The brash qualities that have made Chris Christie one of the fastest-rising stars in politics — and a putative Republican front-runner for the presidency in 2016 — are suddenly looming as the biggest threat to his future prospects.
Is he the pragmatic, bracingly forthright leader seen by his admirers, who include much of the GOP establishment? Or is Christie a petty, unprincipled bully, whose only agenda is his own aggrandizement, as his growing list of adversaries say?
“On the one hand, I think he’s got a lot to offer. I think he’s the most able politician since Bill Clinton,” said former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, a revered Republican who was one of Christie’s earliest political mentors, but who has since had a falling-out with him.
“On the other hand,” Kean said, “you look at these other qualities and ask, ‘Do you really want that in your president?’ “
As a legislative investigation proceeds into the circumstances around a massive traffic snarl on the George Washington Bridge last September – a nightmarish jam that documents show was engineered by those close to the governor in an apparent act of retaliation against a mayor – there is also going to be more scrutiny of Christie’s management style and personality.
Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a voice of the Republican establishment, suggested that as Christie’s national profile rises, he had “better get used to all of this attention.”
“The liberal media is chasing this story as if it’s the Lincoln assassination and writing baloney about him being a bully,” Barbour said. “I think his effusive personality and enthusiasm is and will be an asset, and as he continues to lead, people will look back at this and shrug.”
Indeed, the governor’s in-your-face, all-politics-is-personal style has been a big part of his appeal, and is one of the reasons he cruised to a second term in 2013.
“You always have a shadow side to your strengths,” says former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, another outsize personality. “One of the dangers he will face is how this will lead to a whole series of questions about whether there are other examples of bullying.”
There is no evidence that Christie knew anything about the actions of his subordinates and allies in shutting down access lanes to the bridge for several days in September. At a marathon news conference, he repeatedly insisted he had been blindsided and accused them of betrayal.
Lawmakers will continue their inquiries this week. On Saturday morning, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, a Democrat and speaker-elect, announced that the chamber will hold a special session Thursday to evaluate how to proceed with regard to subpoenas. “Many questions remain unanswered about this threat to public safety and abuse of power,” he said in a statement.
Kean – who has known Christie since the current governor was a teenager – faulted Christie for creating a culture among his tight inner circle in which no one “will ever say no to him, and that is dangerous.”
Questions remain as to why those around him would have taken such action, and whether Christie had fostered a management culture in which vindictiveness would have been deemed acceptable behavior.
New Jersey has a reputation as a state where politics is played rough, but in this case, the punishment was inflicted on tens of thousands of New Jersey commuters. The presumed political target, Democratic Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, was not even aware that Christie’s office was behind it; Christie himself said the mayor “was never on my radar screen… . I don’t even know this guy.”
All of which deepens the mystery, and heightens the stakes for Christie as more details come out. The governor’s performance at last Thursday’s news conference, where he took questions for nearly two hours, was widely praised, as was his quick dismissal of the aides involved. But the email exchanges by Christie associates that have been made public reveal that they acted with thuggish contempt for anyone who stood in their way.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Lee, said Christie “has created an atmosphere that enables people to do these kinds of things.”
“I’ve experienced it myself, most famously when he asked people to ‘take the bat out’ on me,” she added. In her office, Weinberg now displays two baseball bats – one with her name on it, one with Christie’s name on it.
Those who have worked – and clashed – with Christie in New Jersey describe an unusually aggressive leader, who relies on and trusts only a coterie of intimates. They say he rewards loyalty and metes out retribution for even minor slights.
In December, The New York Times reported that Christie had stripped former governor Richard Codey of police security at public events, after Codey failed to act quickly enough on two of the governor’s nominees. The newspaper also reported that Christie stripped funding for a Rutgers program after the professor in charge of it voted against the governor on a redistricting commission, and that a Republican state senator who criticized the governor was told not to show up at a Christie event in his own district.
“He has been a bully his entire life, and slowly but surely that is starting to become evident to everyone who is watching this from outside New Jersey,” Codey said in an interview.
Former governor Kean added: “If you come at him, he’s going to come back at you harder.”
His own relationship with Christie soured last year, when his onetime protege made an unsuccessful effort to unseat Kean’s son, Republican state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., as senate minority leader. The younger Kean had tangled with Christie over election strategy.
For the conservative Republican base, Christie became a hero shortly after his election in 2009, when he brawled with public education unions over the cost of pensions. His testy exchanges with outraged teachers at town hall meetings went viral on YouTube.
Most of the country got its first real look at Christie in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, as he toured the devastation with President Barack Obama and tongue-lashed fellow Republicans in Congress for holding up aid to his state.
His performance put him on the way to a landslide reelection in deeply Democratic New Jersey, where he has also won plaudits for his ability to work across party lines.
“As one of the early Democrats who backed him, I find him to be pragmatic in how he has governed,” says Brian Stack, a state senator and mayor of Union City. “There are things we agree on, such as when I joined him on pension reform, and there are things we disagree on, like gay marriage. But he has always realized that he’s in a blue state and has to work with the other side in order to get things done.”
Paradoxically, some of the conservatives who had criticzed Christie for working with Obama after the storm are now rallying behind him.
Rush Limbaugh, speaking on his Thursday radio program, criticized Republicans who have so far remained silent about Christie’s troubles. He disparaged them as “a bunch of wildebeests” who “scram and get out of there and offer no assistance whatsoever” to a fellow Republican who is coming under fire.
Soon after, party operatives weighed in.
In an interview last Friday with MSNBC, Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, praised Christie’s handling of the situation.
“Governor Christie took responsibility and showed what a leader does and I think that’s refreshing,” Spicer said.
Republican power brokers in early presidential primary states have watched the drama with curiosity and anxiety.
“People like a frank politician who isn’t afraid to speak what they believe to be the truth,” said A.J. Spiker, the chairman of the Iowa GOP. “But with that you run the risk of turning off some voters with a style that’s fit for New Jersey.”
Brett O’Donnell, a Republican strategist who has advised GOP presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney on communications, predicted that Christie will not sand the edges off his temperament in the days to come.
To do so, he suggested, would damage the authenticity that is so central to Christie’s political brand.
“If Governor Christie were anyone else, he’d have to change the way he does things,” O’Donnell said. “But because this is the defining part of his persona, he needs to stick with it.”
Christie’s next major public appearance will be his “state of the state” address to the legislature on Tuesday. One state Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says he hopes the speech will be unexciting and focused on Christie’s work to rebuild storm-battered coastal towns.