Governor Chris Christie’s first term was halfway through, but already a specialized unit of his office began laying the groundwork for his reelection.
Run by his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and later, Bridget Kelly (infamous for her "time for some traffic problems" email), the unit was manned in large part by former Republican campaign operatives who would go on to work on Christie's re-election campaign.
During government hours, these operatives analyzed voting data, identified potential volunteers for the reelection campaign -- and distributed dozens and dozens of American flags from Ground Zero to towns across North Jersey.
Bridgegate documents and legislative testimony have shed light on this flag distribution program. Run by the same unit of the governor’s office that sanctioned the closure of George Washington Bridge lanes, Christie staffers appeared to have used the flags as gifts to gain political favor with certain local politicians, particularly Democrats whose endorsements were coveted.
This was all part of a larger permanent campaign that Christie has run since he first sought office in 2009. Christie's ability to win over mayors, particularly Democrats, helped propel him to a dominant re-election victory that affirmed his status as a Republican with cross-over appeal, and therefore, the front-runner for the nomination for president in 2016. The constant campaigning has become increasingly common, political analysts say, for anyone who wants to run for president.
"Where Chris Christie is unique in a certain way is that he has been able to so far put together a tremendous national network of supporters, operatives, financial donors who are ready to be part of a Christie 2016 effort," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
For Team Christie, the flags were just one piece of a highly sophisticated operation run by some of the state's top political minds.
Bridgegate testimony revealed that Christie appointees at the Port Authority collected the flags, which had flown over Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and sent them to Kelly, who stored them in her office. She ordered Christie aides to deliver the flags to mayors, who received the flags personally along with certificates and letters from the governor.
"My understanding from what I was told is that these flags were given to municipalities that had an undue, a large loss of life," said Matt Mowers, a Christie aide, in testimony before the Legislature's Bridgegate committee earlier this year.
But in fact even towns with as few as one death on Sept. 11 got flags. And a flag was given to a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in a town that suffered no deaths.
Mowers told the Legislature’s Bridgegate committee that giving out flags was part of a larger effort simply focused on constituent relations, helping mayors cut through red tape and build personal relationships in the governor's office.
Yet during these flag-distribution events, the mayors talked politics and endorsements. On May 18, 2012, Mowers dropped off a flag with Democratic Mayor Peter Massa of North Arlington. They took a walk downtown and Massa showed Mowers what Catholic school he attended. And then the conversation shifted political, with the mayor telling Mowers that he had affinity for the governor from his US Attorney days, and had supported Republicans in the past.
“While he is older now, and seemingly less political, I think there may be a chance we can win his endorsement next year due to those two things,” Mowers wrote in a subsequent memo.
Internal governmental memos about the flags were filled with political talk. They detailed which Republicans were faithful, for example, and which Democrats could be soft targeted for endorsements. Democrats say the memos make the flags appear like Trojan Horses -- a cover, of sorts, for tax-funded workers to get into town and do some old-fashioned politics.
During testimony earlier this year, Mowers denied that, describing any political talk as secondary and incidental.
“I mean, often these flag drop-offs or any other meeting that we had, it starts with, obviously, the official duties, but the mayor is also just interested in getting to know you and wants to have a conversation with you," Mowers testified.
Mayors expressed deep appreciation for what was seen as a rare gift, and the flags appeared to have immediate political benefits for them. At subsequent town council meetings, mayors told the community about the honor the governor had bestowed on their towns.
Many of the mayors who received flags were politically coveted. Their names show up on lists that Christie staffers appear to have used to bestow favored treatment, like invitations to town hall meetings, New York Giants games and the governor’s mansion.
Whether the courtship was based on public service or politics or a combination of both, it worked. Dozens of Democratic officials endorsed Christie, propelling him to a 22-point re-election victory last November.
That victory was rooted in a perma-campaign first evident when Christie's allies solicited money on his behalf even after he first became governor in 2010. These funds were funneled into newly-created advocacy groups like Reform Jersey Now, which began airing pro-Christie radio ads in June of that year. In 2011, the Committee for Our Children's Future created TV ads with a bipartisanship theme.
Two weeks after his bipartisan-fueled reelection win last year, Christie was off to Arizona, where he was installed as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a job that has taken him out of state more than 60 days this year alone.
This was another key stage in the perma-campaign. Christie is now wooing wealthy Republicans at private fundraisers throughout the country -- building relationships with the same people who also donate to Republican presidential candidates. He is also publicly campaigning for candidates – thereby collecting favors and building name recognition on the local news from Mississippi to Maine.
And there's also a lesser-noticed side benefit of being RGA chairman. Christie has broad discretion over staff and consultants, so some of the money he’s raising is going right back out to the same people who run his own political operation, helping him create a shadow national campaign. There are plenty of others on the RGA payroll who are loyal to possible Christie competitors in 2016, but notable Christie names pop up in the group’s Internal Revenue Service filings: Christie's chief political adviser, Mike DuHaime, is partner at Mercury Public Affairs, which has earned $54,000 in consulting fees from the RGA this year. Additional RGA contracts are going to Christie’s pollster, as well as the wife of his chief spokesman, and the former chief of staff to First Lady Mary Pat Christie.
Meanwhile, Mowers -- the guy who had been handing out American flags -- is now in New Hampshire, the state with the first GOP presidential primary in 2016, as the executive director of the state Republican party. He's doing some of the same things he cut his teeth doing in New Jersey -- visiting local Republican clubs, getting to know activists and picking up political information that could be fruitful during a Christie presidential bid. Another former Christie government and campaign aide involved in the flag program, Pete Sheridan, also just got a job in New Hampshire on a Republican gubernatorial candidate's campaign.
Christie headlined a fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican party last month, and none other than Mowers sent out the invitation to Republican activists. It's starting to look like the perma-campaign is transforming into its final iteration -- a national presidential campaign that begins in New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary.