Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in a lot of trouble. After weeks of sarcastic denials, he was forced to acknowledge that, at the very least, several close staffers and advisers did, in fact, engineer a massive traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge. The action was apparently an act of retribution against the mayor of the town of Fort Lee.
Christie gave a lengthy press conference (1/9/14) denying his involvement and expressing sadness at being misled by people he trusted. The scandal shows no signs of going away anytime soon, in part because his denials sounded rather far-fetched.
Now some in the national press–which has generally presented favorable coverage of Christie (Extra!, 5/11)–the danger is that he might start to be seen as a vindictive bully.
No really. "Stories Add Up as Bully Image Trails Christie," read one New York Times headline (12/24/13), which makes it sound like Christie has an image that unfairly follows him around.
USA Today (1/8/14) reported:
Christie said he knew nothing about the plot, but it could sour his national image as a tough-talking, problem-solving pragmatist into that of a partisan bully.
The New York Times (1/10/14) referred to "what some critics have described as bullylike behavior" from Christie. And as Time magazine (1/20/14) reported, this scandal "may feed the perception that a man given to volcanic public outbursts may also use his office to bully opponents in private."
Under the headline "Christie's Carefully Devised, No-Nonsense Image in Peril," the New York Times (1/9/14) explained that "what once seemed like a refreshing forcefulness may come off as misguided bullying." The report added that
the timing of the blossoming scandal is dreadful, disrupting a highly anticipated plan to present the popular governor to the national electorate as a no-nonsense, bipartisan balm to a deeply divided federal government.
And the paper added that the scandal involves "nakedly partisan score-settling…the kind of behavior that Mr. Christie has forsworn at every turn." It went on:
Bipartisanship has become a byword of his administration, turning his news conferences into celebrations of his ability to reach across the aisle.
This is a peculiar kind of reporting, which prioritizes image management over reality. Yes, this is certainly the version of Chris Christie that Chris Christie wants people to think about. But in reality, Christie's "brand" is in no small part devoted to glorifying Christie's bullying. In fact, it's hard to think of many prominent politicians who have anywhere near Christie's astonishing record of boorish behavior, directed at all manner of targets– from his political opponents ("hacks", "one arrogant SOB") to reporters who ask questions he doesn't like ("Are you stupid?") to state nonprofit groups he disagrees with (Fair Share Housing is a "hack group" that not worth "my time or my breath").
So if the question is really, "Is Chris Christie a bully?," it would be difficult come up with any answer other than yes.
But that's not the only matter under consideration. There's also the notion that Christie is bipartisan. And there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Consider the case offered in a Star-Ledger op-ed (6/7/13) by Robert Weiner and Nakia Gladden:
Christie's budgets cut social and economic programs. He included $500 million in cuts to education that the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.
"The harm being visited is not some minor infringement of the constitutional right but a real, substantial and consequential blow to the achievement of a thorough and efficient system of education" in the state’s 31 poorest school systems, wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, a Republican appointee, in the majority decision.
They went on:
Christie's budget also eliminated after-school education for more than 15,000 low-income children and cut $21 million in elderly health services.
Using the word bipartisan to describe Christie is highly misleading with his work with the legislature. He vetoed more than 150 bills passed by his Democratic-led Legislature.
His vetoes blocked bills to allow marriage equality, raise the minimum wage and increase taxes on those making more than $1 million a year. He also twice vetoed a bill to make financing easier for consumers to rent or buy foreclosed properties as affordable housing.
This is not a particularly bipartisan record. See The Nation's John Nichols (5/15/13) for more on just how partisan Christie's first term was.
The final matter: Is Christie–a bullying, partisan politician–the kind of person who would use his power to hurt his opponents? The suggestion that this is the first such case isn't true. ThinkProgress noted (1/9/14) that
while Christie claimed that this was "not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years" and denied being a bully, accusations of political retribution have long surrounded the governor. For instance, former Gov. Richard Codey (D) accused the Christie administration of "sending a message" by denying him state trooper protection after he publicly disagreed with Christie. The same day, a Codey cousin was fired from his position at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a former Codey aide was removed from the New Jersey Office of Consumer Affairs.
After then State Sen. Sean Kean (R) told a reporter that Christie erred in not calling for a state of emergency sooner during a 2010 blizzard, Christie’s staff banned Kean from attending the next news conference Christie held in Kean’s home district. A Christie aide told the Star-Ledger that Kean "got what he deserved." Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal saw his state funding slashed after backing a redistricting map more favorable to Democrats and last year, confirmation of a judicial candidate recommended by State Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R) suddenly stalled after the legislator voted against Christie’s public medical education system reorganization.
And the mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, offered other evidence that Christie's office might have seen the failure to endorse the governor as something to be punished (Salon.com, 1/9/14):
"Nearly every single meeting we have requested with state commissioners with regard to proactive Jersey City issues has been unfortunately rejected over the last six months, along with countless requests we made to the Port Authority," he wrote in his afternoon statement. "Cancellations include an entire day of meetings with state commissioners scheduled to be in Jersey City that was abruptly cancelled, with each of the commissioners individually canceling within an hour of the time I communicated my intention to not endorse."
And Christie has made other decisions, like his unprecedented refusal to renominate a state Supreme Court justice (New York Times, 5/3/10), that seemed obviously calculated to advance his political goals and expand his power. That move set off a long-running fight over judicial appointments that some reporting suggests could play a role in the current George Washington Bridge scandal.
And the New York Times' Michael Cooper (10/10/13) reported an interesting story about an investigation of local Republican corruption in Hunterdon County that was abruptly halted; the Christie-appointed state attorney general killed the investigation and some of the local prosecutors were fired.
And none of this even touches Christie's long-running attacks on public sector workers and school teachers–residents of the state that bear the brunt of some of Christie's policy decisions, along with his scorn.
As CNN's Jake Tapper summed it up (1/9/14), the current Christie scandal
hits at the heart of Christie's carefully honed image as a straight-talking, no-nonsense governor interested in bipartisanship and efficiency.
That's true; but that image should have been forcefully challenged by the media a long time ago–who instead put considerable effort into helping him hone it.