KELLY: Swimming with the fishes
Governor Christie’s track record demonstrates politically retributive behavior
The spirit of Sandy was conspicuously absent from the New Jersey Statehouse as Governor Chris Christie made a somber trek to the podium to deliver his State of the State address on January 14th. Though the mood was edgy, Christie’s comments did little to lessen the tension. As with after his marathon press conference earlier that week, many people left the room with more questions than answers.
What’s clear from recent weeks, nevertheless, is that Christie’s problems aren’t going away. In fact, they may just be beginning. Quite simply, short of a plain admission, it may never be definitively known whether Christie was directly involved in the ordering of lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, or whether he similarly ordered the use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds as leverage to push through a pet development project in Hoboken. What is clear, though, is that the current evidence reflects poorly on Christie’s ability to pick aides who exercise good ethical values and suggests that there is a vindictive political atmosphere within his administration.
Even if we are to grant that Christie did not personally order his aides to orchestrate a closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, Christie’s statement that the act was not representative of his administration is dubious. Many officials in New Jersey politics have suggested that revenge-style politics has been Christie’s modus operandi from day one. For one such individual, State Senator John McKeon, the transition to a new administration in 2010 started peculiarly. After making what he thought was a relatively bland comment criticizing Christie on a radio program, he received a personal note from the Governor expressing his resentment.
Though Christie has continued to deny allegations that he has engaged in political retribution, the chain of incidents during his time in office has certainly left the impression that revenge politics is the norm in his administration. The episode involving McKeon seems rather trifling in the face of subsequent events. For example, in 2011, Christie publicly ridiculed former Governor Richard Codey, blaming him for obstructing the confirmation of two nominees. Though Codey publicly affirmed his desire to see the confirmations through, three days after Christie’s remarks Codey was stripped of security at public events and his cousin working for the Port Authority was fired. Codey has since said that he immediately suspected political retaliation.
Though various events strongly suggest Christie’s involvement in retribution schemes, it may be impossible to know exactly what occurs behind the scenes in Trenton. The Governor’s public appearances, however, reveal a tough-guy mentality in which petty political retribution can be viewed as acceptable. Before the nation came to know the caring governor of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, New Jerseyans had grown accustomed to a somewhat different image: a governor who made news by mocking reporters or berating public school teachers at town hall meetings.
Recent events indicate that officials in Christie’s administration have drawn lessons from their leader’s demeanor as to what is customary. It is one matter to be a straight and sometimes harsh talker (this is New Jersey after all), but it becomes an entirely different issue when the tough-guy characteristic of one’s public behavior begins to be reflected in private, petty schemes of political revenge. The combination of Christie’s public demeanor and his behind-the-scenes maneuvering has fostered an atmosphere in which political retribution is acceptable and, perhaps, expected. Even if Christie’s best defense — that he had no direct prior knowledge of the scheme itself — is true, these factors effectively amount to his active participation in the scandal.
Though Christie has chosen to respond with shock and embarrassment to this scandal, he has only himself to blame for the vitriolic climate within his office. His own pattern of behavior in recent years—marked by an evident proclivity for payback—has created a vindictive tone within his administration that links him inextricably to the scandal. For his aides to act without his knowledge, as he contends, would necessarily imply that they either acted in crass disregard of their boss’ expectations or, more likely, that they acted on their own with the assumed approbation of their superior.
Christie’s denial of direct involvement by no means excludes him from culpability. His behavior has cultivated a deplorable political climate, one dominated by intimidation and the fear of reprimand. His inability to respond to political differences with something other than fury has had a significant and tangible effect on the way that his office does business. New polling data seems to indicate that the public has taken the hint. A recent CBS poll has Christie’s favorability rating down 19 points since November—so much for the spirit of Sandy.
Conor Kelly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.