Wednesday, June 4, 2014

New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Recap

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
Here’s a look at yesterday’s vote by the numbers.  It’s long, but worth the read for those interested in GOTV targeting and ballot position logistics.
House District 3 – Republicans
Let’s start with the least surprising outcome.  Tom MacArthur won by a lot, as expected, because the county chairs – George Gilmore in Ocean and Bill Layton in Burlington – didn’t want their local candidates hobbled in November by sharing a ticket with Steve Lonegan. 
MacArthur’s 20 point margin was also fed by the low turnout.  The normal base electorate in CD03 is moderate senior citizens.  Lonegan needed to expand the base by turning out younger libertarian types who do not normally vote in primaries.  His vitriolic personal attacks on MacArthur did the opposite and only 25,000 Republicans showed up to vote – a normal turnout in a less competitive race.
House District 12 – Democrats
I was fairly certain all along that the underlying fundamentals of this district would result in a Bonnie Watson Coleman victory.  But I never foresaw by how much.  This “neck-and-neck” race turned into a 15 point rout! And on very high turnout – over 35,000 voters – to boot.
Here’s how it happened by the numbers.  Each candidate had a certain threshold they needed to achieve.  In order to squeak out a win, Linda Greenstein needed a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 votes out of her home county of Middlesex, about 2,700 out of Mercer, 700 out of Union, and 400 out of Somerset.  She just reached those minimum levels.
The problem was that Watson Coleman exceeded her needed vote counts – by a mile! Her minimum target in Mercer was 7,000 votes based on expected turnout.  She got nearly 11,000! She was pegged to get 2,000 votes out of Union.  She took away 3,000.  And she met her needs in Middlesex (800) and Somerset (500).
The urban vote from Trenton and Plainfield were her anchors.  Despite Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp’s professed concern that the local contest there would hurt Watson Coleman, she came away more than 8-in-10 votes there.  The ballot set-up made it easy for voters to find their way to her despite who they chose in the local council race.
In Trenton, the concern was turnout.  Yesterday’s primary was sandwiched between the Trenton mayor’s race and its subsequent run-off.  Certainly turnout was slightly lower than the Watson Coleman camp would have liked, but still respectable.  And she won nearly 9-in-10 of the 5,000 Trenton voters who showed up.
The real story here wasn’t in the cities, though, but in the suburbs.  The suburban Mercer portion of this district turned out an astounding 12,000 voters yesterday.  Watson Coleman won a solid majority of these suburban voters despite the fact that Greenstein also represents some of those towns in the legislature.
To put it another way, my voter model assumed that about 11,000 voters would show up in Mercer and 8,000 in Middlesex.   It was actually 17,000 in Mercer - 55% over expectations – and 10,700 in Middlesex – 33% over expectations.
The over performance in Middlesex was not too surprising.  Many figured that a solid effort by Grenstein and county chair Kevin McCabe could get out a certain number of atypical primary voters.  However, very few observers believed that the Watson Coleman team could match, let alone exceed, any elevated GOTV numbers Greenstein might produce.
In the other parts of the district, Union’s turnout of 4,000 votes was within expectations, but Somerset’s 4,300 vote turnout exceeded expectations there.  That’s another part of the story that bears mentioning.
Upendra Chivukula ran a solid campaign for someone who had the deck stacked against him.  He took nearly 3,000 votes out of his home county of Somerset.  His 68% majority there was actually better than Watson Coleman in Mercer (64%) and Greenstein in Middlesex (60%).  He also garnered nearly 2,800 votes in Middlesex and 1,700 in Mercer. 
In fact, he won South Brunswick 43% to 38% – a town that was part of Greenstein’s core base before redistricting in 2011.  He also won quite a few precincts throughout Middlesex and in the Windsors that have sizable Asian populations.
These numbers should give pause to anyone in Middlesex looking to throw Chivukula off the line in next year’s legislative elections.  [Chivukula’s hometown of Franklin Twp is the only Somerset municipality in the 17th district.]
Chivukula was not the spoiler.  Throwing his vote total in Middlesex County to Greenstein still would not have changed the outcome.  One wildcard is whether Greenstein would have been able to nab the Somerset line if Chivukula had not run.  But even then, she would have gotten only maybe another 1,000 to 1,500 votes because turnout there would have been lower. 
Chivukula performed as well as he did not just by taking votes away from Greenstein.  He certainly did that to some degree, but he also expanded his own base by getting out the vote in the Asian community.  That’s the kind of candidate you want on your ticket in a place like Middlesex County.
In the end, Bonnie Watson Coleman won this race in suburban Mercer.  I don’t think the video of Greenstein calling Mercer Dems her enemies had much impact on voters.  But I bet it put a spur in the saddle of local party leaders, giving them even more impetus to put their GOTV efforts into hyperdrive.
House District 7 – Republicans
