"Forward" used to be President Obama’s slogan. Now Chris Christie is co-opting it.
The Republican governor of New Jersey addressed the George Washington Bridge controversy threatening to derail his political career on Tuesday afternoon in Chicago, saying that while he’s beyond disappointed in some of his staffers, he plans to forge ahead with his second-term agenda.
“You only have a few minutes to wallow in that disappointment,” the governor said, speaking at the Economic Club of Chicago on behalf of the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs. “And then if you’re a leader, you have to try and get a handle on the story and take decisive action, which we did.”
The likely 2016 contender added that he doesn’t think so-called “Bridgegate” will “curtail for the long haul a second-term agenda because the public in New Jersey won’t tolerate it” and if more action is warranted he’ll take it.
The event marked the first time Christie answered questions in person since his epic, two-hour long presser on Jan. 9 after top staffers were caught as the architects behind the political scheme to shutter a few lanes on one of the country’s busiest bridges. The GOPer is sticking to his story, denying any prior knowledge of the plan.
“I had nothing to do with this,” he said during a radio show with constituents on Feb. 4. “No knowledge, no authorization, no planning, nothing.”
The wide-ranging Q&A was administered by Greg Brown, the chairman and CEO of Motorola Solutions. Brown is also vice chairman of the Rutgers University Board of Governor -- appointed by Christie himself.
Christie was upbeat and jovial, despite polls showing his popularity taking a hit since the revelations of lane closures. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found more Americans view the Republican negatively that positively, by a 29% to 22% margin. It’s a big reversal from October, when 33% viewed him positively versus 17% who viewed him negatively. When Brown asked about “Bridgegate,” the governor joked : “I’m shocked you brought that up.” And when asked to give advice to a Republican hoping to be governor in the reliably-blue state of Illinois Christie replied: “Have faith baby, I won twice in New Jersey…It can happen.”
Republican gubernatorial candidates in Illinois, however, seem to be keeping Christie at an arm’s length. Of the four GOPers who are running in the primary that’s five weeks away, just one planned to appear publicly with Christie during his fundraising stops in the Windy City. Similarly, during recent stops in Texas and Florida, lawmakers and candidates steered clear.
When Christie went to Dallas and Fort Worth earlier this month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and likely GOP gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott were nowhere to be seen. And when Christie traveled to Florida a few weeks ago for his first out-of-state trip since the lane closure plan became public, Sunshine State Gov. Rick Scott, who’s up for re-election did not arrange any joint public appearances with his fellow Republican.
Meanwhile, a block away from Christie on Tuesday, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland held a press conference on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. The Democrat pointed out that GOP candidates are keeping their distance from Christie since the lane closure plan was made public, the governor’s low poll numbers, and the new round of subpoenas issued by a state committee investigating the scheme to Christie’s staff and members of the Port Authority.
“Either the governor knew and he is lying, or he’s the most inept, incompetent chief executive imaginable,” said Strickland. “If he is so incompetent in his judge of character and his oversight of his administration, then God help us if he were to become president.”
A total of 38 subpoenas have now been issued by the joint panel of the state legislature. According to NBC News, that includes a subpoena to Christie’s campaign committee that seeks documents of any communication between Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and former Port Authority deputy director Bill Baroni before Baroni’s November testimony in which he argued the lane closures were part of a traffic study. Officials now assert there was never any study.
The committee investigating the plan is now specifically looking into Christie's helicopter travel to see if he flew over the bridge, allegedly with former Port Authority official David Wildstein, to survey the controversial lane closures. New Jersey State Police issued a statement on Tuesday saying the governor did not fly over the bridge or Fort Lee.
"None of the three flights transporting the governor during that week flew over, or close to either the George Washington Bridge or Fort Lee, including the flight on 9/11," the statement said.
The trip to Illinois is Christie’s third out of trip state since his office became embroiled in scandal a month ago. Before heading back to New Jersey, he’ll go to an RGA fundraising dinner in addition to meeting with a small group of private donors and holding a handful of one-on-one meetings with key donors.