by Jason Fagone | November 26, 2010 6:00 am
It’s a Friday night in mid-October, 18 days before the midterm elections, and Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is out on the stump, expertly inhabiting what has now got to be the most famous body in American politics: the big arms and legs, the umpire shoulders, the triangular face welded to a bulging neck, the hooded eyes and double chin, the pinkish lips on a potholed turnpike of skin. Below the belt, he seems carved from one seamless rectangle of dark cloth.
“Well,” Christie says, “I came up here to Connecticut tonight, not because I’m lost, okay? … Because I want to show all of you a living, breathing example of what is gonna happen on November 2nd.”
I followed Christie here, to this high-school gymnasium in Stamford, Connecticut, on the promise of an only-in-America sort of spectacle — Linda McMahon, the multi-millionaire ex-CEO of WWE wrestling and a candidate for U.S. Senate, appearing with the man they’re calling the “Trenton Thunder” and “Governor Wrecking Ball.” But McMahon disappoints; in her purple suit and peroxide hair, she’s too icily poised. Rather, it’s Christie who fills the room with a version of the crackling energy that has made him a viral-video sensation. On YouTube, you can see him shout down a heckler who confronted GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in California, or telling a reporter who accused him of being “confrontational” that if the reporter thought the Governor was confrontational now, “You should really see me when I’m pissed.” Before Christie arrived tonight, I mingled with the crowd, and many had seen his videos. “He should be president,” said Kathy Bertasso, a retired teacher. “He’s putting his foot down. He’s not letting anybody get away with anything.” I got back in my press seat and noticed the woman in front of me reading The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Her name was Tricia Galloway; she said she’d heard about Christie from right-wing talk radio. (Glenn Beck: “Chris Christie, I’ve been watching you from across the river … you may be George Washington. … [whispering] Help us.”) Because Galloway described herself as a social conservative, I asked her if Christie’s moderate social stances give her pause. No, she said; right now, fighting debt and spending is the most important thing: “If we don’t solve that one problem, we’re done.”
In America, we’re experiencing one of these weightless moments that come along every so often: Liquid crawls up walls, the center does not hold, the skinny black guy with the chilled-out demeanor is the one who’s full of rage, and the passionate fat guy from Jersey is the new face of sobriety. “I don’t think President Obama does angry well,” Christie recently told NBC Nightly News, and it was hard not to read between the lines: Guy, relax, leave this to me. Christie does angry well, and in this sour environment, he’s thriving. Ten months into his gubernatorial administration, his approval rating is 51 percent. Obama’s is 45 percent. Democrats can’t seem to touch Christie, despite crude attempts to brand him as a “bully” (the New Jersey teachers union) and a “coldhearted fat slob” (MSNBC host Ed Schultz). And, perhaps most remarkably, Christie has threaded the needle of the civil war transforming his own GOP.
Some of his positions seem pretty moderate. Unlike Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers, Christie doesn’t talk about border fences or the constitutionality of the Commerce Clause. He’s Catholic but rarely mentions it. (“To him, I’d guess [faith] has nothing to do with politics,” says Tom Wilson, a Republican lobbyist and Christie campaign adviser. “It’s an irrelevant topic.”) He’s an ex-prosecutor who supports gun control and once donated to Planned Parenthood (although he’s now pro-life). He said it was wrong for Republicans to “demagogue” on immigration reform or make a “political football” out of the mosque at Ground Zero, and he worked with the Obama administration to set up a $141 million insurance pool under the health-care reform law.
At the same time, Christie has swaggered into a number of fights. He wants to annex the casino district of Atlantic City, and he made a surprise visit to the headquarters of the Delaware River Port Authority to embarrass DRPA leaders into making ethical reforms. Pretty much every day before breakfast, Christie rips the state’s Democrat-aligned teachers union, the NJEA, as “fat and entitled and sanctimonious and self-serving.” And in June, he coerced a Democratic legislature into passing a drastic budget: Christie cut $820 million for public schools, $445 million in aid to municipalities, $33 million for transit, $173 million for higher education, and more than $5 million for school nutrition programs for poor children, all while handing a $900 million tax cut to the richest 63,000 taxpayers. National conservatives didn’t know you could get away with that in a blue state — certainly not while winning the Virginia Tea Party Patriots presidential straw poll, edging out Sarah Palin, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.
