In his much-anticipated State of the State address Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wasted no time before addressing the bridge scandal that is testing his political career. But he quickly tried to shift attention away from the controversy and on to education and the need for bipartisanship.
Christie acknowledged the elephant in the room at the top of his speech, reiterating his apology to state residents following last week’s revelations that some of his top aides were involved in a politically motivated plot to close lanes and cause traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. He argued that what happened was an aberration and did not define the state of New Jersey.
“The last week has certainly tested this administration. Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we’re entrusted to serve,” he said in front of the Democratic-controlled state Senate and Assembly, whose members have launched an investigation into the scandal.
Christie added that he’s ultimately responsible for what happens on his watch and emphasized he will cooperate with inquiries “to make sure this breach of trust does not happen again.”
“I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that hat has occurred does not define us or our state,” Christie said. “This administration and this legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey be delayed.”
On his education initiative, Christie called for extending the school day and year. “Our school calendar is antiquated both educationally and culturally. Life in 2014 is much different than 100 years ago and demands something more for our students. It is time to lengthen both the school day and school year in New Jersey.”
Details of the plan are not yet clear. But Christie argued extending school day and school year will “improve student outcomes and boost our competitiveness.” The proposal could draw ire from the public teachers union, a group Christie has had contentious battles with before over tenure and pensions.
The governor also renewed his call for tax reform, giving judges the option of withholding bail for violent suspects, expanding drug treatment and employment services for offenders, and finding solutions to soaring pension and debt services costs in the state.
Christie is likely to face more questions surrounding the so-called “Bridgegate” controversy in the weeks to come even though he’s fired a top aide at the center of the scandal, apologized to voters and Fort Lee’s mayor and says he will take action against other staffers if it’s warranted.
Christie is now being probed by federal officials over his use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce state tourism ads, which featured the governor and his family in the run-up to his re-election bid. And more information could come out about the lane closure plan, as the governor’s aides are expected to be served with subpoenas later this week.
Among those who are looking into Christie’s staff involvement in the lane closures are the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey and both houses of the state legislature.
The Port Authority has until Wednesday to answer a number of questions asked by U.S. Sen Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who is leading the congressional inquiry. The questions are on a slew of subjects, including the procedures for closing lanes, if there actually was a traffic study, and existing Port Authority executives’ testimony.
On Thursday, both houses of the state Legislature are slated to hold sessions in which they’ll form committees that have subpoena power to investigate.
And it certainly doesn’t help Christie that the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday published a recent photo of Christie and former Port Authority official David Wildstein, with whom the governor said he had had ‘no contact…in a long time.” The photo was taken on Sept. 11, 2013 – day three of the lane closures.
During his speech, Christie made a continued push for bipartisanship, something he has been praised for by both moderate Republicans and liberals following his response to the hurricane, which pummeled parts of the East Coast. Of course, there’s still anger from his party’s right wing over Christie’s notorious embrace of President Obama after the storm shortly before the 2012 presidential election.
“The best part of our turnaround in these past four years is because we have chosen to work together,” he said. “Four balanced budgets passed with bipartisan support. Pension reform and tenure reform passed with bipartisan support. A cap on property taxes passed with bipartisan support. We acted and we acted together.”
Christie will need the support of liberals and independents if he does decide to run for president.
A new poll, however, shows Christie’s popularity has taken a hit among Democrats and independents since the bridge scandal. According to a survey by Monmouth University and the Asbury Park Press, his approval dropped from 47% in December to 38% now among Democrats. Approval also dipped among independents from 73% in December to 62% today, while GOP support stood strong at 89%, close to the 85% support he received last month.