Friday, January 17, 2014

Stonewall bridge IV: State of the Governor

ALL THOSE attending these proceedings with interest in matters surrounding the Christie administration’s manipulation of the Fort Lee approach to the George Washington Bridge via Bruce Reynolds Boulevard and Martha Washington Way, advance and be recognized. Don’t everybody rush up at once. There are plenty of tables in plenty of rooms. And we’ve got plenty of time. Apparently, more than we thought.

According to the Bergen Record, the New Jersey State Assembly issued 20 subpoenas late Thursday to three organizations and 17 individuals, including Christie spokesmen Michael Drewniak and Colin Reed; communications director Maria Comella; the governor's incoming chief of staff, Regina Egea; Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s chief of staff and his pick for state Attorney General; David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, whose e-mailed Go code apparently set the scandal in motion last September, and who may be a linchpin in the widening investigation (Headline writers: Who’ll be first to write the head “Bridget Over [or Under] Troubled Water”? Your move.).

And even more important, or at least more provocatively, now the principals in scandal dubbed Bridgegate are serious about the legal end of this. The Christie administration announced Thursday it had secured legal counsel in Randy Mastro, former federal prosecutor and deputy New York mayor under Rudy Giuliani. This was about a day after Jim Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, lawyered up himself.

The stage is being set, not least of all by the governor himself, for a national story in the context of a local event. Few things are commonly recognized and reviled like traffic is; that’s something everyone can relate to. There’s a big-boss-vs.-little-people meme that’s shaping up in the public mind. For Christie & Co., there’s no influencing that. It’s the legal and political dimensions of Bridgegate that matter the most right now. How that pans out, or doesn’t, is what’s hanging in the balance for Gov. Chris Christie. It was with that sense of gravity that he spoke to New Jerseyans on Tuesday afternoon.

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YOU CAN bet on it: No other State of the State address in recent history ever got so much attention from the national media. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made his annual speech on the economic well-being of the Garden State, he was doing more than offering a perfunctory of his office.

With a huge and spreading traffic scandal as the backdrop (not so much the elephant in the room as it was the elephant as a room of its own) Christie’s speech was a local event with national implications, for no one more than the governor who delivered it.

Christie knew what was at stake. When he arrived at the State Assembly in Trenton and took the podium, he wore an expression of deflation, maybe even exhaustion, some of the wind taken out of his formidable sails. He began with an acknowledgement of the widening scandal over his administration’s misuse of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge — a scandal he couldn’t have avoided in the speech if he wanted to. “The last week has certainly tested this administration. Mistakes were clearly made,” he said, offering with those four words a gracious gift to headline writers across America.

“And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better. I’m the governor, and I’m ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch, both good and bad.”

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In his speech, Christie outlined the things that New Jerseyans had a lot to really feel good about. Unemployment in the state was at 7.8 percent, the lowest in five years.

The state experienced a gain of 70,000 jobs in 2013, and 156,000 jobs gained over the last four years (of a Christie administration).

Personal income for the state’s residents is “at an all-time high,” he said. With four straight years of private-sector job growth, business community confidence is up. And, he said, the state had achieved “with bipartisan support” important milestones, from the expected (balancing a budget) to the welcome (a 2 percent cap on property taxes).

Christie’s objectives for the next year are fairly consistent with conservative Republican doctrine, situationally applied in blue-state New Jersey: longer school days and school years for K-12 students, a demand for civil service reform and consolidation of services to effect savings; a call for an end to sick-leave-time abuse; and a call to prosecute pension fraud, and to institute bail reform, “to keep dangerous criminals off the streets and in jail until trial.”

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IT WAS A strong performance, the second in a short span of days. But the State of the State address, by definition, provides the macro view of the status of New Jersey. This year, by necessity, it’s given us a micro view of the state of the governor in the shakiest period of his tenure as the chief executive of the Garden State.

And the shakiness won’t stop for a while; the seismologists in the New Jersey Senate, the New Jersey State Assembly and The Justice Department have work to do.

So does Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.

In a Thursday statement, Rockefeller reported that his questions about the lane closures to managers of the Port Authority (which runs the George Washington Bridge), yielded “zero evidence that the purpose of these [lane] closures was to conduct a legitimate traffic study” — refuting the rationale provided by New Jersey and Port officials to explain why lanes of traffic leading to the most heavily-used commercial span in the world were closed for four straight days last year.