“It’s a really hopeful formula, because [Christie] has been able to fire up the base without engaging in demonization of President Obama or playing to the far-right, social-conservative crowd,” says John Avlon, former aide to Rudy Giuliani and author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America. “He’s fighting real fights.” Christie has rocketed from chubby, semi-obscure prosecutor to GOP savior in 10 short months. And it’s a testament to his gifts as a communicator — he may be the most instinctual GOP speaker since Reagan — that Christie has done so almost entirely on the power of bluster. “I think the country loves it,” says Carolee Adams, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group. “I think the country absolutely loves this bombastic, mean and nasty man.”
SOME PEOPLE BEGIN IN POLITICS by working as legislative staffers. Some press the flesh at picnics. Chris Christie began his first real political race by defaming a 62-year-old grandmother.
Cecilia “Cissy” Laureys is still around, at age 78, and although she had a stroke 11 years ago, she invited me into her kitchen to tell me the story; helping her with some of the details was her son, Christopher, the youngest of her 10 kids. Cissy wore a black housedress and pink slippers, and her gray hair was styled in curls. “After [Christie] made his mistake with me,” she said, laughing, “he didn’t make it again.” (Not altogether true.)
This is a long time ago now, 16 years, but it’s a story worth telling because it says a lot about how Christie has moved through the world and moves through it still. It was 1994, and Laureys was serving her first term as a freeholder in Morris County. She had gotten into politics out of sheer restlessness: “I had all my kids, and I was bored.”
It turned out that Chris Christie was restless, too. Born in Newark to middle-class parents, he’d volunteered for the Tom Kean for Governor campaign when he was 14. Something stuck; Christie went on to become the president of his high-school class and student body president at the University of Delaware, where he met his wife, Mary Pat. He got his law degree from Seton Hall and hooked up with Bill Palatucci, a hard-nosed Italian who had driven a young George W. Bush around New Jersey in 1988, campaigning for W.’s father. Christie was a “really, really good lawyer,” says Palatucci, but he eventually got “sick of the billable hours” and decided to challenge a Republican state senator named John Dorsey in 1993. There are two things about that 1993 campaign that a 2010 observer might care to know, and one of them is that Christie challenged Dorsey from the left, painting Dorsey as a right-wing nut job. Christie’s literature specifically blasted Republicans like Dorsey for trying to repeal a state ban on assault weapons, and he also painted himself as a champion of “a woman’s right to choose,” arguing, “A state legislature in Trenton dominated by men should not be passing laws restricting the rights of women.” From the start, then, Christie was an anomaly in a state where corruption is the norm: a nonideological good-government Republican, hell-bent on exiling the extreme and the crooked. And the second thing worth knowing about 1993 is that when Christie screwed up his nominating petitions, and got kicked off the ballot as a result, he then failed to disclose the names of the people who had donated to his campaign, as required by law. Christie argued that since he wasn’t on the ballot, disclosure was “a non-issue.” In other words, here was a guy planting a flag as a reformer, and in his very first race, he was flouting the law and saying, Come on, it’s no big deal.
Fresh off that failure, Christie’s bid for freeholder, against Laureys and her two Republican running mates (it was a primary), took on a certain desperate urgency. He spread fliers around town assailing the freeholders’ “sweetheart contracts” and “fat pay raises.” He also cut a TV attack ad, speaking straight into the camera and alleging that Laureys and friends were “being investigated” by the county prosecutor. The truth was innocuous: What the prosecutor was “investigating” was a policy matter involving the public availability of meeting minutes. Laureys and her running mates sued Christie, saying he had defamed them. But Christie won the race, and pretty soon, as a freshly minted freeholder, he was being sued for defamation again, this time by the well-reputed architect of a planned county jail. Christie had accused the sitting freeholders of overpaying for the architectural designs. (The case was eventually dropped.)
Christie did solid work as freeholder, helping to build a skating rink for kids and maintaining the county’s AAA bond rating, but all the same, his colleagues hated him. Nobody had ever seen anything like Chris Christie: a frustrated white knight in a peaceable kingdom, creating chaos so he could stay calm in the center of it. Within a year of taking office, he was already launching his next race, for state assembly, with a young, conservative running mate named Rick Merkt. He lost the assembly race, and then, in 1997, lost his reelection bid for freeholder — to Cissy Laureys, who, as part of a court settlement, had forced Christie to publicly apologize and admit that his 1994 ad was “not accurate,” and who now used Christie’s admission to blast him in campaign ads. For his part, Christie moped: “My mother taught me that if someone apologizes, you accept it and move on.” When he stood up in the Hanover Marriott to concede the race, the Republicans of Morris County turned their backs, speaking loudly over his speech. One man grabbed him by the arm and blew him kisses: “I’m kissing your [expletive] career goodbye,” he told Christie. On the day he cleaned out his office, he came as close to pouring his guts out as he ever would: “They said I was the Pillsbury Doughboy, arrogant, a liar, deceitful,” he told a reporter. “It got difficult at times to accept. But I know when I look in the mirror that I’m a good person.”