I really didn’t expect this race to be on my recap list.  Movement conservative David Larsen has run against Leonard Lance twice before.  The first time was for an open seat in 2010.  Lance beat Larsen by 24 points in a field of four candidates.  Two years ago, incumbent Lance fended off Larsen by a healthy 61% to 39% margin.
This year, Lance’s victory was a much slimmer 54% to 46%.  Turnout played a major role.  In 2012, Lance got 23,400 votes in the primary.  This year, he took only 15,700.  Larsen, on the other, hand nearly matched his vote total from two years ago.  He had 15,200 votes in 2012 and 13,100 votes in 2014.  Larsen supporters are stalwarts.  Unlike in CD03, these core primary voters veer to the right ideologically.
While Lance is safe for another two years, this primary actually had up-ballot implications and may have helped determine the winner of the GOP’s US Senate nomination.
U.S. Senate – Republicans
Anybody, including me, who tried to predict this outcome ended up getting burned.  I also lost my bet to Paul Mulshine.  No candidate reached 30% of the vote.  The prior record for a low primary victory plurality was Brendan Byrne’s 30.3% in 1977, in a much more crowded field.
How did we get to this result since none of the candidates spent much, if any, money on their campaigns?  For one, fewer than 143,000 New Jersey Republicans showed up.  I’m not even going to bother to look this one up.  It has to be a modern day low for a contested statewide primary!
This low turnout race came down to county lines and ballot positions.  If you never believed either factor matters much, read on and be amazed!
Fourteen of New Jersey’s 21 county GOP organizations endorsed a candidate in the US Senate race.  That chosen candidate won 11 of those 14 counties.  But that is not the whole story.
There is a good deal of research on the value of nabbing the first ballot position in low-information races.  Yesterday’s primary proved that.  Among counties with no organizational endorsement, the candidate who landed in the first ballot position won 5 of those 7 counties!  In fact, the person who lucked out with the first ballot position came in either first or second place in 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.
I anticipated this pattern, which is why I thought Goldberg had the best shot of securing the nomination.  He had the party line and the first position in 4 counties, the party line but not first position in 6 counties, and first position without the line in 2 counties.  By contrast, Murray Sabrin had one line and 7 first positions.  Rich Pezzullo had only three county lines and two first positions.  Jeff Bell had no lines and 5 first positions.
Given this distribution of lines and prime ballot position how did Jeff Bell win? 
Bell won 4 of the 5 counties where he had the first ballot position.  He won Burlington, where Goldberg had the “line” (more on that below), and Morris County where he had the last ballot spot in a county with no endorsed candidate.  He also took second place in 8 other counties.  That translates to 14 “top two” showings. 
Goldberg, on the other hand, won 7 of the 10 counties where held the line.  Unfortunately for him, he tanked in those counties where he didn’t have organizational support.  It is an amazing juxtaposition.  He came in dead last in 10 of the 11 counties where he did not have party support, usually failing to get out of the single digits in those counties! 
Goldberg also came in last in Burlington County, where he had the county endorsement.  However, the ballot wasn’t structured in lines – Goldberg was not visually linked with MacArthur running in CD03 and the local favorites.  The names were actually stacked, with Sabrin atop Goldberg and Pezzullo in the first column and Bell all by himself in the second column.  In practical terms, Sabrin and Bell both had “first position” on the ballot and consequently ended up tying for first in Burlington with 32% of the vote each.
The lack of a visible “line” rendered the party endorsement meaningless for Goldberg.  If nothing proves the importance of “lines” and ballot positions, this one result should.
The places where Goldberg had an actual line but lost were Hunterdon and Somerset.  This is where the Lance-Larsen CD07 race comes into play.  Conservative Rich Pezzullo won Hunterdon.  While he wasn’t bracketed with Larsen, he likely won the support of Larsen voters – who would not support any part of the organizational ticket – by virtue of being listed first on the ballot.  A similar phenomenon occurred in Somerset, although in this case Bell was the beneficiary of drawing the first position and sopping up support from the anti-organization Larsen contingent.
It’s entirely possible that Pezzullo would have won the nomination if he was lucky enough to draw first ballot position in more than just two counties.  That’s how important this factor was in New Jersey’s Senate primary.  However, there may have been another issue at play here.
Bell, the eventual winner, never bothered to go to any of the state’s county parties to ask for their support.  He won on the basis of being lucky enough to draw the first position in counties where no party line was awarded and by being the top choice of GOP voters who rejected their county organizations’ favored candidate.  Why him over the others? 
Barring ideology or other issue positions, people tend to vote for candidates who they feel are like them.  Yesterday’s election featured a low turnout base of core GOP primary stalwarts.  Let’s see, you got MURRAY Sabrin, Rich PEZZULLO, and Brian GOLDBERG on one hand.  And then there is “Jeff Bell.”
You get just 4,000 or so GOP primary voters who make their pick based on a name they feel comfortable with, and voila - there’s your nominee.

