Chris Christie: a scandal too far for White House hopeful

The New Jersey Governor had only just dealt with Bridgegate when the Sandy relief storm blew in

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:35 ON Tue 14 Jan 2014
Charles Laurence

HAS the other shoe just dropped on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s naked ambition for the White House?

The second Christie scandal inside a week broke early yesterday with a timing which suggests that the rotund but curiously charismatic Governor is not the only politician in New Jersey ready and willing to play hardball.

News that Washington officials are investigating the diversion of federal relief funds for Superstorm Sandy to promote Jersey Shore tourism with advertisements featuring Christie himself could hardly have come at a more awkward time.

Christie would have gone to bed on Sunday feeling much better. 'Bridgegate', the saga of how an act of petty political revenge caused days of traffic jams on the Fort Lee ramps to the George Washington Bridge over to Manhattan, was beginning to look survivable.

The scandal, and Christie’s aspirations for the Republican nomination for the presidential elections of 2016, had been the number one topic on the Sunday television talk shows which have become America’s political forum.

Phalanxes of “senior Republicans” had been rallied to the microphones to answer the question: can Christie survive. The majority view was “yes”.

Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate who failed against President Obama in 2008, declared that Christie had done “an excellent job” in holding a press conference that lasted 111 minutes and instantly firing two top aides implicated in ordering the disruption to bridge traffic.

“I think he can now move on,” said McCain.

But then he added a note of caution: “As long as another shoe doesn’t drop. We’ll have to wait and see.”

We did not have to wait very long. The question now is whether Christie can survive this second shoe.

Christie had been considered the nearest thing to a frontrunner since he catapulted himself onto the national stage by escorting President Obama through the ruins of the New Jersey coastal communities after Sandy struck just before the 2012 elections.

Comforting old ladies with hugs, putting aside partisan politics to join forces with Obama for the sake of his people, Christie immediately became the face of the Republican Party they wished they had had when the mean-spirited Mitt Romney and his Tea Party allies led them to electoral rout.

Superstorm Sandy became Christie’s brand, and to have an investigation into whether he improperly spent funds intended for the storm’s victims on self-promotion could hardly be more tarnishing.

Congressman Frank Pallone, whose name, like Christie’s, ends Italian-style in a vowel, is a New Jersey Democrat in Washington who has long locked horns with Christie. It was he who trumpeted the news that the inspector general of the Housing and Urban Development Office (HUD) was investigating the use of the $25 million Sandy funds.

Pallone had spotted his chance last summer when he wrote a formal letter to HUD demanding the investigation into how the governor had distributed the funds. He wrote that he and his colleagues were “concerned” that some of the money had been used to finance a “marketing campaign”, and he went on, they wondered why a bid of $2.5m for the campaign, which would not feature Christie or his family, had been rejected in favour of a $4.7m bid for one which would.

Pallone was in triumphant mood yesterday after giving the cable news station its exclusive story.

“I commend the HUD Office of the Inspector General for investigating whether the state properly utilized taxpayer funds for this marketing campaign,” he said.

“Working with my New Jersey colleagues, we had to fight hard to get the Sandy aid package passed by assuring others in Congress the funding was desperately needed and would be spent responsibly. I also raised concerns that Governor Christie and his family appeared in taxpayer-funded advertisements during an election year.”

Voters in Pallone’s congressional district must surely be bracing themselves for traffic chaos.

Christie’s best chance of reviving his White House hopes still lies in the chaos of the current Republican presidential field. 

“Republicans appear headed for the most wide-open and unpredictable nomination campaign in decades,” writes Dan Balz in a column for the Washington Post. “Their prospective field of candidates is mostly untested on the national stage, and a number of them spent the past year generating questions about their readiness rather than burnishing their credentials. Christie is just the latest.

“But that’s not the only reason the coming GOP campaign is likely to be neither tidy nor predictable. A power struggle is underway between the party’s establishment and insurgent wings — the business elite and the populist Tea Party factions. No one is certain what the balance of power in the party will be when the primaries and caucuses begin.”

Christie as the tough guy with the straight talk and the heart of gold had been looking like the outsider candidate who could appeal to both sides of the Republican party and, just possibly, to both sides of America.

Now he just looks like the guy who blew it. ·