By most accounts, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie passed the leadership challenge posed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
But the political storm created by the George Washington Bridge scandal is testing him in different ways, fueled by a combination of factors that make it difficult even for a politician as manifestly self-assured as Christie.
Christie will have a promising opportunity Tuesday to move beyond the mess caused by the politically inspired closing of toll lanes on the nation’s busiest bridge in his State of the State speech.
Still, that’s just a start. There are four remaining elements of the scandal that Christie will have to withstand to keep his presidential aspirations from eroding completely.
Investigations — The New Jersey Assembly announced Monday that when it starts its new session, it will also have a new special investigatory committee to probe the circumstances surrounding the lane closings. With the new committee will come new subpoenas, including one to former Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, whom the governor fired for lying to him and who wrote the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee” email. The parade of former and current aides will, at the very least, be a distraction — and at worst could prove lethal to Christie’s 2016 chances depending on what they say. Eventually, Christie could be subpoenaed as well.
That probe is only one of several underway. The federal Housing and Urban Development Department has also launched an investigation into a post-Sandy tourism spot featuring Christie and his family. Democrats say the winning bidder charged the state $2.2 million more than a competing bidder proposed, and that the ad was aimed more at boosting Christie before the 2013 election than at boosting the state of New Jersey.
Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey is also investigating the lane closures. With their ability to threaten federal prison stints to anyone who lies to them during an investigation, FBI agents and federal prosecutors are likely to concentrate the minds of present and former members of Team Christie.
Red governor, blue state — Part of Christie’s national political strength has been his crossover appeal as a Republican governor in a Democratic-majority state. Now, he gets to experience the downside. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has little political incentive to give Christie the benefit of the doubt. Also, keeping him on the political and legal defensive could help lawmakers shift more power from a strong governor to the legislative branch.
Partisans are also more sensitive to abuses of power when it’s the other party doing the abusing. It’s unlikely, for instance, that a Republican lawmaker would have raised the prospect of impeachment, like the Democrat leading the state probe did Sunday.
New Jersey as media-market barbell — It’s unfair to reduce New Jersey to two large media markets on either end of the state, connected by a turnpike. But New York and Philadelphia are the No. 1 and No. 4 media markets in size, in that order — and Bridgegate will be fodder for every major news outlet in those two big markets, not to mention the national media. That means there will be plenty of journalists working to turn up additional instances of real or alleged political payback, and unremitting coverage. It’s just Christie’s luck that for two of the nation’s most important newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and for the television networks, this story is unfolding in their backyard.
We’re all New Jerseyans now — As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie’s duties include traveling the nation to help raise money for sitting GOP governors and candidates. He is scheduled to travel to Florida later in the week to help Gov. Rick Scott raise money for his re-election, for instance.
As Christie pitches the conservative credentials and achievements of other Republican governors, however, Bridgegate will travel with him. Even if he doesn’t answer journalists’ questions about the scandal, it’s likely to lead every local news story that reports on his visits on behalf of the RGA.