Monday, June 2, 2014

New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Outlook

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
New Jersey has a few interesting primary contests in federal races tomorrow, some with greater consequences than others.  Here’s my take on the few competitive ones.
House District 12 – Democrats
Monmouth University’s poll two weeks ago showed a very tight race between State Senator Linda Greenstein and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.  This race will come down to geography.  Each leading candidate has the full-throated support of the party organization in her home county – Greenstein in Middlesex and Watson Coleman in Mercer. The presence of Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula effectively took Somerset County off the table for either, although Watson Coleman was able to nab the Union County line amidst a very convoluted local election in Plainfield.
This race really boils down to voter turnout, particular county-by-county.  Keep in mind that turnout for this primary is likely to be in the 20,000 to 25,000 range. 
Greenstein should win the Middlesex portion with about 70% of the vote, with Chivukula, who represents two towns there, coming in second with about 15%.  Watson Coleman will split the remainder of the vote with a fourth candidate, South Brunswick resident Andrew Zwicker. 
Watson Coleman will win the Mercer vote, but the question is whether her majority will be closer to 55% or closer to 65%.  Greenstein, who represents a number of towns in the county, will come in second with at least 20% of the vote.
Somerset will go handily to Chivukula – he’ll take at least two-thirds of the vote – with Watson Coleman and Greenstein vying for second.  Thus, this county should have limited impact on determining the victor unless the overall margin is less than 100 votes.
Union County is the wildcard in this race.  Watson Coleman has the line and her name will appear on the ballot just below Cory Booker and above county chair Jerry Green’s endorsed slate.  Most of this is in Plainfield which is facing a pitched battle for city council, with Green’s slate under Watson Coleman in column A and Mayor Adrian Mapp’s slate all by itself in column E.  Although Watson Coleman is supported by both sides in Plainfield, the local battle has cost her resources in the form of shared literature drops and get out the vote efforts.  In addition, Chivukula appears at the top of an off-the-line county freeholder slate.  Although those candidates are not campaigning – the slate is a byproduct of the local race in Elizabeth – the presence of an alternative ticket may attract some hardcore supporters of the Mapp team in a town where none of the Congressional candidates have any real name recognition.
Despite the potential confusion, Watson Coleman will win the Union County vote.  The question is by how much.  This is just one of the multiple moving parts in this race which, if adjusted ever so slightly in certain combinations, will determine the eventual outcome.
Looking at Democratic primary voting trends over the past couple of election cycles, Mercer has a history of contributing the largest share of the vote in the towns that currently constitute the 12th Congressional District – specifically, more than 4-in-10 of the total votes.  Middlesex usually contributes less than one-third, Union about 15% and Somerset just over 10%.  The local race in Plainfield may spur turnout in that city while the fact that tomorrow’s primary is sandwiched between a Trenton mayoral election and its subsequent runoff may reduce turnout there.
What Greenstein needs to do to win: turn out enough voters in her base so that Middlesex voters comprise more than one-third of the total district vote and take at least 25% of the vote in both Mercer and Union.
What Watson Coleman needs to do to win: turn out at least 6,000 voters in Trenton and earn 60% majorities in both Mercer and Union.
The difference between Middlesex making up 32% versus 33% of the total turnout and Greenstein winning 24% versus 25% in Mercer County – or some similar combination of moving parts – could be the deciding factor in this race.
Having said that, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that Watson Coleman will win by 2 points.  But I won’t be the least bit surprised if this forecast turns out to be wrong.
House District 3 – Republicans
This race has gone from nasty to unseemly.  Steve Lonegan violated a cardinal rule – it is one thing to say that your opponent ran a horrible company that hurt people.  That can be used to show a lack of judgment, competence, etc.  It is quite another, though, to accuse your opponent of being a horrible person – unless you have a secretly recorded video to back you up.  Voters don’t react kindly to unsupported assaults on a person’s character.  They view this strategy as a sign of desperation.
Moreover, these type of ad hominem attacks only serve to depress turnout.  That’s good for Steve Lonegan, you say?  The conventional wisdom is that the most conservative candidate will win a low turnout primary, you say?
That may be true in Mississippi, but not in the middle of New Jersey.  Monmouth University’s poll from last month showed that while Lonegan was winning the strongest conservatives among likely voters in CD03, Tom MacArthur was winning most other conservatives as well as moderates – who make up a larger share of the electorate. 
Lonegan’s support actually relies on younger libertarian-oriented voters who are generally turned off by politics and infrequently vote in primaries.  The typical CD03 GOP primary voter is a middle-of-the-road senior citizen.  Lonegan would have done even worse in our poll if we had tightened the likely voter model.  And low turnout is the direction this race is likely to go.
Prediction: MacArthur by 16 points.
U.S. Senate – Republicans
In case you were wondering, four candidates are vying for the GOP nomination to face incumbent Cory Booker in November.  Three of them have run statewide races before.  One has never run for elected office.  Can you guess which one has, at least nominally, the most support from the Republican establishment?
Even though three of the candidates have faced the voters before, New Jerseyans have short memories and none have any name recognition to speak of, as we found out in a February Monmouth/Asbury Park Press Poll.
We have little hard evidence on how this race is shaping up.  There has been almost no campaign activity and there has been no polling – either internally or independently.  For my own part, I can’t justify spending more money to field a poll than most of the candidates have raised for their own campaigns.
We will know soon enough who gets the honor of losing to Booker in November. But that shouldn’t stop us from making predictions, right?  In lieu of actual polling I arbitrarily assigned weights to party endorsements and ballot positions to forecast potential vote share in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties.  Putting all that data through the Vote-O-Matic processor turned up this entirely feasible – or totally bogus – outcome: 
Brian Goldberg 35%, Jeff Bell 23%, Rich Pezzullo 22%, and Murray Sabrin 20%.
As a side note, I have a bet with Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine on the outcome of this race.  Not on who will win, but on whether the winning candidate will be able to break 30%.  Historical context: Gov. Brendan Byrne barely broke 30% in a crowded primary when he ran for a second term in 1977.  Who knows how this will turn out – but with a six-pack of Flying Fish riding on the outcome, I certainly hope I’m right.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

