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.