MANCHESTER, N.H. – Days after federal prosecutors brought charges against three of his former allies, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie insisted in this first-in-the-nation primary state that his response to the “Bridgegate” scandal proves his leadership bona fides.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in public life who has had the opportunity to have to select lots of different people to work with that hasn’t made some mistakes,” the Republican said on Thursday afternoon.
Christie was responding to a question from msnbc during a Q&A with reporters about what he would say to critics who contend that even if he didn’t know about the 2013 lane closure scandal – carried out by some of his staffers and allies, seemingly for political retribution -- it raises red flags about who he’d allow to be on his central team if he does run for president in 2016.
The governor emphasized that he cut ties with those he believed were involved and that he was not charged by federal prosecutors. “I have no misgivings about it. And I don’t think fair people looking at it will have misgivings either. They’ll understand that mistakes get made, and they’ll want to know do they have a leader who is strong enough to be able to own up to those mistakes, be accountable and then take the action necessary to fix them. That’s what we did,” he said.
Still, polls in the wake of the Bridgegate indictments have left the Republican’s numbers in a freefall in his home state. But when it comes to his potential 2016 campaign, Christie is still pressing onward, holding six stops Thursday and Friday in New Hampshire which is emerging as the do-or-die state for the embattled governor. Even in the Granite State, where the governor – a fellow northeastern Republican – could conceivably do well, he’s only polling at 3% among likely Republican voters and in 10th place overall among the emerging GOP field, according to a new survey by WMUR.
Christie responded to the lackluster poll numbers in the WMUR survey, noting just 5% said they had definitely made up their mind. “I’m more than happy to work on the other 95%. We’ll be just fine,” he told reporters.
The governor had just toured and hosted a roundtable at the Farnum Center, a drug addiction treatment center in Manchester. At the event, Christie touted his decision to focus on mandatory drug treatment instead of incarceration during his time as governor. “I think we should move towards the same type of approaches at the federal level as well,” he said.
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The biggest question now is just how the latest developments affect Christie’s 2016 prospects. Christie has denied any prior knowledge or involvement in the plot to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge. At the very least, critics say, Christie created a culture in his administration in which those closest to the governor believed such vindictive behavior would be OK.
A day before Christie’s six-stop tour in the state, several New Hampshirites said that while they don’t know all that much about the governor’s policies, they do know about the lane closure scandal.
Ryan Connell, a 31-year-old academic advisor shopping for groceries at the chain Market Basket, which sits near the Merrimack River, said the first thing that jumps into his mind when he hears Christie’s name are "Saturday Night Live" skits mocking the governor over Bridgegate. “I’m a busy man,” a Bobby-Moynihan-playing Christie famously declared on the late-night comedy show last year. "I got budgets to balance, teachers to yell at, I gotta work out five times a year. I can't keep track of every idiot I'm trying to screw over."
Connell, who identifies himself as an independent, added, “I don’t really know about what he’s done in office."
Others, like Alyssa Young, a 24-year-old Manchester resident and temp agency worker, said that while she was aware of the scandal, which took place 250 miles away, it wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Young, an independent voter who said school loans is one of the most important issues to her, said the scheme seemed “very middle school" after finishing dinner with a friend on Elm Street, the city's tree-lined main drag filled with restaurants and cafes. She added, “It’s very petty if it is true. But it’s not a game-changer for me.”
Jay Coffey, a 56-year-old Manchester resident who works in insurance sales was more negative. “I think he’s done. His associates getting indicted will be a problem. There are still unanswered questions about what he knew when,” he said. Coffey, who said he’s intrigued by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas running in 2016, said of Christie. “He’s not as strong as a candidate as he was four years ago,” noting the state’s fiscal woes, in addition to the lane closures.
The fundraisers and meet-and-greets beginning Thursday are Christie’s first public events in New Hampshire since former Port Authority executive David Wildstein pleaded guilty last Friday for his role in the politically motivated lane closures. A grand jury also unsealed a nine-count indictment against Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff and Bill Baroni, the governor's then-deputy executive director of the Port Authority, for their alleged involvement in the scheme. Both pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges that included conspiracy and fraud, and a trial date has been tentatively set for July 7.
Federal authorities maintain that Wildstein, Kelly and Baroni plotted together to create traffic jams on the bridge – on the first day of school—to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election bid. Then, the three allegedly used the excuse of a bogus traffic study to cover up their actions.
Also, the picture is far from complete. Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s lawyer, reiterated on Friday a claim he has made in the past—that “evidence exists” showing the governor was aware of the lane closures as they were happening. And on Monday, Michael Critchley, Kelly’s lawyer, would not rule out calling the governor to be a witness at the trial.
Christie is “literally on his last leg,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who served on John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. O’Connell said that while the latest indictments certainly don’t help the governor, the bigger problems he faces are his state’s economic woes and his decreasing popularity back at home. “But as long as he’s not indicted, he still has a chance,” O’Connell added.
A new Monmouth University poll released this week showed that 56% of the state’s voters disapprove of how Christie is handling his job. And half of respondents said they believe Christie was personally involved in the lane closures, while 34% say he was not involved. “The governor has maintained that he was not involved in the lane closures, nor did he know about them as they were happening,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Most New Jerseyans don’t but it.” A separate poll by Monmouth released Wednesday show just 1-in-4 New Jerseyans giving Christie a decent shot at winning the GOP nomination should he jump into the presidential race.
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Last month, the governor led a nine-stop trip to New Hampshire, and although he’s still polling in the back of the GOP pack, the trip was viewed as a moderate success. This time around, Christie has a six-stop visit planned on Thursday and Friday, including meet and greets in Amherst and Sunapee, a round table discussion in Manchester, a keynote speech at the Cheshire County Lincoln Day Dinner in Keene and a town hall event in Dover.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said, “Unfortunately, this will have the effect of solidifying Republican voters wariness of him,” adding with the pending trial, “This is the cloud that hangs over his head and shows no signs of dissipating.” Scala added, “If the summer is more and more about Bridgegate, it won’t be attractive to Republican activists.”
Others aren’t quite ready to call the latest developments the final nail in Christie’s 2016 coffin.
Speaking about the indictments, Juliana Bergeron, a Republican National Committeewoman from New Hampshire, said, “Obviously, it doesn’t help him, but I don’t know how badly it hurts him. She added, “I actually think he’s in a better position now that others have been indicted and he has not been included in that.”
Kathy Rago, an accountant and chair of the Merrimack County Republican Committee, said she’s still open to all of the candidates, including Christie. “I’m aware of the bridge scandal. I’m sure he will address that. We’ll wait and hear what he has to say,” she said.
The governor said in a statement on Friday that the charges “make clear what I’ve said from day one is true, I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.” He emphasized that he fired staffers and called for an outside investigation. “Now 15 months later it is time to let the justice system do its job,” said Christie.
A spokeswoman for the governor’s PAC, the PAC’s New Hampshire state director and Christie’s top political strategist did not respond to request for comment.
Jamie Burnett, who served as Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire political director for the 2008 election cycle, said even prior to the indictments Christie was seen as a “bit of a longshot.” Burnett said the only way for Christie to get back in the race is to “run a very aggressive, retail-oriented campaign on the ground in New Hampshire. The good news is the indictments and charges weren’t applied any broader than they were. The bad news is that at least this early on, it’s something people will ask him about.”