Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Auction at Christie’s?: The governor’s new woes

NEW JERSEY Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, to brace the Garden State for the snowstorm that’s just hammered the eastern seaboard. He might as well have declared one for his administration, which is in the early stages of a storm made of a completely different substance.

Until late Friday, the governor was facing one deeply problematic crisis, being under fire for his possible role in manufacturing a traffic crisis at the George Washington Bridge as a form of political retribution.

Since then, new reporting from MSNBC has led to a completely different headwind for Christie and his beleaguered administration. The mayor of Hoboken has accused the administration of linking the payout of Hurricane Sandy hazard recovery funds to the mayor’s approval of a development project that Christie supports.

The details of this theory were logically, brilliantly laid out by MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, on his “Up” program on Saturday. Kornacki’s an old reportorial hand at Jersey politics; for understanding what’s now at stake for Christie, the report deserves to be experienced for itself, in full.

Get a fresh cup of coffee first:

As you’d expect, Team Christie was effusive and full-throated in its response. At a no-questions press conference, Kim Guadagno, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor (and the one accused by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer of directly pressing for the development project) called Zimmer’s assertions “not only false but illogical.” Richard Constable, Christie's community affairs commissioner (who Zimmer said also conditioned Sandy relief on approving the sweetheart development deal), called Zimmer’s claims “patently false and absurd on their face.”

Zimmer isn’t backing down. On Sunday she released a statement: “This afternoon I met with the U.S. Attorney's office for several hours at their request and provided them with my journal and other documents. As they pursue this investigation, I will provide any requested information and testify under oath about the facts of what happened.”

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IT WASN’T supposed to go down this way. After his thundering re-election victory in November — a win that spanned the demographic layers common to American politics today — Christie was set for a glide path to the start of his second term. Everything was set to make the start of his second term look good optically, with him taking the oath of office on Tueday, and having a major celebration at Ellis Island, and an inauguration-night dinner at a Jersey City restaurant, and then a foreign trip intended to shore up his bona fides as a potential president.

Fast forward to now: He was sworn in on Tuesday at the fitting venue of the Trenton War Memorial, with as much pomp as possible, given the circumstances. That much came off without a hitch. But the foreign policy trip is now postponed  as Christie tries to navigate problems at home. The Ellis Island party and the Jersey City dinner were canceled, too. The weather had a lot to do with those two events being scrubbed; it’s gotta be hard to work up a passion for dinner with a governor under a cloud of scandal if you have to fight your way over eight inches of snow to do it.

Any way you look at it, though, Christie starts his second term with his presidential aspirations in serious jeopardy. A recent Pew poll shows Christie’s unfavorables — never much to write home about — have gotten worse in the past year, doubling (17 percent to 34 percent) since January 2013. And a new Quinnipiac poll on candidate preference for 2016 has Hillary Clinton up over Christie by eight points (46 to 38) — a complete reversal of the same polling last month, when it was a tossup (41 to 42).

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THAT POLL, based on assumptions about two people who haven’t even announced their campaigning intentions yet, may be easy for Christie to fuggedabout. Harder to ignore are the feelings of fellow Republicans, one of whom has called for Christie to resign his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

“Just from the perspective of setting aside this as an issue in other races, it makes sense for him to step aside in that role,” said Ken Cuccinelli, former Virginia Attorney General and failed gubernatorial candidate. “He does not serve the goals of that organization by staying as chairman,” Cuccinelli told CNN on Tuesday. “And that doesn't mean that any of the charges, political or otherwise are substantive or not. It doesn't matter. Perception is reality.”

James Cohen, a Fordham University law professor, told Daily Kos that the Hoboken case is a much bigger deal than the Bridgegate scandal. “Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls,” Cohen said. “But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.”

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FOR NOW (and unless something else blows up) the contours of this debacle are set: Within days of what was to have been a triumphal second-term launch, the Christie administration is under legal scrutiny to determine not just whether a public asset was used for political purposes (and who ordered it) but also to find out whether that administration was prepared to effectively auction its services, and its principles, as a rubber stamp for developers, available to be used by the highest bidder.

For Michael Isikoff, speaking Tuesday on MSNBC, this last one is “a potential game changer. This has now escalated from what yesterday was Christie’s people were trying to portray as ... a partisan investigation by Democrats in the Legislature ... [It’s] now in a whole new arena. It’s a federal criminal investigation; that dramatically escalates what’s going on here.”

Leave it to Howard Dean to drive the point home, from the perspective of a potential Republican donor weighing the likely return on investment in a Christie run for the White House. “I think Chris Christie’s presidential bid is dead,” he told MSNBC on Monday. “Because no matter how it turns out ... if you’re a donor, why would you buy this trouble?”

The Garden State is shoveling out from under serious snowfall. Manalapan reported getting 16 inches, and Piscataway got 10 on the ground. State government offices are closed today. With temperatures expected to hover in the single digits for days, winds will make it feel colder still.

And the governor’s personal weather mirrors that of the state he runs.

Image credits: Christie inauguration: AP via Yahoo News. Kornacki: MSNBC. Quinnipiac poll breakout: © 2014 Quinnipiac University.

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