A tall, deeply tanned older man walked briskly through the lobby of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington on a Thursday evening in late February. He flashed a narrow politician's smile, revealing a row of tiny, off-white teeth—and then he ran away from me.
Well, he ran away after I asked a question: Did he believe Chris Christie should be president?
Then, he fled.
New Jersey state Senator Joe Kyrillos should have seen it coming, that question, considering where he was: the location of a Christie speech, addressed to the state Chamber of Commerce. He should have seen it coming also because for more than two decades, Kyrillos had been, publicly, one of Christie’s closest friends.
But now Kyrillos has turned on Christie, pledging his support—in the form of a $10,000 donation—to Jeb Bush, Christie’s primary rival for the big-money establishment constituency. To add insult to injury, the news of Kyrillos’s betrayal comes as Christie finds himself with his lowest job approval rating ever—38 percent, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released Monday.
Is it really so hard to keep a friendship alive in politics?
Christie and Kyrillos met, Kyrillos told me during a 2013 interview, in 1992, and Kyrillos long considered him a “good, old friend."
Three years later, in 1995, Kyrillos presided over Christie’s swearing-in ceremony for his first political office, Morris County Freeholder. Kyrillos can be seen in photos of the event, standing across from a young, thin Christie—his right hand raised—as Christie’s wife and infant look on, smiling.
Without Kyrillos, Governor Christie might not exist: When Christie was nominated as the United States Attorney in 2002 by George W. Bush, it was Kyrillos, then chairman of the Republican State Committee, who helped ease concerns that the young appellate lawyer was too inexperienced to be the state’s top prosecutor.
Christie ran on his record as the U.S. Attorney during his 2009 gubernatorial race, of which Kyrillos served as chairman.
And without Christie, Kyrillos’s entire life could have turned out differently: The governor introduced Kyrillos to Susan, the woman who ultimately became his wife.
Despite their rich history, Kyrillos had good reason to avoid answering my question in the lobby of the hotel that evening.
A month before Christie’s speech, in January, the New Jersey press reported that Kyrillos met with Jeb Bush, Christie’s rival, in New York City on January 8.
Bush hosted Kyrillos, along with 14 other Garden State donors and operators, for dinner at the Union League Club in midtown. Bush went from table to table answering questions, according to The Record’s Charles Stile, in the hope that his guests would each commit themselves to raising $100,000 for his campaign.
It wasn’t immediately clear that Kyrillos had made up his mind about who to support. Besides his friendship with Christie, he said, he also had friendships with Bush, and with Mitt Romney who, at that point, had not yet decided against another bid for the White House. After the dinner, he told The Star-Ledger’s Matt Friedman, “I know and worked with these three over the years and it’s a very interesting time in some ways, and a good thing for the country to have talent step up.” He wouldn’t reveal which way he was leaning, instead promising, “I’ll have more to say, so stay tuned.”
Kyrillos didn’t get the opportunity to say it himself. On Monday, The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported that Kyrillos donated $10,000 to Bush’s political action committee, Right to Rise, in March. A Bush spokesman, Tim Miller, confirmed the donation—and Kyrillos’s support—to the publication.
A source close to Christie confirmed to me that Kyrillos did not warn the governor that he would not be supporting him in the Republican primary, or that he had made the donation. Kyrillos gave “no heads-up beforehand,” the source said.
Not that Christie was blindsided.
Kyrillos and Christie’s relationship had been deteriorating for years, beginning in 2012.
That year, Christie was as strong as he would ever be: pre-Bridgegate, he was a national superstar. Prominent Republicans were begging him to run for president—but he said no. Instead, he acted as a surrogate for Romney, and waved off suggestions that he might make a fine vice president.
Meanwhile, Kyrillos was trying to move up the political food chain. After 25 years in the legislature, he decided to challenge Senator Bob Menendez for his seat. Menendez, a longtime Christie foe, was formidable with his superhuman fundraising prowess—but a cloud of scandal hovered around him (culminating in his indictment last month). With a lot of luck—and even more help—Menendez was potentially beatable.
But the help never came.
While Christie aided Kyrillos in raising money for the campaign, he failed to contribute his invaluable star power, seldom publicly campaigning with his old friend. “If we were together every day, then what you guys would write is ‘Poor Kyrillos, he can’t run his own campaigns, so Christie’s got to prop him up,’” Christie told reporters at the time. “No matter what I do, you guys will be critical.”
Come Election Day, Kyrillos was handily defeated by Menendez.
The following year, in 2013, Christie failed his old friend again. When a Senate seat was vacated with the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg, Christie was tasked with temporarily filling it. Kyrillos' bid for Menendez's seat left little question that he was interested in heading down to Washington, and he was suggested as a viable choice by members of his party. But Christie picked someone else: Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, a different old friend from the U.S. Attorneys office. Kyrillos and those around him deny it now, but the rumor that he wanted that seat badly, and Christie publicly let him down – for a second time in two years – remains alive and well.
Since making headlines Monday with his support for Bush, Kyrillos has been running away from reporters again—this one included.
But a source close to Kyrillos stressed that there had not been “some kind of huge falling out” between him and Christie.
Bush, the source said, was also a longtime friend—albeit a long-distance one. Kyrillos worked for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's 1984 campaign, and first met Jeb in 1986, while he was chairman of the Dade County Republicans.
If stabbing his former friend in the back was Kyrillos’s way of expressing his own hurt, denial that any stabbing has taken place is Christie’s.
A spokeswoman for his PAC, Sam Smith, said in a statement: “Gov. Christie has had a long time personal friendship with Joe and Susan Kyrillos and there is nothing that will happen in politics that will ever change his respect and regard for either of them.”
Politics is just a hobby for him, after all.
This story has been updated to include reference to Frank Lautenberg's Senate seat.