Something Stinks

11.01.14 10:55 AM ET

Will Chris Christie Bow to Iowa’s Pork Kings?

Even McDonalds has stopped housing its pigs in tiny cages. So why did Chris Christie veto a bill to ban the practice? Iowa’s politically connected pork barons might know.

At the height of his national and home-state popularity, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to be making legislative decisions with another state in mind—the presidential primary state of Iowa. In what was seen as a nod to the pork-producing powerhouse, he even vetoed a universally-popular measure to keep mother pigs out of tiny cages—a practice so inhumane, not even McDonalds can be talked into doing it. In the last year, scandal has weakened Christie’s political muscle, meaning he will have to try a lot harder to convince power players that he is a credible choice for the Republican nomination. That has certain New Jersey lawmakers and advocates trying to pass a new version of the animal cruelty legislation slightly worried. If Christie was willing to sell out to the pork kings when he was on top, what will he do now that he’s struggling?

In 2013, a measure to make illegal an inhumane farming practice made its way to Christie’s desk. S.1921 would have banned gestation crates—small, metal cages which are used to contain breeding sows during industrial pork production. There was no reason to assume Christie would veto it. For one thing, the cages—so small that the animals can barely move at all or lie down—were not even thought to be used much among the 250 pig farmers in the state, meaning the ban would be more of a symbolic gesture than one that would really impact farming methods. But more than that, the bill had passed almost unanimously in both chambers of the legislature and was supported by 91 percent of voters, making it perhaps the most popular idea to be floated in the Garden State since Bruce Springsteen had been inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame several years earlier.

When Christie vetoed the bill, he claimed that it was because two obscure national veterinarian groups had not endorsed it (although a coalition of 100 others had) and that the Department of Agriculture wasn’t involved enough. But many assumed that it had more to do with his dreams of the White House, for which he would need the support of voters and donors in Iowa—a pork manufacturing wonderland—to obtain.

“Why wouldn’t he [Christie] ban them, except for the fact that the first Republican presidential caucus is in Iowa?” S.1921’s sponsor, Senator Ray Lesniak, told me at the time. “He has no values. His only value is himself.” He repeated it again, slowly: “He has no valuesHe has no moral compass whatsoever.”

A year later, Lesniak is back with another bill to ban the crates—S.998—and the Humane Society has moved into a riverside rental home in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where they will remain until Christie takes action on the legislation.

On a cool October morning, I found myself on their porch, being locked inside of a metal crate by Matthew Dominguez, their public policy manager of farm and animal protection. “I’d like to put Governor Christie in here,” he laughed knowingly as the lock snapped shut.

Dominguez is too polite to say it, but at 82 inches tall, 26 inches wide, and 11.5 inches in depth, it would probably be a challenge to secure the metal bars and chains around Christie. Not that being in there is any fun. “Try to turn around,” Dominguez said. I couldn’t. I could barely move at all without a nervous, claustrophobic feeling taking hold—which is exactly the point.

On the front steps of the State House on October 27th, the group dragged the crate out and challenged passersby to stand in it for four minutes. “When you have a governor whose constituents feel he’s abandoned them, it’s important for him to sign this bill to show that he absolutely has the interests of his constituents at heart,” Dominguez said.

Per Christie’s complaint, the new bill defers to the Department of Agriculture, and simply asks that breeding sows be able to move in their crates—not that they should be able to roam freely through fields. “For us, there should be no reason for him to veto [the new bill], if he was being honest with his reason for vetoing it last year,” Dominguez said, with an eyebrow raised. “The one out that he has is that he said he had a concern, and we’ve addressed it. He has no reason to veto this bill.”

“When you have a governor that’s been out of the state for so long, and people are starting to question whether he’s representing the interests of New Jersey, this is a test. It’s a question of: is he going to put his constituents before himself?”

In 2011, Christie hosted a private dinner for a group of seven Iowa campaign donors, dubbed “the Iowa heavy hitters” by the Des Moines Register, at Drumthwacket—the governors mansion—where they tried to sweet talk him, reportedly over ribeye and sweet corn, into running for president. The group included insurance executives and brokers, real estate developers, and former Hawkeye State legislators. But the most vocal member was pork and ethanol baron Bruce Rastetter, who had first laid eyes on Christie a year earlier, at a fundraiser for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.

