at a time like this then you don’t know me.”
“In that moment he gave New Jersey [residents] the sense that he cared more about them and their health and safety than partisanship,” Katz says.
In the weeks and months following Sandy, Christie’s approval rating topped off in the 70th percentile. A year later, Christie easily won re-election, which included winning 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, an extraordinary feat for a Republican in 2013, according to Katz, and became a leading contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016.
Bridgegate and a tarnished brand
If Sandy was Christie’s highest point in office, the Bridgegate scandal is inarguably his lowest.
The lane closures of the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 were allegedly orchestrated by some of Christie’s closest associates, all to exact revenge on the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for reelection in 2013.
When Katz first asked Christie publicly (on Dec. 2, 2013) if he was somehow involved with the closures, Christie blew him off, jokingly saying he “worked the cones. ... I was actually the guy out there in overalls and a hat.”
Many of the details about Bridgegate came to light just as Christie threw his hat into the ring for the 2016 Republican nomination. The more information came to light, the more doubt it cast on Christie in a huge field of candidates. Katz says the Republican race could have played out differently had it not been for Bridgegate.
“I think potentially the world could be a different place,” he says. “Christie was the frontrunner until Bridgegate, and it’s possible [ Jeb] Bush and [Donald] Trump would not have gotten into the race. ... I wouldn’t go so far as to say he would have been president, but he would not have come in sixth place in New Hampshire.”
To this day Christie claims no involvement with the scandal (two of his associates were found guilty in trial—another associate had previously pleaded guilty). “Bridgegate was just such a bizarre thing,” says Weingart. “It was already assumed Christie would have an overwhelming victory in his 2013 re-election, so what was anybody thinking? It’s similar to Watergate. Nixon was headed to victory but it wasn’t enough, he still broke into Watergate. In this instance, whether [Christie] knew about it in advance, whoever made that decision ... it was bizarre.”
And it was enough to get the nation cur- ious about other aspects of Christie’s term.
“Both Sandy and Bridgegate are critically important,” says Weingart. “Christie would have been a leading contender for the nomination without Sandy. ... Without Bridgegate he would have had things to answer for, but Bridgegate was too big an albatross for him to get past.”
So began Christie’s plummet. “Bridgegate prompted a near national journalistic look at his administration, and other instances of cutthroat payback politics became evident,” says Katz. “The veneer of this ethical, tough guy, corruption-busting prosecutor came off because of Bridgegate and the other stories.”
Among the other issues was New Jersey’s lagging economic recovery. As surrounding states New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware saw unemployment rates go down, New Jersey’s had not budged. Under Christie, New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded nine times.
In addition, although Christie’s initial response to Sandy had been positive, the long-term recovery was problematic. “The hiring of contractors to do the work was politicized with those who had been indirectly or directly supportive of Christie getting contracts, and the entities that were hired did a terrible job,” says Katz. “He was not as attentive to the problems after he shifted his focus to running for president and he was not interested in hearing criticism or making adjustments to the recovery efforts.”
Criticism seems unavoidable however, especially as the field of candidates announce their intentions to become New Jersey’s next governor. Neither side of the aisle seems particularly willing to embrace Christie’s legacy. Despite repeated attempts during his term as governor, Christie has never responded to South Jersey Magazine interview requests.
“Christie’s tenure started with great promise but somewhere along the line it got distracted, my guess is by his political ambitions and he lost focus on New Jersey,” says Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), who is running for governor.
DiLorenzo believes Christie has a more positive legacy than others may believe. When he was first elected she served on his 10-person executive transition team. “I saw firsthand a governor- elect who wanted to make a difference and was interested in receiving input from as many stakeholders as possible,” she says. “His leadership style was different and refreshing. I think the governor will be remembered as a gutsy guy who fulfilled his campaign promises and shined a light on a number of subjects that hadn’t received attention and offered thoughtful solutions.”
Ciattarelli does highlight some of what he sees as Christie’s achievements: the 2 percent property tax cap, teacher tenure reform, public workers’ pension and health care reform. “But then we rested on our laurels. Here we are at the end of two terms with a number of crises still raging,” he says. “We still have a school funding crisis, property tax crisis, public employee benefits that are obscenely generous, and a tax code that holds back the New Jersey economy.”