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These and other bloodhounds are moving to address what doesn’t add up, the questions unanswered because of questions that were never asked. “Christie never stopped to question key figures while the controversy simmered this month,” wrote Charles Still in the Bergen Record on Jan. 9. “He dismissed two trusted advisers without asking them for a full accounting.” It’s called “plausible deniability,” and if you remember that phrase, remember its origins in the American political culture: straight from the era of Richard Nixon.

A stretch? Maybe. Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the select committee on the bridge investigation, was especially forthright on Tuesday, talking to MSNBC, in saying that there were no limits in how high their investigation would go. “Yes, there is legitimacy in inviting and asking the governor or anyone else who has information important [to] this inquiry to come before the committee and testify under oath,” she told Rev. Al Sharpton.

Coleman, letting her inner Sam Ervin fly, gave Christie the benefit of the doubt, putting at least rhetorical distance between the governor and those apparent literal actors in the scandal. But she reinforced the ways that the Christie leadership style led to its own inescapable conclusions:

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AT THE end of the day,” Coleman said, “this trail seems to be leading to everyone who was close to him, everyone that is around him, and anyone ion the state of New Jersey ... knows the governor’s leadership model has been one of control. Our legislators don’t even get the chance to speak to administrative officials without their getting clearance from the governor.

“So while we do not assume and we do not presume, it is difficult to believe, there is no way under any circumstances that all of these people that he has trusted for so long did not given him some kind of a heads-up.

“This is a person who has been a strong, controlling leader whether he was a U.S. Attorney or the governor of the state of New Jersey ... it is inconceivable, it is very difficult to believe that there was no one giving him ... a warning, a cautionary, just so he would have some idea of what was going on.”

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And at the end of another day ... none of this may matter to his chances at the presidency anyway. Consider what Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post reported on Thursday:

“[T]he undertold story of [Bridgegate] is how Christie is being squeezed from the left (Democrats who loathe/fear him) and the right (conservatives who still blame him for President Obama's reelection victory in 2012). While Christie's rise to national prominence was fueled by tea party support, that energy was built on Christie's tone, not his policies. ...

‘ “Prior to this bridge stuff, Christie had about a 10 percent chance at the nomination,” said one GOP consultant aligned with another candidate eyeing the 2016 race. “No more than that. It’s just a fact. Primary voters do not like him. And I’m talking about much higher levels of ‘do not like’ than Mitt [Romney] ever faced.” ’

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CHRISTIE’S ONE advantage is the fact that, three years out, that offhand percentage doesn’t mean anything. More important, now and in the future, is how Christie refashions the public’s perception of his leadership.

Conservative analysts have characterized Christie’s current predicament as nothing more or less than an exercise in character building. “If he’s got any designs on staring down the Russians or the Iranians, what he’s going through now will serve him in good stead,” goes the thinking. Some apologists have suggested that Christie’s prospects for the White House will depend on how deftly he gets out of the current scandal.

But the qualities of being presidential aren’t solely based on the ability to extricate oneself from a crisis. Christie’s overarching dilemma will be solidifying (in New Jersey) and restoring (across the country, maybe) the public’s linkage of himself and what we associate with so-called Presidential Timber, real leadership — which has a lot to do with not getting into a self-manufactured crisis in the first place.

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Maybe that’s what prompted Charlie Cook, dean of political prognosticators, to write this on Monday in National Journal: “[M]ark me down in the category of folks who feel that Chris Christie was not the front-runner but that this scandal makes his likelihood of winning the nomination even less likely than before. However reprehensible the actions that his staff—or possibly he and his staff—may have taken, the damage is done, and sufficient punishment has already been inflicted.”

And maybe that’s what prompted Chris Christie to say three days later, on Thursday at a speech in Mannahawkin about the continuing Hurricane Sandy relief efforts: “I want to assure the people of New Jersey one thing. I was born here, I was raised here, I’m raising my family here, and this is where I intend to spend the rest of my life and whatever test they put in front of me, I will meet that test because I am doing it on your behalf.”

“The rest of my life” would seem to include the next four years, now, wouldn’t it? And the four years after that.

If a dream is a wish your heart makes, your heart’s desire could be found in a statement your speech makes. The state of New Jersey’s doing just fine, thank you. For that reason, the state of mind of the governor of New Jersey may lean more toward him remaining the governor than we thought.

Image credits: Christie and Coleman: MSNBC. Rockefeller: public domain. Jan. 9 Christie poll: New York Post. Christie sign: Brent LoGiurato/Business Insider.

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