When it comes to profiling Christie, facts are for wussies

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
In the movie Love & Death, the main character impersonates a Spanish ambassador and is asked how much progress he’s made on a pending treaty.  The ersatz diplomat replies, “I've come up with all the little details.  If I can just think of the main points, we got something.”
A recent New Yorker profile of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned this quote on its head.  It got all the main points right, but it misfired on the details. 
Ryan Lizza’s article was geared toward a national audience that has recently turned its attention to the Garden State’s chief executive.  It was not aimed at me, but the number of errors in material fact and other arguable characterizations of history were off-putting to anyone with a modicum of knowledge of recent history.
Let’s take a look at a few blunders that jumped off the page.
The 2006 U.S. Senate race was not contested by Congressman Robert Menendez as the article claims.  Menendez was actually a U.S. Senator during the time period discussed.  He was appointed by Jon Corzine to fill the newly elected governor’s vacant seat in January of that year.  That means Menendez was already in the Senate before Solomon Dwek was arrested and turned government informant.  It would be pretty difficult for Christie to turn his attention on “Menendez, then a Jersey City congressman” unless he had a WABAC machine.  And for the record, Menendez is known as either a “Union City” or “Hudson County” politician.
The article also asserts that top Democrats were considering a run for governor later in Christie’s first term because “Christie’s popularity began to dip in 2012.”  While some politicos may have thought Christie was beatable, his poll numbers were fairly stable in 2012 until Superstorm Sandy hit, at which point they skyrocketed.  According to three independent polls that regularly track the governor – Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University, and FDU-Public Mind – Christie’s voter approval rating never went lower than 50% or higher than 59% from January to October that year.
While there were some minor fluctuations in the 16 poll readings taken during that ten month period, there is no point where a “dip” is evident.  In fact, Christie’s job approval ratings in 2012 were consistently higher than they had been during his first two years in office.  His average job approval rating for 2010 was 46%, in 2011 it was 50%, and for the first ten months of 2012 it was 54%.  I’m pretty sure if I plot that on a graph, we won’t find any dip.
Another material error in the article is that the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is not, in fact, a charter school under New Jersey law, but a specially legislated “Renaissance School.”  This distinction is noteworthy because the special designation was created in part to help George Norcross’s foundation avoid the onerous charter school application process.  The irony here is that reporting the more accurate designation would have strengthened the author’s argument about Christie’s style.
Other statements stand out not because they are technically incorrect but because they are somewhat misleading.  For example, saying “Christie and his prosecutors gave Dwek a second assignment” to ensnare politicians makes it sound like it was thrust upon the Dwek rather than coming at Dwek’s prompting, as has been reported elsewhere.
The article also contends that George Norcross and former Gov. Jim Florio are both “from Camden” with the context suggesting that they grew up in the city.  While both were Camden County politicians, neither hails from Camden City.  Norcross grew up in neighboring Pennsauken and Florio was raised in not-so-neighboring Brooklyn.  Florio did move to Camden as an adult to attend law school before settling in a suburban community.
Oh.  And one more. New Jersey has 565 municipalities, not 566 as the article claims.  Although perhaps the New Yorker would have us believe that Staten Island is part of the Garden State rather than the Empire State.  I hear that’s a pretty popular idea among its readership.
These errors and mischaracterizations are minor you might say.  True.  It doesn’t necessarily undermine the overall theme of Christie’s personality and governing approach the article attempts to portray.  But in a time when mainstream journalism is under attack for both lack of relevancy and declining standards, you’ve got to wonder…
It is only fitting then to end by misappropriating another movie line that is itself an erroneous quote.  To wit: “Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!”

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Race is On!