Kevin Ehret, executive director of the Camden County Republican Committee, says Christie’s poor performance has had an impact on the party statewide. “Unfortunately, with his now-low approval ratings it will be difficult for [Republicans] to win races in purple areas, like Camden and Gloucester [counties], and it’s going to be hard for this gubernatorial race coming up,” Ehret says.
He wishes Christie had done more to strengthen the party while in office, too. “He could have done local outreach, been more involved with the Republican Party, especially in South Jersey, and sup- ported local candidates when we had races,” Ehret says.
Ciattarelli echoes these feelings. “We’ve lost seats in the legislature and the state Republican committee is in no shape to help county or local Republican organizations, which should be its primary role,” he says.
Aside from addressing the state’s biggest problems, the next governor will also have to do some damage control when it comes to New Jersey’s image both nationally and here at home. “Christie relished playing up to the very worst stereotypes people in other states have about New Jersey,” says Baker. “The show he put on won him a few fans early on, but his current approval rating is proof that New Jersey voters are fed up with his antics and have seen through his charade. ... The most important first step [for the next governor] will be to restore trust and respect.”
What the future holds
After his endorsement of now President Trump, Christie seemed a shoo-in for a role in his cabinet, but since being taken off of Trump’s transition team, Christie has returned to what seems like a full-time focus on New Jersey for his final months in office.
His current attention to the opioid epidemic presents a small chance for redemption. “Both sides agree that there is a heroin epidemic in our communities, but time will tell how successful it will be and if it can reverse the school of thought on Chris Christie,” says Ciattarelli.
Once his time as governor is over, one can only speculate where he’ll end up. “Most [governors] stay very active in civic life,” says Weingart, “whether they go into law or to a university. He could go into private law practice, and some people think there could be a role for him in sports [talk]. I doubt he will go into seclusion.”
Katz once thought Christie was the most interesting person in American politics to cover.
“He’s got a little bit of everything that a good politician has. He used to like to spar with the press and it made him compelling and interesting, but he has changed as a politician,” Katz says.
“He had an extraordinary approach to dealing with non-white communities, sticking up for Muslims, and he signed a bill that allowed undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition. Then in 2016 he backed a presidential candidate who proffered racist views on Muslims and Hispanics. ... [It] showed he has become something very different.”
Despite perhaps not being at the top of his political game, Christie will continue to captivate people. Weingart, whose career is centered on studying governors, says there’s one non-political aspect of Christie he finds fascinating. “The way Christie stays publicly a fan of Bruce Springsteen despite knowing their politics are different and despite Springsteen not endorsing him, I find it admirable and refreshing,” he says.
Perhaps there could be no more fit- ting anthem for Christie than Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Maybe someday Christie really will get to that place he really wants to go, but ‘til then ...
In His Own Words
Christie’s somewhat combative style has made for some memorable quotes
“Get the hell off the beach in Asbury Park and get out. You’re done. It’s 4:30, you’ve maximized your tan.”
(Aug. 26, 2011 before Hurricane Irene hit the coast)
“You know something may go down tonight, but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart.”
(Jan. 8, 2012 to a heckler at a Mitt Romney rally)
“Did I say on topic? Are you stupid?”
(July 2012 in response to a reporter’s question)
“Sit down and shut up.”
(Oct. 30, 2014 to a heckler during a post-Hurricane Sandy press conference)
“I don’t know what you expect me to do. You want me to go down there with a mop?”
(Jan. 25, 2016 while campaigning in New Hampshire in response to a question about winter storm cleanup at the Shore)
“The Phillies suck. Let’s just start with that. They’re from Philadelphia. They’re an awful team. They’re an angry, bitter fan base and it’s not safe for civilized people to go to Citizens Bank Park if you want to root for the other team. Ya gotta believe what? Ya gotta believe we’re awful people!”
(Feb. 2017 on SportsNet New York)
Editorial credit: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 12 (March, 2017).
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