After getting run out of town, Christie basically gave up on elective politics. He chose another route forward, volunteering as a New Jersey campaign lawyer for George W. Bush. The Palatucci connection put Christie in the room with W. early in the game, and though he had no prosecutorial experience, it eventually landed him the job as U.S. Attorney.
It was the first gig that made good use of Christie’s disposition; he became a sort of crusading, devil-may-care dickhead, busting into crooked politicos’ homes at crazy hours, dragging them, stunned, in handcuffs, to interrogations. In the course of winning 130 cases, Christie so thoroughly punched his tough-guy ticket that he now finds himself the star of a documentary called The Soprano State. And in the grand tradition of Soprano State politicians, Christie also used his U.S. Attorney post to give large, no-bid contracts to his friends and allies — to his former boss, John Ashcroft, and also to a former federal prosecutor named David Kelley, who happened to be the same prosecutor who declined to press charges against Christie’s wealthy brother, Todd, in a stock-fraud case. (Christie also spent lavishly on luxury hotels and travel while he was U.S. Attorney, according to a report released in November by the Justice Department’s inspector general. On one trip to London, Christie charged the taxpayers $562 for a round-trip car ride from the airport to his hotel. “We always went for government rates first,” Christie explained to The Associated Press.)
As for the help Christie received from his brother: In 2000, Todd Christie’s trading firm had been bought by Goldman Sachs, netting him about $60 million. During the last decade, Todd pumped more than $360,000 into Republican organizations around the state. “His brother certainly had the resources to channel money to a lot of different places,” says Merkt, who ran against Christie in the 2009 Republican primary, along with Steve Lonegan, the arch-conservative former mayor of the borough of Bogota. “It was his huge advantage.” Christie won the primary by 13 percentage points over Lonegan and 52 points over Merkt.
Christie didn’t speak to me for this story, despite requests, but his friends say Lonegan and Merkt have never gotten over getting crushed by him. “They lost,” says one Jersey Republican. “It’s sour grapes.”
THE SINGLE MOST SALIENT FACT of New Jersey politics is the state’s high property taxes. In New Jersey, property taxes represent 98 percent of all revenue collected locally. (The national average is 73 percent.) This is a weird structure. Property taxes are regressive, meaning the poorer someone is, the larger the percentage of his income they eat up. And when you factor in the state’s notoriously high cost of living and sharply plummeting median incomes, you get “The Jersey Squeeze” and a populace forever perched on the edge of tax revolt — 3.9 million filers, wedgie’d and wet-willied by the state, screaming for relief.
After Democrat Jim Florio raised taxes by $2.8 billion in 1990 to fill a budget gap and the state’s lawns filled with IMPEACH FLORIO signs, no governor ever dared submit an honest budget. Instead, a generation’s worth of hacks and buffoons, Democrat and Republican alike, skipped payments to the state’s pension system, cut taxes without cutting spending, borrowed billions to jack up the insolvent, $11-billion-in-debt Transportation Trust Fund (which pays for repairs to bridges and roads, and which one bond-market analyst recently called “a Ponzi scheme”), and collectively left Jersey with $34 billion in long-term debt. The last of these pre-Christie governors was gray-bearded Democrat Jon Corzine, a technocrat who came off like a rambling putz.
Corzine was also a former bank CEO running for reelection during a recession caused by corrupt banks, and in the 2009 gubernatorial debates, Christie plucked him by the roots. Christie’s message was simple: Taxes are suffocating the people of New Jersey, and I will lower your taxes. When it came time to provide details of his tax plans, he was vague. But Christie ruled TV and the messaging war, and the voters handed him a slim four-point victory.
