Embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s troubles just keep coming, it seems. First he has been hauled over the coals for his staff’s stupid pet trick of blocking several lanes of traffic feeding onto the country’s busiest bridge to punish one local mayor for not supporting Christie. Now he has been accused of holding back emergency federal government funds intended to aid another city after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation. Will these end Christie’s higher political ambitions? And does New Jersey’s political turmoil have anything to say about South Africa’s democracy? By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
2014 must already be a year New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wants to forget, or maybe he just wants to hit control/alt/delete and then reboot – and he isn’t even out of the first month of the year. [See our earlier story on Christie.] As the new year broke, it became increasingly clear Christie’s aides had set out to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, apparently for not endorsing Christie in his 2013 re-election bid. Christie is a Republican, but a fair number of other Democratic mayors around the state had endorsed Christie’s electoral bid, this in a race where he had crushed his hapless Democratic Party opponent.
The aides decided – in what seems to have been a decision of stunning political ham-handedness – that the right punishment for Fort Lee’s mayor’s recalcitrance was to block traffic lanes feeding the country’s, and the world’s, single busiest bridge, the George Washington Bridge into New York City, creating some truly astonishing traffic jams and rising commuter fury. By the time this had been exposed, several of Christie’s closest political buds ended up out in the cold. Under pressure, Christie fired his deputy chief of state for instigating the lane closures and another close political bud, this one on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – and the man who actually ordered those lane closures – was out of a job – and in some growing and impressive legal troubles.
Even before any further problems had emerged, the fallout from the Fort Lee traffic move was already beginning to put a cloud over Christie’s increasingly visible ambitions to run for the presidency in 2016. But the petty tawdriness of this particular move had already begun to change the political narrative about Christie from that of being a tough, no-nonsense governor who could also be bigger than his party (witness that famous embrace of candidate Barack Obama in his race for the White House in 2012, right after Hurricane Sandy had struck the New Jersey coastline towns) and into a small-minded, petty, take-no-prisoners pol. This, in turn, has generated federal criminal investigations as well as investigations by the New Jersey state legislature. Not good, that.
But then Hurricane Sandy struck again – or rather, the governor’s political bad luck and apparently wild and crazy aides – when yet another scandal erupted. Dawn Zimmer, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, one of the small cities in New Jersey on the opposite side of the Hudson River from New York City, charged that Chris Christie’s administration had deliberately held back most of the federal money intended to help Hoboken recover from the hurricane.
Zimmer had said she was told “that Sandy relief funds hinged on her support for a real estate development project and that the directive was coming directly from Christie. “She said that to me – is that this is a direct message from the Governor,” Zimmer said, referring to Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who Zimmer said approached her in a parking lot in May to deliver the message. It’s “stunning” and “outrageous,” but true, the Hoboken mayor claimed. “I stand by my word.” (You have to love that New Jersey-esque corroborative detail of the parking lot conversation.)
The US Attorney’s office in New Jersey is now – already – looking into Zimmer’s accusations that she had applied for $130 million in aid but had only received $300,000 from the state government – with the rest held back – presumably for political reasons she stated on TV. The state legislature’s committee looking into ‘Bridgegate’ has not yet decided if it will add this new charge to its agenda, but it seems increasingly likely that is where things will go, adding to Christie’s growing reputation for playing vituperative political small-ball.
According to the Washington Post, the fallout from Sandy may get worse. “The Hoboken spending shortage isn’t the only Sandy-related Christie scandal being investigated. Federal auditors from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are also questioning some storm funding that was allocated, namely $25 million set aside for a post-Sandy tourism campaign. The nearly $5 million contract that won featured the Christies (however, the firm, MWW, did try to get Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi first). Frank Pallone, a Democratic representative from New Jersey, is leading this investigation. He told CNN, “This was money that could have directly been used for Sandy recovery. And, as you know, many of my constituents still haven’t gotten the money that is owed them to rebuild their homes or raise their homes or to help.”
Mayor Dawn Zimmer, herself, had become Hoboken’s mayor after her own predecessor had gone to jail on corruption charges (something of a New Jersey political tradition, it seems). After she became mayor she had made national news in the US, leading the charge to rebuild the city’s crumbling infrastructure – as well as pushing for a holdup on a gigantic Christie-favoured redevelopment project. After Sandy struck, Zimmer became a media favourite with the hordes of journalists who had descended on the New Jersey-New York City area, eager to file stories on the storm’s aftermath.
Zimmer has now met with federal prosecutors regarding her allegations and she has provided them with a number of diary entries and emails to back up her statements, although she has indicated she, herself, is not yet totally convinced there was an unassailable, direct connection between the disaster funding shortage and the slow-down on the development project. But the auguries are pointing towards Christie’s administration, given their interest in the development – and their evident pleasure in doling out political payback.
On Monday, the Christie administration struck back. Lt Governor Guadagno charged that Zimmer’s allegations were “particularly offensive” to her because, up until that moment, she believed the two female politicians were friends. Guadagno retorted, “The mayor asked me to help her find a company to fill it [the contested redevelopment project] and we did. Right now Pearson Education is on the waterfront — they created hundreds of job — so yes, I’m very surprised by the mayor’s allegations and I deny wholeheartedly those allegations. I thought we had a good relationship.” Nobody has yet said, “this isn’t personal, this is business” but things seem to be heading that way, don’t they? Of course, Chris Christie hasn’t said anything about this new charge yet, but given the way things have shaken out so far, people in New Jersey and beyond are starting to ask whether Governor Christie has a really weird penchant for picking particularly sharp-elbowed, gone rogue aides and political colleagues, or if he just sends out the kinds of vibes that lead the aides to go off on their own to deliver these unpleasant political messages.