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 

But seriously, an explanation may be in order.
This “revelation” stemmed from an interview with the Star-Ledger’s Matt Friedman on Sweeney’s elevated profile in recent months.  As I said to Matt, you can’t talk about whether Sweeney is “in campaign mode” without considering Fulop’s recent activities as well.  Both Democrats are positioning themselves for a run at Drumthwacket.
In fact, the next gubernatorial campaign kicked off almost immediately after Chris Christie’s re-election in November.  Two weeks later to be precise.
At the annual League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City, Sweeney hosted a well-attended reception.  That’s not unusual for a legislative leader.  The incoming Assembly Speaker, Vincent Prieto, held another well-attended event that week.
What was unusual was the high profile reception hosted by the brand new mayor of Jersey City the next evening.  The 5th floor of the Chelsea Hotel was jam-packed with Democratic movers and shakers jockeying to rub shoulders with a rising star.  Fulop made an unmistakable statement that night – he fully intends to be a major player in state politics.
I do not doubt that Sweeney’s interest in statewide issues, such as the Sandy Victim’s Bill of Rights, is genuinely part of his role as New Jersey’s legislative leader.  I also believe that Fulop’s active participation in the Newark mayor’s race is to help foster a united front on urban issues.
You cannot ignore, though, that these moves are equally about shoring up support, and supporters, in counties that will be crucial in a contested Democratic priority.  While neither has actually declared his candidacy, both are engaging in behavior that can only be read as the intent to run if the opportunity presents itself.
I have never seen this level of activity four years ahead of a scheduled election.  The key word there being “scheduled.”  There’s a decent possibility that the next gubernatorial election will occur earlier than scheduled.
Back in November, some observers believed that Gov. Christie may end up resigning early in order to run for president; a resignation necessitated by federal campaign funding rules.  This would result in a special election one or even two years early.  While Christie’s presidential prospects may have dimmed, there are still some who believe the state may be facing an early election, albeit for distinctly different reasons.
The bottom line is that potential candidates for New Jersey’s next governor have to be prepared to run at any time.  They cannot count on a four year timeline to undertake the groundwork for launching a campaign.
Under normal circumstances, a mayor would not want to be seen as actively looking to move up the ladder after just a few months on the job.  If Fulop followed the normal course of a rising prospect by quietly building support, though, he could be on left out in the cold when it comes time to claim county lines in an early primary.
Thus, the mayor of Jersey City has decided to up the ante.  The Newark mayor’s race is as much about who will control the Essex County party during the next gubernatorial primary as it is about who will run Newark.  It also doesn’t escape notice that the candidate Fulop is hoping to defeat could be another gubernatorial contender with urban credentials to rival Fulop’s if he won.
If he wants to position himself for the governorship, Steve Fulop cannot afford to cede the field to Steve Sweeney.  But this also means that the Senate President has been forced to up his game as well.
One danger in an overly protracted campaign is that either or both candidates could flame out.  It’s also possible that either or both candidates may choose not to run when the time comes.  But with an uncertain horizon for the next election, both need to be ready.
Some may see Steve Sweeney’s current statewide tour as a gubernatorial gavotte, but in this case it takes two to tango.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Sandy aid requires serious oversight

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on February 7, 2014.

A legislative investigation into George Washington Bridge lane closures has become inextricably linked to the distribution of Hurricane Sandy recovery aid. No one has tied the Fort Lee incident to Sandy funds. However, the roles of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and individuals inside the agency, in development projects both in Fort Lee and the storm-hit community of Hoboken, have raised questions about whether Sandy aid has been properly distributed.

The media have uncovered a few instances where federal recovery dollars were used to support development outside Sandy’s hardest-hit communities. This is the first time the public is learning about how these funds have been used.

To date, most New Jerseyans approve of how Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has handled Sandy recovery. In December, a Monmouth University poll found 66 percent of residents statewide were satisfied with the pace of recovery, although that number was down from 76 percent in September.

It’s a different story among residents who suffered the most from the storm. On Sandy’s one-year anniversary, Monmouth released a survey specifically of victims displaced from their homes. This poll found that only 38 percent of hardest-hit New Jerseyans were satisfied with recovery efforts.

The biggest issue we uncovered is that most victims don’t know where they stand in the aid process. As one Toms River applicant for ReNew Jersey Stronger assistance stated, "We were informed that we were wait-listed, (but) do not know how or why." Imagine how these victims feel when they learn about millions in Sandy funds underwriting senior housing in Belleville or an apartment tower in New Brunswick.

Now the Sandy recovery is mixed in with the scandals surrounding the governor’s office. That means everyone involved in investigating these issues must exercise restraint, while implementing full transparency when it comes to Sandy aid.

To this end, I propose the following:

1. Get off TV. Lawmakers must refrain from discussing Bridgegate, Hobokengate or any other element of the investigation in the media. The rush for the national spotlight, especially among Democrats, is undermining the credibility of an inquiry that poses significant consequences for both Christie and the state. The only time members of the special investigations committee should face the cameras is during a public hearing.

2. Greater bipartisanship. The special investigations committee should add two Republican members to increase the partisan balance and ensure that those in the minority fully participate in deliberations about evidence and procedures.

