It has come to this: the head of the Republican Governors Association, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, protested this week that he does, in fact, support the Republican challenger to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
From the very beginning, the self-described conservative Republican and the Democratic son of a liberal icon sounded an awful lot alike. “We have the highest tax rates in the nation!” Christie thundered in his first state of the state.
“We have the worst business tax climate in the nation!” echoed Cuomo a year later.
“Our benefits are too rich!” opined Christie.
“The costs of pensions are exploding!” Cuomo chimed in.
It’s a priority to “reduce and reform New Jersey’s habit of excessive government spending!”
“The state of New York is spending too much money!”
The two share national political ambitions. They share top donors like Ken Langone, the Home Depot founder, and big union support like the Port Authority PBA and the New Jersey Laborers. They share political allies like Rudy Giuliani. Advisors to Christie and Cuomo work at the same consulting firm. The two governors even use the same line in their speeches about not being seen as the “butt of late night jokes!” (Christie) or “literally a joke on late night TV!” (That’s Cuomo.)
(Actually, that’s one thing they haven’t been able to change, to the glee of John Stewart, who whips out his wiseguy accent to mock both states.)
It’s hard to argue, given what’s going on in Washington right now, that an all-out partisan war between Cuomo and Christie would be a good thing. But the cooperation between the two so overpowers their differences that voters can rightly ask whether honest public debate — and honest government — has been stifled
Exhibit A: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, jointly run by Christie and Cuomo. Three years ago, late on an August Friday, the two governors issued a statement saying the Port Authority had informed them it wanted to raise tolls by $4 on all its tunnels and bridges.
The following Monday, they were both shocked, shocked — all Captain Reynaud at Rick’s.
“You’re kidding right? That was my response,” Christie offered at a Monday press conference.
“The proposal is a non-starter,” Cuomo chimed in.
As we now know, it was not a surprise to either of them. It was all coordinated political theater. The two governors had decided, over the objections of some Port Authority staffers, to ask for a big hike so they could look heroic when it was lowered. Christie and Cuomo sealed the deal at the luxe Beacon’s restaurant on W. 56th Street, where roast suckling pig with apples was on the menu.
Weeks later, as planned, the governors “lowered” the proposed increase by $2. Because of the sleight of hand, there was no meaningful debate on the level of hike really needed.
Fast forward to December 2013. Cuomo’s appointee to the Port Authority, Executive Director Pat Foye, had just publicly contradicted the Christie administration’s cover story on Bridgegate when he testified before the legislature. Foye says there was no “traffic study,” and called what happened in Fort Lee in September “aberrational” and “illegal.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Christie called Cuomo to “complain that Foye was pushing too hard.”
Nope, said Christie. That's not what happened. “When the story came out yesterday, I called [Cuomo] and said, 'Did we talk about this?' And he said no, and I said, 'I didn’t think so, good. I want to make sure I’m not going crazy.' ” Up in Albany, Cuomo said, “I’m sure it is as Gov. Christie says it is.”
At almost the same time, Cuomo was making his own phone calls to Trenton. A source told The New York Post that Christie and his wife Mary Pat had encouraged New York GOP gubernatorial hopeful Rob Astorino to run against Cuomo.
Nope, Cuomo said: “I spoke to Gov. Christie this morning, who told me the exact opposite.”
Since then, Christie has called Astorino’s campaign “a lost cause” and refused to provide any financial support from the Republican Governors Association. A couple of weeks ago, Christie even seemed to forget there was a race in New York.
Every year, Cuomo holds a fluff event upstate called the Adirondack Challenge, where politicians get to show how game they are to get soaked while white water rafting. Two sources tell WNYC that Christie planned to go, but pulled out at the last minute. Maybe it’s best that the head of the Republican Governors Association wasn’t seen splashing around with a Democratic governor just a few months before the election. Especially in light of what was about to come out.
That week, The New York Times reported in devastating detail that Cuomo had set up an "independent" anti-corruption commission, then steered the commission away from looking into his own campaign. Some days later, Cuomo held a press conference. In honor of the event, aides lined up several statements of support, including one from the commission co-chair, which the governor then extensively quoted.
“What does he say?” Cuomo said, his voice rising. “Because he’s the only one who knows. What does he say? He says there was no interference whatsoever.”
The U.S. Attorney from Manhattan, Preet Bharara, was already investigating the governor’s handling of the commission. After Cuomo’s press conference, Bharara slapped Cuomo for possible “witness tampering.” But Christie would not pile on.
“I’m not commenting on criminal investigations that are ongoing,” Christie snapped at reporters a few days later. “I’m just not! So stop asking, ‘cause I’m not commenting!”
Maybe Christie is so reluctant to criticize because his team also had a hand in orchestrating statements, just like his counterpart across the river. Last December, Christie’s incoming chief of staff helped write legislative testimony for then-Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, a key Bridgegate figure. Just like his New York counterpart, the New Jersey governor made sure to highlight the talking points when he stood in front of reporters.
“A mistake was made," he said."I think the senator admitted that, from the testimony I heard. That they believe the traffic study needed to be done but that they didn’t do it appropriately or correctly.”
That testimony has been proven false. And just like his counterpart across the river, Christie is now under investigation by the U.S. attorney in his state.
For years, both Christie and Cuomo were masters of controlling their parallel narratives in the service of their outsized ambition. Both helped the other tell their stories. But now, prosecutors get to write the next chapter.
— additional reporting by Matt Katz