How Governor Christie Can Redeem Himself (a little)

Governor Christie has almost no chance at becoming President. I thought this long before his administration backed up the George Washington Bridge (David Simon wrote my favorite take on it here). The Bridge exposed what a number of politically astute and connected individuals already knew to the rest of America – he’s a vindictive bully who sees slights that sometimes aren’t there.

Mr. Christie seemed to be an early favorite as Mr. Romney’s running mate. They met several times in the years running up to the 2012 election. But Romney’s people were appalled at what they found when they looked closely. Here is an excerpt from the excellent Double Down, published in 2013:

He (Christie) was also a fundraising dynamo, but he and his staff were overbearing and hard to work with, demanding in ways that would have been unthinkable from any other surrogate. Months earlier, Christie had banned Romney from raising money in New Jersey until Christie had given the O.K. to do so—a move Romney found galling, like something out of The Sopranos. Are you kidding me, Mitt thought. He’s going to do that? There were plenty of New Jersey donors who’d given money to Mitt in 2008; now Christie was trying to impose a gag order on talking to them?  “He sounds like the biggest asshole in the world,” Stevens griped to his partner, Russ Shriefer. More recently, Trenton insisted on private jets, lavish spreads of food, space for a massive entourage. Romney ally Wayne Berman looked at the bubble around Christie and thought, He’s not the President of the United States, you know.

Chronically behind schedule, Christie made a habit of showing up late to Romney fundraising events. In May he was so tardy to a donor reception at the Grand Hyatt New York that Mitt wound up taking the stage to speak before Christie arrived. When the Jersey governor finally made his grand entrance, it was as if Mitt had been his warm-up act.

Punctuality mattered to Romney. Christie’s lateness bugged him. Mitt also cared about fitness and was prone to poke fun at those who didn’t. (“Oh, there’s your date for tonight,” he would say to male members of his traveling crew when they spied a chunky lady on the street.) Romney marveled at Christie’s girth, his difficulties in making his way down the narrow aisle of the campaign bus. Watching a video of Christie without his suit jacket on, Romney cackled to his aides, “Guys! Look at that!”

But Mitt was grateful for Christie’s endorsement and everything else he’d done. He appreciated Chris’ persona, his shtick, his forcefulness, his intuitive connection with voters. That night at the Grand Hyatt, at a high-dollar dinner after the main event, Christie’s argument for Mitt was more compelling than anything the nominee could manage.

The list of questions Myers and her team had for Christie was extensive and troubling. More than once, Myers reported back that Trenton’s response was, in effect, Why do we need to give you that piece of information? Myers told her team, We have to assume if they’re not answering, it’s because the answer is bad.

The vetters were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record. There was a 2010 Department of Justice inspector general’s investigation of Christie’s spending patterns in his job prior to the governorship, which criticized him for being “the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government [travel expense] rate without adequate justification” and for offering “insufficient, inaccurate, or no justification” for stays at swank hotels like the Four Seasons. There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official—and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing. There was a defamation lawsuit brought against Christie arising out of his successful 1994 run to oust an incumbent in a local Garden State race. Then there was Todd Christie, the Governor’s brother, who in 2008 agreed to a settlement of civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he acknowledged making “hundreds of trades in which customers had been systematically overcharged.” (Todd also oversaw a family foundation whose activities and purpose raised eyebrows among the vetters.) And all that was on top of a litany of glaring matters that sparked concern on Myers’ team: Christie’s other lobbying clients, his investments overseas, the YouTube clips that helped make him a star but might call into doubt his presidential temperament, and the status of his health.

The Republican establishment was scared of him before the GW. Some argue that no one likes him. His popularity crashed after the mess on the Bridge, and paper after paper started writing articles about the fear-mongering and scandals. Some people were on him even before the 2009 election, and some started coming up with an amazingly detailed list of his scandals by 2010. In the past 18 months, the Governor appointed an ally to the ethics commission (which is supposed to investigate elected and appointed officials engaging in malfeasance), got free Cowboy tickets, oversaw the 9th credit downgrade during his tenure, and gave a sweetheart deal to Exxon at the expense of the environment and NJ taxpayers. He’s spent almost half of 2015 out-of-state, making Barbara Buono’s 2013 campaign statement that “I’m the only one in this race running for Governor” very prescient.

It is obvious that Mr. Christie is hoping that he can use the GOP debates (if he makes the top-10 cut) to MacGyver his way up the charts. While there might be some interesting fireworks, it’s incredibly unlikely. As the previous paragraphs lay out, Mr. Christie’s chances at the GOP nomination were dead before arrival. I’m hoping that he doesn’t hang around a la 2012 Rick Santorum. I’m sure it would be entertaining, but he still has a job. He’s supposed to govern NJ through the end of 2017.

It’s no secret that the Governor has largely been a disappointment to me. His administration delayed the NJ Heroin and Other Opiate Task Force report for months, and then mostly ignored our recommendations. He has not supported the NJ Recovery High School with money nor words. When he does speak up in favor of an issue (college for prisoners – which reduces recidivism and saves money), he usually does not fund it with any money (big words, small deeds). Last October, he made a big announcement that he was allocating new money towards alcohol and drug prevention and treatment. It turned out that it was 12 million dollars, or .0037 of 1% of the state budget.

Despite all of this, I’m rooting for him to have a successful last two years as my Governor. I’m only going to address what he can do about mental health and addiction prevention, treatment and recovery support services (the budget, pensions, property taxes, economy, education, Hudson river crossings, Sandy and other issues I’ll beg off for now).

(1) Expand the drug courts and fund them.

(2) Develop and implement a prescription drug education program to be taught to students throughout NJ, starting at age 10

(3) Decriminalize marijuana.

(4) Mandate the prescription drug monitoring program (recently, he signed a bill that requires providers to check it every 3rd time, which is actually real progress).

(5) Consider early release of non-violent drug offenders who were given harsh sentences for possession of drugs (the Vera Institute of Justice estimates that it costs NJ between 50 and 60 thousand dollars to incarcerate someone here).

(6) Incentivize the creation of supportive housing for people with mental health and/or addiction disorders. Those houses need to be licensed or regulated though, as otherwise they’ll be full of abuse and neglect and will just add to the current problems.

(7) Speak out on behalf of the NJ Recovery High School in Union County. It bears Senator Ray Lesniak’s name (they hate each other), and by doing so it would show that the Governor can rise above petty feuds. It will also help get the word out about the school, which is suffering from low enrollment, despite the obvious need for it to exist.

Governor, you can play at being a candidate a little bit longer while summer lingers. But come the fall, we need you back in Trenton working on these issues. Winter is coming (it’s partly your fault, but that’s not really helpful) and you have a brief opportunity at doing some good in the guaranteed twilight of your political life.