When Chris Christie bounded out on stage two months ago on the night where he stomped an unknown Democrat in his re-election bid, he pointed to his previous term as a national model for how Democrats and Republicans can bridge the partisan divide.
“Leadership is much less about talking than it is about listening, about bringing people around the table listening to each other, showing them respect, doing what needed to be done to be able to bring people together and to achieve what we needed to achieve to move our state forward,” he said then, and left little doubt about his attentions beyond the statehouse. “Now listen, I know that if we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, DC should tune in their TV’s right now to see how it’s done.”
That was Christie’s pitch as the 2016 chatter heated up: to Republicans, that his conquering of blue New Jersey meant that he was uniquely positioned to defeat Hillary Clinton at a time when the GOP continues to face demographic tailwinds; to the nation, that he would at last be the uniter, not the divider, that voters said they wanted when they chose Obama, Bush, and Clinton.
It is why the scandal now engulfing his administration is so all-consuming: it goes to the very heart of Christie’s rationale for his political life, and threatens to cast into darkness all of that bipartisan goodwill. How much of it, it is now fair to ask, was due simply to a system of threats and punishment?
And so when he arrived at the statehouse in Trenton today for his State of the State address, it turned a normally sedate, provincial affair into a global event, carried live on cable and with television trucks lining State Street hours before the event began.
“It is a little more exciting,” said Joe DiVincenzo, the Essex County Executive in the lobby of the statehouse, prior to speech. He had just finished a pair of television interviews, and seemed to be enjoying himself. “There is never a dull moment in New Jersey.”
Indeed there is not. If Christie is able to survive this scandal over the George Washington Bridge, he will be the first governor since Christie Todd Whitman, elected twenty years ago, to calmly make it through two terms. His predecessor, Jon Corzine, was dogged by a relationship he had with while still married with a top labor leader in the state. His predecessor, Jim McGreevey, resigned in a gay sex scandal.
“I still want to know who sat in their office and said, ‘I’ve got an idea. Let’s create a traffic jam.’”
But Christie is different, DiVincenzo insisted. “Listen, this is a guy who is getting mentioned around the country as the next president of the United States! They have to do what they have done over the last four years.”
As Christie approached the stage, amidst more muted cheers from lawmakers, he paused for a moment for an extended handshake with John Wisnewski, the assemblyman who will be leading the investigation into the bridge scandal.
In the end, the governor devoted just 74 words in a seven-page to the scandal, telling the assembled, right from the outset, that “The last week has certainly tested this administration. Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better. I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch—both good and bad. Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.”
From then, he moved away from what allies of the governor have insisted is just a distraction, and on to more usual state of the state matters: property taxes, pension reform, education, crime. It was not the pugnacious Christie, the one who yells at public school teachers in YouTube videos, but the softer, even maudlin governor, who delights audiences by telling of his final moments with his mother by her hospital bed. He teared up at one point on Tuesday, telling of a former employee of his who had turned his life around after a teenage addiction to drugs.
“If you need proof that reclaiming a life is possible, and that every life has precious value, then that proof is standing before you today.”
Democrats sounded hopeful that a weakened Christie would lead to actual bipartisanship, and less of a governor trying to steamroll the other side. “Hopefully there will be a little less discipline on their side,” said Loretta Weinberg, a 78-year-old, five-foot-nothing lawmaker who has emerged as one of Christie’s most ferocious critics. “You know the old saying, ‘I don’t belong to any organized party—I am a Democrat’? Hopefully we will see some of that on their side.”
The Christie way of bipartisanship, no matter how much he extolls it in speeches, included “calling my colleagues, running the gamut from ‘idiot’ to ‘numbnuts’ to ‘you are a liar,’” Weinberg said. “I could attach a legislative name to each of those—‘Senator Numbnuts.’ Do you call that bipartisanship?”
“I still want to know who sat in their office and said, ‘I’ve got an idea. Let’s create a traffic jam.’ That is one of the most bizarre thing I have seen in all of my years in politics and government.”
At a press conference after the speech, New Jersey Democrats stuck to Christie’s script, and steered questions away from the bridge and towards the budget. “We know everybody is fascinated by Bridgegate. The reality is we would all like to go to the last chapter of the book and read what the conclusion is,” said Assembly Majority Leader Louis D Greenwald. “Today the governor gave a state of the state speech. The business of the state has to go forward.”
And with a sigh, the assembled press slowly started to trickle out, back to the television trucks lining up on State Street.