Power Couple

09.30.11

Christie’s Feisty First Lady

The blustery, bigger-than-life New Jersey governor rubs many women the wrong way. Michelle Cottle on how his wife—a cute, approachable, working mom—could soften his image in 2012.

Chris Christie is having quite the moment, with random citizens at public events begging him to run for president. The Republican establishment, such as it is, has thrown itself at his feet.

But you know how we know the GOP is getting really, really serious about pushing Christie into the race? The New York Post reports that former First Lady Barbara Bush recently placed an encouraging call to his wife Mary Pat to say: Don’t rule it out, dearie. Life in the White House isn’t as nightmarish as you think.

Everyone recognizes that these days, a key factor in a politician’s decision to mount a presidential bid is whether or not the missus is on board. After all, her life is just as likely as his to be ruined by a White House bid, and four years with a dangerously brassed off first lady is more than most men are prepared to handle.

In Christie’s case, however, the full and enthusiastic participation of his mate would be even more vital than for many candidates, because, well, the governor ain’t much of a ladies’ man, politically speaking.

In these angry, scary times, Christie has many obvious charms: He is big, brash, confrontational, and glaringly authentic—everything Barack Obama is not. At the same time, the governor doesn’t come across as a flake, a hatemonger, or a total nutjob. All things considered, who wouldn’t love a guy like that?

I’ll tell you who: Women.

“She does not get pushed around. She’s a tough Irish woman.”

Obviously I don’t mean all women. There are plenty of gals among the Republican masses pining for Christie. At a town hall earlier this year, one female admirer made news by declaring the governor “hot and sexy.”

Christie’s raw animal magnetism notwithstanding, however, the bulk of women voters in his home state don’t dig him--a gender gap that has only widened during his time in office. The most recent Quinnipiac poll found that, while Christie’s job approval-disapproval rating among New Jersey’s male electorate is an impressive 53 to 39 percent, women break the opposite way: 36 to 54 percent. Likewise, while a solid majority of men like Christie personally (58 to 25), women are much more lukewarm (41 to 40).

Part of the gap stems from the governor’s tough-guy politics—for instance, his rough treatment of the teachers’ unions. But much of it is his pugnacious personality, says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac poll. “He’s a real Jersey guy,” says Carroll, himself a Garden State native. “It’s a poke-you-in-the-nose kind of thing.”

This scrappy machismo may have turned Christie into a media sensation, but it’s unlikely to help him address his party’s enduring girl troubles. And while the Republican base may be looking for a growly, in-your-face man’s man, a general election win still requires wooing at least a few moderate and independent gals who might not be quite so charmed by Christie’s bluster.

Enter Mary Pat.

Strategically speaking, spouses can help round out a politician’s image in any number of ways. Tipper helped Al seem less stiff. Michelle helps Barack seem less exotic, more down to earth. Laura made George W. appear more lovable and moderate. Hillary, at crucial moments, assured us that Bill was more than a good-ol’-boy skirt chaser.

Mary Pat could conceivably help her man with women on a number of fronts.

For starters, she’s cute, but in a totally approachable way. She’s not blondly perfect like Mary Kaye Huntsman, terrifyingly glamorous like Cindy McCain, or a helmet-haired third wife like Callista Gingrich.

She’s got that devoted-mom thing down cold. With four kids, ages 8 to 18, Mary Pat Christie would be able to talk the mom-talk out on the trail, no problem. Not only would this make her a relatable regular gal, she could share charming stories about her hubby as a Little League dad. Question for the next grip-and-grin: Does the governor abuse the umps the way he does sassy reporters?

Better still, on top of wrangling four kids and executing her first-lady-of-Jersey duties, Mary Pat has her own career. A managing director in the bond department of financial-services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, she can sympathize with the work/home juggling act so many modern mothers grapple with. At this same time she technically works only part time, meaning she can also score points with more traditional voters for choosing a reduced schedule in order to be more available for her kids. From a political standpoint, it’s genius.

Then there’s the question of marital dynamics. With the governor’s larger-than-life personality, voters are going to want to know if he’s a blustering bully at home with some long-suffering, shrinking-violet of a wife.

So not the case, say those who know the couple. “She does not get pushed around. She’s a tough Irish woman. She comes from a family of 10 kids!” says New Jersey state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who has been pals with the governor for close to 20 years. With everything that goes on in that house, says Kyrillos, “she’s a co-equal branch of the enterprise.”

This includes Christie’s political career, though Mary Pat has opted to stay largely behind-the-scenes. “Off stage, she was as involved as anybody,” Kyrillos recalls of the gubernatorial campaign, which he chaired. “She was part of every meeting, part of every conference call, part of every briefing.” And she was ferocious when it came to fund-raising. “She makes a lot of calls,” praises Kyrillos. “She just goes out there and asks people for money.”

On the presidential trail, of course, Mary Pat would be expected to assume a higher profile: giving speeches, attending town halls, making on-air chit chat with everyone from Sean Hannity to Ellen DeGeneres. Along the way, she would need to field unpleasant inquiries about her family. For instance, does she feel at all guilty that her kids attend private parochial school even as her husband runs around slashing funds for public education? (Asked about this by a voter a couple of months back, the governor’s response was characteristically charming: “First off, it’s none of your business. I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school. Don’t bother me about where I send mine.”)

Also, Wall Street isn’t exactly beloved by the broader electorate these days. As such, Mary Pat’s day job as a bond trader, at which she pulled in more than half a million dollars in 2010 (not bad for a part-time gig), would rub some folks the wrong way and could produce some awkward moments on the trail.

Then again, a woman who has spent the past quarter-century dealing with Chris Christie’s bluster probably knows how to handle nosy voters and the occasional surly reporter. As Kyrillos warns me, “You don’t mess around with Mary Pat.”