While no one is yet talking about an indictment for Christie on any of these problems, nevertheless, Christie’s approval ratings have already dropped by almost 20 percentage points since his re-election last year, according to a poll released this week. Not surprisingly, Christie’s popularity among New Jersey voters who use the George Washington Bridge has dropped rather more – down by some 37 percent.
And now, the most recent Quinnipiac poll (a respected organisation with a good record for surveying political preferences for national elections), in a hypothetical match-up between Christie and Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, the former secretary of state has a significant lead, whereas the two had been essentially neck-and-neck before all this nonsense came crashing down around Christie. Now the writer can hear readers saying, “wait a minute, there is still two years to go until the election, there hasn’t been a single primary, let alone a party convention and nomination.” But in the presidential elections game, expectations can either solidify into reality – or these scandals could be left behind Christie as the voters essentially forget or forgive, as he comes roaring right back and picks off his Republican rivals one by one. For that matter, he might even decide not to run this time around, preferring to wait for a later presidential cycle and after he is washing clean by time.
Still, the Washington Post argues, “The Hoboken scandal, however, has the potential to be more than a political headache for Christie. A story published by the [Trenton, New Jersey] Star-Ledger today quoted a Fordham law professor saying, ‘Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls. But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.’ State senate president Steve Sweeney echoed this statement when interviewed by the Wall Street Journal this week: ‘These new revelations suggest a pattern of behaviour by the highest ranking members of this administration that is deeply offensive to the people of New Jersey. If true, they could be illegal.’ ”
And then, on Wednesday evening, Politico reported that things had now – and rather quickly – moved into a much more serious phase for the Christie administration – in legal and criminal terms and in the effect this would have on the public’s regard for his governorship. Politico reported, “The U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey has subpoenaed Gov. Chris Christie’s reelection campaign and the state Republican party for documents related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure controversy, an attorney for the two groups confirmed Thursday.?Both groups ‘intend to cooperate’ with the U.S. attorney and a separate state legislative panel that subpoenaed the Republican leader’s campaign earlier this month, said the attorney, Mark Sheridan.?NJ.com first reported the issuing of the federal subpoenas. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, Rebekah Carmichael, said in an email that the office ‘can neither confirm nor deny specific investigative actions.’ ”
Now this is the kind of thing – the long, agonising drip, drip, drip of tawdry political details – can keep party strategists up all night. Besides its potential for eroding away Christie’s chances of being a presidential candidate on his own, he is also the single most visible Republican governor in the country, especially in his capacity as chair of the Republican Governors Association (RGA).
Already one Republican politician, Ken Cuccinelli, the man who lost the Virginia governorship race in 2013, has said that Christie should step down – and his opinion could become repeated by others, if the investigations go on month after month – and if the resulting publicity makes it harder and harder for Republicans to raise money for the RGA and the other electoral campaigns they want to support. Ultimately, though, the investigations – unless a smoking gun links Christie directly to criminal behaviour emerges – could lead to the public asking, as The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote the other day, “What are we ready to believe about Christie now—and about the kind of President he might be?”
Beyond the US political environment, South Africans may be able to draw several lessons from this still-on-going saga for their own circumstances.
Many of us could, while reading about the New Jersey’s political underbelly, be struck about strong parallels that could be drawn with South African politics based on doling out patronage and routine mixing of public and private interests.
‘It’s all the same!’ one can exclaim. And yet, it is not.
Where SA politicians are literally getting away with it for ages, the force of strong democratic institutions and well developed media are clear for all to see in the case of Governor Christie and his merry men.
The way the federal government’s law enforcement mechanisms and, an admittedly partisan state legislature, can move decisively to digging into charges about political corruption in high places, regardless of who it might be who comes under the spotlight, shows the system that is designed to self-correct and ultimately serve the people.
Such investigations quickly begin to follow the tendrils of where political influence begins to intersect with money – and the machinations of aides and political fixers working on behalf of a leading political figure. Further, the rapidity with which such investigations begin is testament to concerns that allowing such things to fester is bad for a political system – especially one already mistrusted by so many voters and citizens who have concerns that the corruptions of political life are to be found almost everywhere. Finally, perhaps, is the way investigations draw on the cut-and-thrust of politicians in the media, and the fear politicians continue to have of the media’s impact on their careers.
Much of that is still missing from South African system.
Of course, reputations can be sullied or destroyed by an investigation, even if it turns out there was no tangible wrongdoing on their part. But maybe, in a universe where the prevailing popular wisdom about politicians echoes the folk adages, “Throw the rascals out” and “Politicians are like socks, they both should be changed regularly,” it would seem to be a good thing that the fear of investigations or worse will always hang over their heads.
One can only wish and hope SA’s democracy grows its fangs soon, too. DM
Photo: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives the tbumbs up as he takes the stage before being sworn in for his second term as governor in the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, New Jersey, January 21, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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