He was the man of the year, winner of a landslide re-election victory, about to head up the Republican Governors Association, his name atop his party’s presidential hopefuls for 2016.
We’re not even half-way through January of 2014 yet, and his apology and contrition have been plastered over every newspaper front-page in the country.
Gov. Chris Christie’s outsized personality and bravado, along with his eagerness to take on and ridicule his foes, real and perceived, won him high marks among Republicans who might have otherwise suspected his ideological purity. He was real, he was genuine, he was a straight-talking no-nonsense politician in a world of phonies, something the GOP has not seen, some say, since Reagan.
That’s why questions of his involvement in what appears to be a petty incident of retribution have the potential of derailing not only his dreams for the White House but his political viability, if not his job.
The charge: that his aides — who happened to also be close friends — had punished the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for not endorsing Christie by maneuvering to close lanes that led to the George Washington Bridge, ultimately tying up traffic to Manhattan for three to four hours for four days back in September. The suggestion of retribution had been no more than speculation for months. Then came the uncovering of e-mails on Wednesday.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, sends this note to David Wildstein, a high school friend of the governor who worked at the Port Authority, which operates the bridge: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein responded: “Got it.” Suddenly, the streets of Fort Lee are overwhelmed with traffic, making the borough impossible to maneuver through. And when one person expressed concern that kids are getting stuck in buses and unable to get to school? “They are the children of Buono voters,” writes Wildstein in another e-mail, a reference to Christie’s Democratic opponent in 2013, Barbara Buono.
And in still another e-mail, Wildstein wrote to Christie’s campaign manager about Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian.” (Sokolich is of Croatian descent.)
Christie, who had long mocked the growing concern about what this was all about — yeah, right, I was the guy out there in overalls putting the cones on the lanes myself, he would swagger — finally realized that this had the potential to damage his political future. On Thursday, in a nearly two-hour press conference from Trenton, he said he was “blindsided” by the news of the e-mails, apologized to Sokolich and announced the firing of Kelly, whom he called “stupid” and “deceitful.” “I am heartbroken,” Christie said, “that someone I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the past five years betrayed that trust.” Christie added — or maybe he didn’t — that he was “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”
More investigations to come. The Democratic majority in the state legislature, after four years of being pushed around by the popular governor, was not going to let him off the hook.
What makes all this so damaging for Christie, whether or not evidence is revealed that shows his personal involvement — and none has, for the record — is that this fits in with his reputation for being a bully. After Christie said on Wednesday that he was “outraged” by what he found out “for the first time,” Michael Powell of the New York Times wasn’t buying it, calling it a “patented rhetorical move”: “Somebody crosses the governor, on a matter large or small, someone displeases him, and unfortunate stuff often happens.” Powell goes on to recite a litany of incidents whereby “things” would happen to people who didn’t go along with Christie. It’s not new. But this time it may cost him.
This is not your typical scandal. Nobody’s pockets were filled with cash, no spouse was betrayed. Whatever happened in Fort Lee seems petty and unnecessary. Christie was already on his way to a certain second term. But his path to higher office is, if nothing else, in question.
Departing. Three more House members announced their retirement this week. Democrats Carolyn McCarthy (N.Y.) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.), who were first elected in 1996, and Republican Jim Gerlach (Pa.), in since 2003, said they won’t seek re-election in 2014. McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son injured in a 1993 shooting attack on the Long Island Rail Road, announced in June that she was being treated for lung cancer. Her seat is not thought to be up for grabs, but the other two certainly are. McIntyre, a Blue Dog Democrat who voted against Obamacare, defeated David Rouzer (R) by 654 votes in 2012 — the nation’s closest House race that year — and was bracing for a rematch. This looks like a likely pickup for the GOP. But the decision by Gerlach to depart could give the Dems an opening. The district went slightly for Mitt Romney in 2012 and redistricting has made it slightly more Republican, but Democrats have long eyed it as a potential pickup. Gerlach had been urged by some in his party to take on Gov. Tom Corbett — he of poor polling numbers — in the May primary, but he said he won’t seek another office this year.
Other House members retiring:
Republicans — Spencer Bachus (Ala.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), John Campbell (Calif.), Howard Coble (N.C.), Tim Griffin (Ark.), Tom Latham (Iowa), Jon Runyan (N.J.), Frank Wolf (Va.).
Democrats — Jim Matheson (Utah).
House members running for other office: Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), Colleen Hanabusa (D-Haw.), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Michael Michaud (D-Me.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Steve Stockman (R-Texas).
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ON THE CALENDAR:
Jan. 14 — Special GOP primary in Florida’s 13th CD to fill the seat left vacant by the October death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R). General election: March 11.
Jan. 28 — State of the Union address.
Feb. 7 — Debt ceiling limit deadline.
March 4 — Texas primary.
March 18 — Illinois primary.
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This Day In Campaign History: Terry Sanford comes out of retirement to announce he will seek the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by North Carolina Republican John East. Sanford, who was elected governor for one term in 1960 and also sought his party’s presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976, will go on to win the seat in November (Jan. 11, 1986).
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