It’s late Thursday morning and some 600 New Jersey legislators, lobbyists and “business leaders” are being knocked around a chartered, 13-car Amtrak train that’s traveling from Newark to Washington, D.C., for the 78th annual “Walk to Washington”—a bizarre networking event that ends at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, where Governor Chris Christie and several members of Congress will feign passion as they deliver platitudes about Building a Better Tomorrow and Creating Opportunity for the Garden State.
It’s called the Walk to Washington because the objective, I’ve been told—warned?—is to visit every car of the train, squeeze your way through the crowded sea of lawmakers, influencers and probably-criminals—all of whom are drinking heavily, and it’s not even noon yet—and build relationships for the duration of the nearly four-hour trip.
Tickets for this hell ride down the Northeast corridor are a steep $690 for those who are not members of the Chamber of Commerce, the trip’s sponsor, a fare that presumably goes to cover the cost of chartering the train—but don’t ask anyone in charge how much that actually is. “Not sure about that one,” Scott Goldstein, the Chamber’s spokesman, told me.
In the 12th car, I sit next to a table of union guys who are drinking beer and talking loudly. It’s 11:30. They express confusion as to why I, a reporter for a national publication, would be here. “You don’t look like you’re having fun,” one of them observes. When I explain that I’m aboard to write about Christie, they burst out laughing. “Yeah, how’s that going?”
New Jersey’s blustery overlord has had a rough 13 months. Once thought an obvious front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, he was sidelined last January by Bridgegate—the scandal involving unexplained lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that evidence suggested were plotted by top members of his administration as some sort of half-baked act of political vengeance.
In the succeeding 10 months, there have been times when it has seemed as though Christie might be back: success as the Republican Governors Association chairman, dancing on late-night TV and some well-received trips to Iowa. But generally, he has found it difficult to escape the cloud of suspicion that follows him as he remains under federal investigation for god knows what at this point. And not helping matters is the fact that as he prepares to announce his candidacy—which was supposed to happen at the end of January—he keeps hitting bumps: a disastrous trip to the United Kingdom wherein he misspoke about vaccinations, his state’s economy in shambles, the loss of critical donors to Jeb Bush and unflattering stories about his already well-known affinity for luxury on the government’s dime.
Christie has gone from would-be nominee to barely even ranking among the likes of Bush and Scott Walker. Perhaps worse than the hailstorm of bad press he was weathering this time last year is the virtual indifference he faces currently. And here on this train, people are trying to take him out for good, succeed to his throne, or too drunk to even remember his name.
A man has laid out on three seats a spread of Italian meats, cheeses and bread. He is balding, and holding a large knife, which is somewhat worrying on a swaying train. He slices prosciutto as I walk by. “Do you want something to eat?” he shouts.
“You have to smile,” a drunken man says as I try to get through the car. “Do you want a cookie?”
A familiar face reclines in one of the rare single seats in a suspiciously empty middle car, sipping tea from an Amtrak cup. It’s Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democrat and chairman of the transportation committee who was responsible for subpoenaing the documents related to Bridgegate. Since then, he’s spent every waking moment investigating Christie in his capacity as co-chair of the official Bridgegate Committee, but has turned up nothing of import.
And so Wisniewski has toyed with the idea of investigating Christie for anything and everything else that seems investigate-able, despite the fact that investigating the governor is not really the job of a legislator. Wisniewski introduces me to his wife as the reporter “who likes to write those interesting stories about me” (by which he means the time he broke his own law in front of me and I reported it).
A few cars away, there's barely any room to walk because Steve Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City and a possible candidate for governor, is holding court. Fulop is a young war and Wall Street veteran who once made a campaign commercial wherein he swam across the Hudson River in a wetsuit. He is not exactly like other New Jersey lawmakers, except for how he talks (“She’ll break your balls,” he says of me to a friend.) “I think if other legislators from other states could see [this train],” he says, his eyes wide and darting around the car, “they would think it’s very strange. Very strange.”
Reed Guiscora, an assemblyman who Christie once famously dubbed “numb nuts,” is swaying back and forth in another crowded car, holding a beer. We stand in the only place there is room: in front of, and partially inside of, a bathroom. Why is he here on this horrible train? First, he tells me, because it’s a great networking opportunity—he’s just arranged to speak at a school with someone he met on this train. Unconvinced, I press further. “I’m a sadomasochist,” he says.
Things are less existential at the Marriott, where a disengaged Christie is walking to the podium. He is thinner, but looks tired. His marsupial face sags around his pronounced nose, making him take on an almost Nixonian quality.
This is not a stump speech. Christie is not preaching to a conservative choir. He’s talking to a very drunk group of people whom he has, in fact, spent much of the last year not seeing, as he has attended to his duties for the RGA.
Christie is visibly uninterested. He starts off by talking about Opportunity, and claims that “In the last five years, unemployment is down from 10 percent to just over 6 percent,” which is not true—the unemployment rate hit a 30-year high of 9.9 percent in 2012, when Christie had been in office for two years already.
He leans on the lectern, as he does, and waves his hand in front of his fuchsia tie for emphasis. “New Jersey is hard, but it’s worth it.”