“There isn’t anyone like Chris Christie on the national scene for Republicans,” Rastetter told the press, praising Christie’s “blunt, direct leadership style.” Rastetter followed Christie’s lead with his own statements: “We believe that he, or someone like him running for president is very important at this critical time…He clearly understands smaller government…certainly, all the things I and those accompanying me care about.”

What Rastetter really seems to care about is pork and politics.

In 1994, Rastetter founded Heartland Pork enterprises, ultimately becoming the second largest pork producer in Iowa. By the time he moved on from his empire of tens of thousands of pigs in order to conquer ethanol, independent farmers had been largely pushed out of the market by big companies that employed industrialized techniques. The business of pig farming had been made-over.

Rastetter seemed less skilled in the ethanol business than he had been in big pork, and when his company folded, his bankrupt plants were purchased by a curious entity: Flint Hills, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. Koch Industries is second largest private company in the U.S., and it is run by conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, who have reached almost cartoon villain-like status among liberals due to the influence they have had on politics since they began reaching their tentacles into the process in the 1980s. In 2012 alone, groups associated with the Koch Brothers were responsible for nearly $100 million in anonymous donations to defeat Barack Obama.

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Like the Koch Brothers, it seemed Rastetter wanted to be a GOP kingmaker.

He provided money to launch the American Future Fund, a group which spent close to $25,000,000 on political advertisements just from 2011 to 2012—the vast majority of which went to support Mitt Romney or bash Barack Obama. More millions were spent trying to knock out Democratic candidates in four states, and to oppose gay marriage in California. American Future Fund is linked to Freedom Partners, a GOP money trough which has raised over hundreds of millions since 2011 and spent just as much donating to the Koch Brothers’ group Americans for Prosperity.

Good American Future Fund-associated politicians are on the side of industrialized farming. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, for instance, who served on the group’s board, is loathed among animal rights’ activists for his so-called “ag gag” bills —— which prevent whistleblowers from going undercover to expose animal cruelty.

Since he vetoed last year’s bill, Christie has been back to Iowa several times, including in late October.

Meanwhile, Martha Stewart, Danny DeVito, Bob Barker, Edie Falco and Bill Maher have begged Christie to sign a gestation crate ban into law. Since last year, public approval for the ban has shot up from an already astronomical 91 percent to 93 percent. But this is not just a bleeding heart issue. A crate ban makes sense pragmatically, too: the confinement creates stress for the sows, which leads to a poorer quality pork product. And a leading cause of death for breeding sows is urinary tract infections, which miraculously become a non-issue once gestation crates are out of the picture. Because of this, companies from Smithfield Foods to Burger King and McDonald’s have stopped using the crates.

But Big Pork is not interested in any of that. The Des Moines-based National Pork Producers Council has lobbied Christie not to get rid of gestation crates, calling 2013’s bill “a solution in search of a problem…and we hope Gov. Christie won’t go along with it.” They have attempted to conflate gestation crates with farrowing crates, a type of crate used to protect baby piglets from being crushed by their mothers, and they have falsely claimed that sows become ill when not crated because they eat their own feces.

Lesniak is not particularly hopeful that Christie will sign the current bill, despite having made the changes he asked for, but is instead planning to take action post-eventual-veto: “i think this time around he better think twice, because I’m certain I have enough votes to override his veto,” he told me.

While polls show that barely any of likely Iowa voters (just 2 percent) would view Christie unfavorably if he banned the gestation crates, Lesniak is seems sure that Christie has other Hawkeye locals on his mind. “His donors care about it, and the more conservative segment of Iowans do as well,” Lesniak told me. “He’s putting their interests ahead of the will of the people of the state of New Jersey, and also ahead of common decency. It’s all about that—plain and simple, because no politician ever turns his back on an issue that has 90 percent approval rating, unless he has other political reasons that outweigh that.”

Lesniak added, “The only other political reason is large donations coming from a state where the pork council has its headquarters.”

Christie’s office has not responded to any of my requests for comment about this issue in roughly 13 months.