3. Compel immediate transparency on Sandy aid. All Sandy-related community block grants awarded to date should be posted on the state’s website. The governor vetoed legislation that would have required this as "redundant." His decision now looks like it had ulterior motives. If first lady Mary Pat Christie’s charity can post all of its Sandy awards online, so can her husband’s administration.

4. Let Sandy victims know where they stand. A proposed "Bill of Rights" should allow residents who applied for ReNew Jersey Stronger aid to track the status of their application online, including for which programs they are considered eligible, the potential amounts they may receive, how many other applicants are ahead of them, and when their name is expected to reach the top of the list.

5. Launch a truly independent investigation into Sandy aid disbursements.Given the governor’s foot-dragging and questionable appointment of his own "integrity monitor," the Legislature should recommend a short list of independent special investigators specifically to oversee and report on the distribution of all Sandy aid to communities and individual residents. The governor should appoint an investigator from that list. If he doesn’t do so within 30 days, the appointment should be made by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

Considering the damage inflicted on the state by Hurricane Sandy and the potential damage posed by the Bridgegate investigation, New Jersey deserves a full and fair hearing and complete transparency. Anything less is unacceptable.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

True or Not, Wildstein Letter Hurts “Christie 2016”

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
Former NY/NJ Port Authority exec David Wildstein claims to know of “evidence” that contradicts Chris Christie’s statements about when he knew of Bridgegate.  If true, the governor’s political career is all but over. If false, the governor’s political ambitions have still suffered a serious, and potentially permanent, setback.  It all hinges on his effectiveness as RGA chair. 
In a letter to the Port Authority, Wildstein’s lawyer states that “evidence exists …. tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference [January 9].”
A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll conducted in the days after that press conference found that most New Jerseyans did not believe that the governor was being completely honest about when he found out about the George Washington Bridge toll lane closures. In other words, they were willing to cut him some slack if he actually found out about his staff’s involvement earlier than he has told us. However, they did not believe he was involved in the closure decision itself.
In its initial reaction to the latest charges, the Christie administration parsed the text of the letter and their own response very carefully.  Rather than refer to the governor’s January 9th statements they went back to an earlier press conference, saying that “[a]s the governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press.”
In fact, the first press report on the lane closures was in a traffic column in The Record published on September 13 – the last day of the lane closures.  Thus the governor can claim that he never said he did not know about the incident at all “during the period when the lanes were closed.”  In so doing, Christie’s camp asserts that “Mr. Wildstein's lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along - he had absolutely no prior knowledge.”
The governor has proven to be a very accomplished word parser in extracting himself from apparent contradictions.  However, this one is skating very close to the Bill Clinton “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” territory.  It’s not clear how much more parsing the public will accept.
Are the charges true?  We really don’t know.  It’s clear that Wildstein has ulterior motives, the most obvious of which is he needs to be able to pay for his defense.  There is an oblique and intriguing reference to Port Authority Commissioner David Samson being copied on prior correspondence but not later correspondence after Samson was implicated in the potential misuse of Sandy recovery funds.   Is there an implicit threat to the Port Authority in this letter as well?
While Wildstein enjoyed having a position of power in the Christie administration he was never the Christie loyalist that some in the media have made him out to be.  He is a person who relishes being at the center of the political action, which is what makes him so dangerous to Christie.
The Christie circle realizes that. Otherwise the administration would not have sent out a scathing email on Friday eviscerating David Wildstein’s veracity. The fact that this email came from one of the administration’s press officers, and not from the campaign or an outside group, is an indication that the Christie camp is more than a little scared.  As well they should be, because true or not, the damage has been done.
Let’s assume that none of the allegations in the letter are true; that no such “evidence” that Christie lied about what he knew ever surfaces. If this investigation peters out in the next few months, Chris Christie has more than enough time to rebuild his reputation before the 2016 campaign gets underway in earnest. 
Christie may even garner some sympathy from conservative Republicans nationwide who are skeptical of his ideology.  Christie can paint this whole episode as a political witch-hunt designed to undermine the GOP’s best hope of winning the White House.  In the long term, Christie can regain his reputation.  But he will suffer short-term hits that will undercut his strategy for 2016.
First is the Christie persona that he can get things done, even with a legislature controlled by the opposite party.  Even before the Bridgegate scandal hit, there was no expectation that Christie’s second term agenda would be particularly ambitious.  He needed to propose a big idea or two – that didn’t need to go anywhere – and focus on balancing a budget without any tax increases.
He still had some ability to provide some direct benefits to legislative leaders and their allies in the forms of funneling grant money their way, greenlighting charter schools in favored areas, etc.  This would have been enough for him to still hold a strong hand in the budgeting process this year.
Months ago, the Democratic National Committee began to run web ads on attacking Christie on the lane closures before there was any direct link to his administration.  Powerful Democratic boss George Norcross basically told them to lay off Christie.
That was then.  Last week, before the Wildstein attorney letter was published, the state Democratic chair issued a scathing letter encouraging his fellow Democrats to hold Christie’s feet to the fire on this.  That letter wouldn’t have been issued without the tacit approval of all factions of the party, including the Norcross wing.
Why?  The political risks to Democrats own futures now outweigh any of the transactional benefits they may have got from working with Christie.  They can’t afford to be seen as having Christie’s back – particularly with a contested Democratic primary for governor looming in the near future.   And that is going to make life tough for Christie the leader.
The other problem for Chris Christie is how these new revelations impact his effectiveness as chair of the Republican Governor’s Association.  There are more than 30 contested gubernatorial contests this year, including key states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Gov. Christie was going to be spending a lot of time in these states campaigning with and – most importantly – raising money for the GOP candidates in these races.
There is no question that Christie would have been the biggest fundraising draw any of the candidates will have this year.  And that would mean a lot when it comes time to call in chits for support in 2016 primaries and caucuses.
This was all part of the Christie team’s grand plan to squeeze out all other “establishment” contenders for the GOP presidential nomination.  It would leave him alone among a gaggle of conservative true-believers who would split voter support.  This would provide Christie the opening to galvanize moderate support and navigate through the crucial early contests until he became the inevitable nominee.
The lynchpin in all this was earning the early endorsements of party leaders, both nationally and in the early battleground states.  Christie’s RGA chairmanship would be the vehicle to make this happen.
As of this now, Republican leaders have not publicly abandoned him.  But these latest charges have made them nervous.  The danger is whether GOP candidates begin to feel that the political risk of being associated with Christie outweighs his fundraising power?  Their elections are this November.  They don’t have time to wait and see if Christie can get clear of these accusations.
Without a way to earn those chits as the party’s fundraiser-in-chief, Chris Christie will be just one of the pack in 2016.  And these charges, even if they are ultimately proven false, will have done permanent damage to Christie’s presidential aspirations.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jersey Leg Inquiries Need to Proceed Cautiously

