Contrary to what former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and others have suggested, Governor Chris Christie should not step down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA).
So long as he was not complicit in the decision to close off part of the George Washington Bridge this past September, Christie can emerge as an even stronger presidential contender in 2016. But it does mean the New Jersey governor will need to re-launch his second term, by shifting to the right, challenging both political parties and transcending a hostile news media. He’s done it before and he’s done it with considerable success. Conservative critics of Christie’s inaugural address such Rush Limbaugh understandably expressed concern about emphasis he placed on bipartisanship. Unfortunately, they overlooked that part about Christie’s willingness to confront “entrenched interests” with access to an “endless stream of money” who have “stood in the way of fiscal sanity” and “educational excellence.”
Bipartisanship, as it is defined by the media, occurs when Republicans compromise the farm away to the Democrats. That’s not how Christie became a national figure. In his first term, Christie forced through pension and health care reforms over the intense opposition of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), but with the support of average taxpayers who are no longer willing to fund lavish public sector benefits. Christie moved policy by reframing political debates around harsh financial realities that put the N.J. teachers’ unions and their allies in government on the defensive. He did not secure concessions from his state legislature by genuflecting before the altar of bipartisanship. That is a false narrative.
Christie also withdrew from the “cap and trade” legislation signed into law by his predecessor with the backing of well-funded environmental pressure groups. In a press conference, Christie correctly explained that the emissions restrictions would have harmed an already fragile economy without any appreciable benefit to the climate. But above all else, Christie refused to reappoint an activist judge on the N.J. Supreme Court back in May 2010. This was the first time in 63 years that a judge seeking tenure was denied. Under the N.J. Constitution ratified in 1947, all lower-court judges and Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor. After a period of seven years, they are then eligible to be reappointed by the governor with tenure until mandatory retirement at 70. Nothing will change in N.J. until its activist court is put back into a constitutional box. By challenging the power and authority of unelected judges, Christie has done more to restore self-government than any other chief executive the state has had in recent memory. That’s the Christie who deserved re-election.
But he has fallen short in other areas that have come to light thanks to the heavy lifting of investigative journalists like Mark Lagerkvist, a reporter with N.J. Watchdog, who has carefully documented the many instances of “double-dipping” within the state pension fund. Double-dipping occurs when government employees retire from one position but then find a way to return to public jobs and draw salaries and retirement pay from both jobs. That’s a pricey arrangement, which costs N.J. taxpayers millions of dollars. Some of the worst examples can be found here at N.J. Watchdog. Christie could regain his footing by asking lawmakers to target “double-dipping” practices that further burden N.J.’s beleaguered taxpayers.
During his Jan. 9th press conference, Christie told reporters that the emails the Bergen Record obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed that his staff had not been truthful when he asked them about allegations concerning the bridge lane closures. He identified Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, Bill Stepien, his campaign manager and David Wildstein, a political appointee to the Port Authority, as the primary culprits. The emails revealed “for the first time,” Christie said, that the individuals who had been questioned about the lane closures had lied. He fired Kelly and asked Stepien to withdraw his name from consideration as chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party. Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December when the scandal first began to break. N.J. lawmakers voted to hold Wildstein in contempt last week after he pleaded the fifth against self-incrimination during an appearance before a state assembly panel.
There will be more investigations, more subpoenas and more headlines. Even so, Ben Dworkin, a professor of political science at Rider University, believes there is ample time for Christie to recover politically.
“Christie is a very smart politician with tremendous public speaking skills, Dworkin said. “What he did at the press conference could not have been done by just anyone. The bridge episode is not at all lethal to him in 2016. There’s plenty of time for him to get beyond this. You also have to remember that the New Jersey governor is one of the most constitutionally powerful governorships in the entire country. Nothing will get done without Christie.”
So what now?
After cleaning house at the Port Authority, the opportunity here is for Christie to call for more openness and transparency across the board. For starters, the governor can become more responsive to the records requests from N.J. Watchdog since he has already acknowledged the utility of the FOIA process in uncovering government perfidy.
Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, puts it very well:
“The recent scandal involving Gov. Christie’s staffers and the George Washington Bridge once again highlights the need for aggressive investigative reporting, in New Jersey and across the nation. Regardless of who is ultimately responsible, abuses of power should be exposed. Independent of the recent scandal, New Jersey is rife with waste, fraud, and abuse — most notably in the state employees’ pension system. The hard work of investigative reporters is shining the light on this abuse, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
That’s for sure. But the governor has taken some important steps that were unthinkable just a few years ago in a state where the NJEA has been calling the political shots for years. Under Christie’s leadership, the state legislature approved changes that require state employees to contribute more for their taxpayer funded benefits. The opportunity here is for Christie to accelerate the process he started by challenging double-dippers, even if it means offending his own constituents in the law enforcement community.
The entities most responsible for growing the size of government in New Jersey and across the country are public employee unions. Republican governors who elevate taxpayer interests above the demands of union bosses in recessionary periods have a tendency to become presidential timber.