What happened next was that Christie started a class war. He didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. There was the budget, of course, which handed a tax break to the richest one percent of New Jerseyans. But there was also his brutal, defining, relentless campaign against the teachers union, whose contracts and seniority/tenure requirements have long strained the state’s budgets and infuriated education reformers. Christie held the teachers’ generous pensions, salaries and health-care benefits up to the spotlight, asking if it was fair for some New Jerseyans to bear the brunt of the recession while “a privileged class” lived high on the hog. It was politically savvy populism that allowed Christie to pose as a champion of average New Jerseyans while simultaneously diverting anger over his school cuts, protecting the rich, and breaking the back of a key Democratic interest group. And he was so effective making the case that by June he had driven the union’s unfavorable rating from 35 percent to 44 percent.
It seemed like pretty breathtaking stuff. But while the national conservative press fawned over Christie, local conservatives started noticing some anomalies. When he first came into office, Christie claimed the budget situation was far worse than he ever guessed; one of his first acts was to declare a “state of fiscal emergency” and impound $2.2 billion in spending. Fiscal hawks were all for it; back in the ’90s, they’d watched Christine Todd Whitman slash taxes without cutting spending, and now, finally, a real lumberjack was actually swinging the ax. But the closer the conservatives looked, the less they liked. For one thing, to make the numbers work on his 2011 budget, Christie skipped a legally required $3 billion payment into the pension system, just as Whitman had done. He withheld property-tax rebates to the tune of $848 million — something he’d blasted Jon Corzine for planning to do. (Christie promised to restore the rebates next year in the form of quarterly tax credits.) And by cutting aid to local municipalities, he was potentially driving property taxes higher; he managed to pass a bill capping property-tax hikes at two percent per year, but it has easily exploitable loopholes. Christie and his allies, says Steve Lonegan, “admit that the system is failing, but they’re maintaining it.” Says Rick Merkt, “He’s following in the proud bipartisan tradition of screwing around with the budget numbers. … He’s fine as long as he’s got the bully pulpit, and he’s very effective with people who don’t know the facts. But if you compare his rhetoric with the accomplishments, in many ways it’s very thin.” Rick Shaftan, a conservative pollster who worked for Lonegan, is more blunt: “What makes him a conservative? Telling off a teacher … ?”
In August, conservatives soured even more on Christie over a scandal in his education department. Bret Schundler, the conservative Republican education secretary and a longtime champion of charter schools, had been working with the teachers union to secure a $400 million federal grant. When Christie found out, he exploded, according to testimony later given by Schundler. Christie insisted the grant be quickly rewritten without union input. The application turned out to contain a key omission, and because of it — and because the union didn’t sign off on the new application — the state narrowly lost out on $400 million for kids. Christie immediately called a press conference, blaming the Obama administration. He said that Schundler had given the missing data to Obama’s “mindless drones” during an interview, but the drones had refused to accept the data. But the next day, a video-tape of the interview emerged, showing that Schundler had never provided the missing data after all. Christie, embarrassed, responded by calling Schundler a liar and firing him. “[Schundler] is a man of great integrity,” says Carolee Adams, “and Christie emasculated him.”
Schundler then released e-mails proving that prior to the press conference, he had told Christie’s staff the truth about what had happened at the interview. He may have screwed up, but he was no liar. In his testimony, Schundler said, “I have thought about the possibility that beyond my being a scapegoat for [Christie’s] misstatement, the Governor might be angry at me for not telling him the interview was videotaped. In my defense, I never believed I needed to say, ‘Governor, stick to the truth, there’s a videotape.’ Perhaps I should have.”
As incredible as Schundler’s testimony was, nobody was really watching him that day in the statehouse, because that was also the day Christie chose to announce he was killing the $8.7 billion ARC rail tunnel from Jersey to New York City, the largest infrastructure project in the country. The big man stomped his foot — BOOM — and just like that, a project 20 years in the making, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, predicted to create 6,000 short-term jobs and 40,000 long-term jobs, and sweetened with $3 billion in federal matching funds, was toast. Hundreds of tunnel advocates — transportation planners, the state’s Democratic U.S. Senators, even the White House — instantly went scurrying, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. But to Christie, it was simple: There was no money to pay for theoretical cost overruns. “In our house,” he said, casting his skepticism of the tunnel in terms of his middle-class upbringing, “when I used to go to my mother and say ‘I’d like something new, I’d like to buy something,’ my mother would look at me and say, ‘Well, of course, Christopher, you can have that — just go in the backyard and take the money off the money tree. You know where that is, right?’”