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
The accusations are flying fast and furious in New Jersey.  It’s time to take a deep breath.
By now we have all heard Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s bombshell this weekend that Christie administration officials pressured her to approve a development in her town or Sandy-related aid would be withheld.  The most stunning allegation involved Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno making the quid pro quo very clear in a private conversation.
Guadagno denied that she made any such statement.  I am not going to rehash all the exact claims, but there is enough doubt on all sides that New Jersey legislators investigating this in a public forum need to proceed with caution for the good of the state.
Mayor Zimmer’s account of her conversation with LG Guadagno was recorded in her diary four days after it happened.  Here is how Zimmer reports it: "…at the end of a big tour of Shoprite meeting she pulls me aside with no one else around and says that I need to move forward with the Rockefeller project. It is very important to the Gov.  The word is that you are against it and you need to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you.  Are other towns being required to develop in exchange for the help with the flooding I asked?   [In margins:] 'I know that's not right – these things should not be connected – they r.' She says - if u tell anyone that I will deny it."
Here is part of LG Guadagno’s response today: “Mayor Zimmer’s version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined. Any suggestion – any suggestion – that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false.”
But she also said this:  “Frankly, I’m surprised that Mayor Zimmer has chosen to mischaracterize the conversation I had with her about development and job creation in Hoboken.”
Apparently, there was a conversation about development.  The problem is that the only two people who have access to “the facts” of that conversation disagree on exactly what was said or at least what was meant.
One of the most interesting aspects of LG Guadagno’s short statement to the press today was how much it reminded me of an attorney addressing a jury during closing arguments.  Her inflection changed, she lowered her voice to a near whisper at one point and raised it again with the next point. 
Those years as a prosecutor were on display.  But in this case, she was on the receiving side of the accusations.  And so she did what any good defense lawyer does.  She tried to poke holes in the “logic” of the accusation by pointing out that the mayor had asked for the LG’s help with another development and that the LG visited Hoboken with the mayor months after the alleged quid pro quo conversation.
Indeed, LG Guadagno was addressing a jury.  But in this case it was in the court of public opinion.  Mayor Zimmer says that she did not speak out sooner because she felt she would not be believed.  She is probably correct.  While the media would certainly have paid attention to these accusations, at the end of the day they are simply “she said, she said.” 
Most observers of New Jersey politics would not be surprised to hear that any gubernatorial administration put pressure on a local official to approve a development.  This is New Jersey after all.  But the blatant quid pro quo tied to disaster aid, and coming from such a high official, may be too much to believe.
Within the context of Bridgegate, though, the public may have become more willing to suspend their disbelief about any charges.  And right now the only thing that seems to matter – at least for Gov. Christie’s political future – is whose version of events is more believable.
Of course, these recent charges are more likely to cause Republicans to redouble their own belief that Democrats and the media are on a witch hunt and are similarly more likely to be taken by Democrats as proof positive that the Christie administration is corrupt.  It’s the folks in the middle who have been willing to give Christie the benefit of the doubt so far, as shown in last week’s Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll.  And more importantly, how does this impacts the national Republican establishment’s assessments of Christie’s prospects as a fundraiser now and a contender in 2016?
The problem for New Jersey is that this just got a lot more serious over the weekend.  Speculation about Christie’s political future because of the actions of his staff is now overshadowed by a significant allegation – key word being “allegation” – that has been linked to the governor himself.  LG Guadagno’s focus on undercutting the “logic” of Mayor Zimmer’s claims shows that the Christie administration understands that it is fighting this battle in the court of public opinion as much as in any official inquiry.
The legislature’s investigation into Bridgegate has been based on a pretty clear-cut chain of evidence that some officials did something wrong.  The Sandy recovery aid charges are based on the allegations of one person, albeit a known public official, without any obvious way to corroborate those charges.
The Senate committee investigating the bridge situation is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and is likely to fold these new charges into their inquiry.  The public deserves to have a full and fair hearing on both Bridgegate and these new accusations.  However, the new charges lack a clear chain of evidence at this point for any official investigation to suggest where they may lead.  The committee – both Democrats and Republicans – need to tread carefully.
It will not serve justice or the people of New Jersey for legislators to grandstand – regardless of what side they take – on these new charges.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Christie’s Credibility: A Bridge Too Far?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 

