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.