You could agree or disagree with the philosophy at the heart of Christie’s argument — essentially, he doesn’t believe that economic stimulus measures work — but at least it was coherent. It made total sense — except for the fact that at the same time Christie was telling the press there was no money tree, he was on the phone with the bond market, asking it to plant money trees. In the summer and early fall, as the state’s economy sputtered, Christie started borrowing. He did it quietly. He borrowed $2.25 billion in short-term notes to keep the state’s accounts liquid. Then he borrowed $2 billion in long-term notes to, among other things, widen the New Jersey Turnpike, which, like the ARC tunnel, was a major infrastructure project expected to cost more than its original budget. Also, instead of raising the state’s 14.5 cent gas tax, among the lowest in the nation, Christie did the thing he’d said was “unconscionable” during his campaign: He borrowed an additional $1.5 billion to prop up the “Ponzi scheme” of the Transportation Trust Fund. The new bonds will mature between 2016 and 2028. A long-term fix for the fund, he promised, would be revealed in the fall, but October came and went with no plan. “The truth is,” says Merkt, “he’s helping to dig the hole deeper.”
IT"S EASY TO SEE why people can’t get enough of the Chris Christie Show. Like a good insult comic — the Star-Ledger calls him “Governor Rickles” — he hints at the emotional vulnerability under the nasty shell. One longtime Trenton journalist told me, “He’s thin-skinned, like they all are, but he’s a good quote, and he knows how to make news.”
The national media are falling in love as well. In October, Christie sat down with his family for a Today Show profile that crowned him “a conservative folk hero.” Christie discussed whether he wants to be president (“No way”) or vice president (“Can you see me as somebody’s vice president? I mean, who would be that poor guy?”). Then Christie turned to his seven-year-old daughter, Bridget: “Would you like your daddy to be president of the United States?”
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Bridget said.
“Someone prepared her,” the Today Show reporter said, laughing.
“On message!” Christie said.
Christie’s advisers are starting to game out presidential scenarios. When I mentioned to Palatucci some of the criticisms I’d heard from Steve Lonegan and others — basically, that Christie is a faux conservative — Palatucci said, “Steve is not the leader of the conservative movement in New Jersey,” then pointed out that Christie was committed to “remaking” the state Supreme Court, taking on the public-employee unions, and canceling the ARC tunnel. And he was pro-life, if complicatedly so. “To most people,” Palatucci said, “that’s a really good set of conservative credentials.” Realistically, the social conservatives who vote in GOP primaries will never forgive Christie for his pro-choice past, but he can atone by doubling down on the fiscal heroics. Christie is already starting to talk about cutting the income tax. Right now, it’s hard to see how this will grow anything except deficits, and maybe blood vessels in Glenn Beck’s erogenous zones; by cutting taxes faster than he can possibly cut spending, and borrowing billions, he’s not solving anything, just dropping more problems into the lap of the next governor. But if the economy picks up on his watch and property taxes go down, he’ll be a genius with a national future.
The day Christie won the Virginia straw poll, Palatucci texted me the results, and I wrote back: “Holy crap. A Christie boomlet for sure.” He replied, “Nah. Just funny.” Newt Gingrich probably thought it was hilarious. This is how you do it: For at least 17 days in September and October, Christie blitzed the country, campaigning for Republican candidates. As the tour progressed, the differences between Christie, the Tea Party and the Republican establishment seemed to blur. Christie began to shave off his interesting edges in the name of party unity. He called for the repeal of “Obamacare,” a key component of which his administration was already implementing. And despite his long advocacy of campaign finance reform, Christie was mute on the subject of corporate cash flooding into the campaigns he was boosting.
I tried to catch him in mid-October, when he swung through the Philadelphia region. A little after noon, Christie addressed a catering tent full of donors in Bucks County. It was a $500-a-plate luncheon benefiting congressional candidate Mike Fitzpatrick. The donors applauded as Christie spoke of a return to “core principles”: Fitzpatrick “will stand up for his congressional district,” he said, “and he will stand against crazy spending, out-of-control debt, and even higher taxes.”
Toward the end of his 15-minute speech, Christie told the faithful that if Fitzpatrick lost, he’d know it was because they didn’t work hard enough: “I don’t wanna have to come back here.” He wagged his finger and made a stern face, and the donors roared; here he was, Mr. Angry, giving them — them! — some of the good stuff. They stood, clapping their hands raw, as Christie tumbled down from the podium, giving me and half a dozen other reporters the slip, jackknifing toward a gap in the tent.
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