What happened with the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is nowhere near the most atrocious abuse of power we have ever witnessed.  It certainly is not as consequential as widespread NSA wiretapping or Iran-Contra.  And the action itself doesn’t have direct gubernatorial fingerprints like the McGreevey-Cipel or Corzine-Katz affairs.
It is a story that has legs, though, because regardless of the explanation you accept for how it happened, the story undercuts Gov. Christie’s brand image.  That image has been built on two pillars: strong leader and straight shooter.  Bridgegate forced Chris Christie to admit that at least one of those pillars was not what he has claimed and there may be future negative consequences for the other.
In his marathon press conference Thursday, Christie basically admitted that he is not the leader whose moral authority compels people – both Democrats and Republicans – to do the right thing.  The question remains why those in his inner circle felt that they had the license to do these things on behalf of their boss. 
And here is where we need to call it like it is.  The governor cannot plausibly express disappointment in the “tone” taken by his advisors, specifically the fact that his campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, Bill Stepien, called someone an “idiot.”  Christie himself has used this term on more than one occasion, as well as jerk, stupid, numbnuts, and more.  The governor’s disappointment in this aspect of the story does not pass the smell test.
The next point is his shock that this staff would have acted this way.  Bill Stepien is very close to the governor and is well-known as a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners defender of the Christie image.  If those of us who follow this stuff closely know of Stepien’s reputation, why does Christie apparently think he is a choir boy?  I can only assume that Stepien must be the Eddie Haskell of Christie’s inner circle.
I can’t speak to Bridget Kelly’s behavior in all this because I have never encountered her.  Neither has pretty much anyone in the press corps.  And that calls into question the governor’s attempt to downplay the tight reins he keeps on his staff.  We don’t know Bridget Kelly because we weren’t supposed to have access to her.  That wasn’t part of her job description and Christie’s people do not stray from their job descriptions.
And that raises the question about why Kelly felt she had the authority to give David Wildstein the go ahead to create a “traffic problem” in Fort Lee.  At the very least, it must have fit into her own understanding of what her job responsibilities were.
I am in no way saying that Chris Christie ordered the toll booth closures or even knew about them.  I do not believe he did.  However, it’s hard to give credit to the view that he had no inkling that his people were, at the very least, twisting some arms during the 2013 campaign.
And this is where things get politically dangerous for Gov. Christie in the long term.  He spoke for nearly two hours in his press conference.  Lengthy press conferences are a Christie hallmark but this one was different.  It marked the first time in four years where Christie did not end a press conference in better standing than when he started it.  In fact, he ended it slightly worse.
For one, he felt compelled to say he is not a bully – on more than occasion.  Repeatedly denying a charge is never a good thing (cf. I am not a crook, I am not a witch, etc.).  It is especially true in this case since most of Christie’s constituents actually feel he is a “bully” in some regard.  They just haven’t cared about it because he was only bullying other politicians or the odd detractor – all fair game.  Denying something that most people believe to be true can cause the public to question your credibility.
He also contradicted himself in a number of places during those two hours.  For example, he said he wants to get to the bottom of this incident, but oddly he seems to have no interest in talking to the very people who were at the center of it.  It’s not clear whether everything he said will add up when the media starts parsing his responses.  And the possibility exists that Christie’s version of events may not be fully corroborated by others who could be implicated in the unfolding scandal.
It’s one thing for Christie to lose some of the sheen from his leadership mantel.  That can be rebuilt, especially if this incident blows over after a couple of months.  On the other hand, if at any point Chris Christie undercuts his reputation as a straight shooter, his presidential aspirations are in peril.
One lapse in leadership does not necessarily make you a bad leader.  But one lie will permanently brand you a liar.