WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
As Veep Rumors Swirl, Unpacking the Chris Christie Appeal
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
So just how did a failed local New Jersey Republican politician come to be a major player in national politics?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's eight-year stint as a U.S. Attorney earned him the reputation as a bipartisan fighter of political corruption. And his high profile successful terrorism prosecutions out of his Newark office in the aftermath of September 11th gave him the gravitas and media savvy that might elude a former Morris County Freeholder. His two years as governor amassed an impressive list of accomplishments.
The list includes bolstering the state's public pension system, a two-percent cap on property taxes, and significant tenure reform. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment is born out in the polls. He's made New Jersey famous for something other than the Sopranos, Jim McGreevey's bizarre exit and Jon Corzine's surreal implosion.
In some ways Chris Christie's ascent is as much about his political skill and pragmatism as it is about the great national void when it comes to political leadership. The only way to "get" Chris Christie is to go to one of his town halls where he spontaneously interacts with the public and lets the press watch.
Christie has held almost ninety of these town halls since coming into office in 2009 and the crowds have steadily grown. And while local supporters make sure to call and invite their friends, the general public shows up including partisan Democrats who want to give Christie a piece of their mind.
At a recent appearance at Cedar Grove, Christie, the master showman, set the ground rules for the standing-room-only crowd.
"If today's the day that maybe you think it's beautiful weather and I want to take the governor of New Jersey out for a walk," he said. "I think you know what I mean. If that's what you decide to do today I want to give you fair warning we are all from New Jersey."
As much as the interaction with the audience is unscripted, the staging is as precise as the Rockettes. A promo video with evocative string music plays for the audience on a wide screen TV just before his town hall entrances. The audience hears via the video a recounting of Christie's bipartisan successes. Then the Governor on tape invokes his mother.
"My mother used to tell me all the time, 'Christopher, be yourself, because if you're not, you are going to have to worry tomorrow about remembering who you pretended to be yesterday.' So ladies and gentlemen—this is what you get."
When he gets pressed by a Democrat in the audience about why he refuses to raise taxes on the state's wealthiest households, Christie does not hold back.
"We're in no position to. Until I can look at you and say that we have government under control and every dollar we're spending is being spent well, I'm not raising taxes on people on this state."
And whenever he can navigate one of his answers into a broadside aimed at Washington, he does so with relish.
"What we need to do in Washington is do what we've done here in Trenton," Chrsitie tells the audience. "When I've worked well with the Senate president and the speaker, even though they're Democrats, we find areas of compromise and we compromise together. There is always a boulevard that exists between getting everything you want and compromising your principles. Now I'm not going to compromise my principles. I'm not asking anyone else to—but I know I'm not going to get everything I want."
At all of Gov. Christie's town halls, there are two web producers who post these exchanges on Gov. Christie's Youtube channel almost instantaneously. Christie's strategy vaults over the assembled fourth estate, who never get to ask questions and whose presence only reaffirms Christie's prowess with the audience.
After a recent town hall in Lyndhurst, attendee Robert Carley from Connecticut said he so admired Christie for his directness that he decided to drive himself and his girlfriend down to Bergen County for the 60-minute town hall. "I always check Google to see the latest on Christie, and I saw this was scheduled and figured I'd take the day off."
But not all of the audience members are enthralled. At the Cedar Grove town hall, West Orange resident Janet Mandel left in disgust. She had wanted to ask Governor Christie about a New York Times exposé about murders, escapes and mismanagement at a company that runs halfway houses in New Jersey and has links to Christie.
"He just uses it as a way to then talk about what he wants to talk about, all his accomplishments," Mandel said. "[He] never talks about the fact that we have more poverty in New Jersey than we've ever had and we've gone over this 10 percent mark. He talks about how he's saving us all this money, but it's at the expense of this population who is falling into poverty."
All of this said, Gov. Christie continues to be coy about his vice presidential potential. He says he'd entertain the offer and on Tuesday he hosted presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a fundraiser in Woodbridge.