It was an awkward moment: Amid a growing scandal over the improper use of public assets as political payback, embattled New Jersey Governor and likely Republican presidential contender Chris Christie on Tuesday delivered his annual State of the State Address. In an apparent effort to cast forward and outline his policy priorities, Christie only cursorily mentioned “bridgegate” at the opening of his speech, once again apologizing and vowing to cooperate with investigators.
Speaking to lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled New Jersey statehouse in Trenton, Christie tackled the scandal right on. “Mistakes were clearly made”, Christie said without clarifying by whom. But he also tried to define the bridge controversy as an insulated event and to reject the notion of a typical case of rough-and-tumble small-state corruption. “What has occurred does not define New Jersey”, Christie felt compelled to say.
When Christie moved on and focused on his administration’s – bipartisan – achievements during his first term and his policy priorities of his second, the national cable networks cut away and interrupted their live coverage, giving way to political analysis offered by pundits.
Christie, who won landslide re-election last November in a Democrat-leaning state, hoped to regain his footing after being shaken by revelations that key aides orchestrated a traffic chaos by closing access lanes onto the busy George Washington Bridge that connects Manhattan with New Jersey. The four-day long lane closure created monster traffic jams and mayhem in Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the bridge.
Four Christie loyalists have been fired or resigned for the apparent political vendetta against a Democratic mayor of Fort Lee who wouldn’t endorse Christie for re-election. The governor apologized, and, during a lengthy news conference last Thursday said he was “blindsided” by his staff’s involvement.
Two state legislative panels announced plans Monday to continue their investigations into the incident one Democratic leader now is calling an “abuse of power” probe. The US Attorney’s office also is reviewing the apparent political retribution.
Meanwhile, newly released documents seem to suggest that the Christie administration had also snubbed other Democratic mayors who had refuse to get on the governor’s band wagon. Christie critics compared the governor to a New Jersey mafia boss who rewarded some public officials with attention and punished others for not kissing the ring.
On the heels of the “bridgegate” scandal Christie faced another controversy on Monday. The governor was once hailed as a hero for the way he dealt with Superstorm Sandy in 2012, but the ads that ran across the state and the country last summer featuring him and his family welcoming visitors back to the Jersey Shore are now part of a federal investigation, and the advertising firm that didn’t get the bid is questioning why – especially since their offer was cheaper.
Federal investigators are looking into whether money intended for Sandy relief was inappropriately used for the TV ads. The winning bid, by advertising firm MWW Group, for the controversial “Stronger than the Storm” ads that featured Christie and his family, was more than $2 million more than the runner up, Sigma Group, the largest advertising firm in the state of New Jersey.
The ads were part of the $25 million federal recovery package. Shannon Morris, the president of Sigma Group, said she still has no idea why their bid was not selected and it was “apples to apples” to the bid that was selected from MWW, but did confirm their pitch did not feature Christie. “None of our creative included the governor at all,” Morris said. “Our creative focused on featuring the people and businesses at the New Jersey Shore.”
In the meantime, fellow Republicans seem to be sticking to Christie who is scheduled to support Florida Governor Rick Scott next weekend. Before “bridgegate” struck Christie, Scott was set to kick off his 2014 re-election campaign with a bang. Christie, the newly minted chairman of the Republican Governors Association, planned to swing through the Sunshine State flexing his notoriously skilled fundraising muscle.
Now, however, it comes with an extra dose of scandal. Nevertheless, the Republican Party of Florida and the Scott campaign say the weekend fundraisers are still on. “Governor Christie has taken responsibility for the situation and we are looking forward to having him down in Florida,” a Florida Republican Party spokeswoman said.
Bringing in the big money for candidates and the party committee is a key part of Christie’s job description as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. It requires talking to the elite and the loyal, which, at least for the moment, is relatively safe territory.