After this week, Chris Christie could be forgiven for feeling like he has 99 problems – and yes, Bridgegate is still one.
The Republican governor of New Jersey came under criticism on several fronts – from a veto on gun control legislation, to his controversial budget that reduced pension funding, to teacher salaries. On top of that, the state legislative committee investigating the lane closure scheme that has tarred Christie’s administration plans to subpoena up to a dozen more people, ensuring the scandal hasn’t dropped off state legislators’ radar just yet.
“There’s no denying it has been a very tough week for the governor,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. She added though – that especially in terms of Christie’s actions on guns and pension reform – that the politician may have the GOP presidential nomination in the back of his mind and that his moves this week are simply part of a longer-term, 2016 strategy.
The easy choice for Christie on guns would have been to pass the bill, said Harrison. “So why would someone who is pretty serious about crime issues veto the measure? You don’t want to alienate the NRA and gun activists in [early voting states of] New Hampshire and Iowa,” she said. And the fact that Christie is taking on public employee unions may be unpopular in the state “but if you’re sitting down with [GOP mega-donors like] the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson, it doesn’t hurt to have an anti-union stance,” Harrison argued.
Christie’s office did not immediately return requests for comments.
Tuesday was particularly rough for Christie, who was confronted by protesters at two events. In the morning, he stopped in Paterson to swear in Mayor Jose Torres. But an estimated 60 public school teachers showed up (the state currently controls the city’s school district) to boo the governor and demand fairer salaries and state contracts. They chanted “liar” and held signs with messages like “Christie’s staff gets 23% pay raises – Paterson school staff gets ZERO.” Christie reportedly skipped a speech he planned to deliver at the event.
Then, later in the day during a town hall meeting in Caldwell, the governor was repeatedly heckled over his handling of contracts with teachers unions. The governor -- who blamed the interruptions on union leaders -- quipped, “After being governor for five years, having them yell and scream at me doesn’t bother me one damn bit.” He seemed to lose his cool after some protesters began reading from their phones. “Keep reading. Listen, that’s an example why the education system in New Jersey is actually pretty good because he could read that whole thing without stumbling,” said Christie. Several hecklers were escorted by police out of the room.
The governor’s $32.5 billion budget into law on Monday evening was also criticized. Christie used his veto power to cut pension payments he promised three years ago and rejected a tax increase on the wealthiest residents -- two proposals that were put forth by the Democratic -- controlled legislature. He defended his spending plan Tuesday on CNBC, arguing “I’ve had to veto income tax increases four of the last five years,” Christie said. “You know folks don’t understand that you have to keep yourself competitive from a tax perspective and that’s why what I’ve tried to do.”
Parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown Connecticut also railed against the governor on Thursday after he vetoed a gun control bill that would have banned magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition, down from the currently allowed 15 rounds. Hours before Christie’s decision, several family members of Sandy Hook victims delivered a petition to Christie signed by 55,000 individuals, asking him to reduce the legal limit of magazines.
Christie argued “mass violence will not end by changing the number of bullets loaded into a gun,” adding “I will not support such a trivial approach to the sanctity of human life, because this is not governing.”
On Monday – before Christie’s rocky week -- a poll released Monday by Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press showed Christie’s approval ratings have stabilized at 50%, essentially unchanged since April and February. The governor’s popularity had immediately taken a big hit following revelations that some of his staffers and allies closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge back in September, seemingly for political retribution. Christie has repeatedly denied prior knowledge of the scheme.
The state legislative committee probing the lane closures has set aside four dates in July for hearings as up to 13 more people could be called to testify -- including one of the Republican’s top political advisers. Christie’s administration is also under a federal investigation regarding the lane closures.
Christie, who chairs the Republican Governor’s Association, is clearly trying to turn the page on his recent troubles. Last month, he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon -- his first foray back into late night comedy since his administration was rocked with allegations. Christie stoked further speculation about a bid for the Oval Office with a trip to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire on June 20. And he’s also scheduled to visit the political heavy weight state of Iowa on July 17 to campaign for Gov. Terry Branstad.
The latest RealClearPolitics average of polling data from April 7 to June 1 surrounding the 2016 GOP presidential nomination shows Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in the lead with 13.8%. Christie is in fourth place with 11%, trailing behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 12.8% and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 12.7%.