Streams

NJ Scandals Taking Toll on Governance?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Five weeks have passed since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, after her email to an ally at the Port Authority surfaced: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

But Kelly's position has yet to be filled. Likewise, Christina Renna, a Christie aide who dealt with mayors and legislators, hasn't been replaced after she resigned in the wake of the scandal. And Christie’s chief spokesman, Michael Drewniak, whose emails were subpoenaed and released as part of the investigation, now rarely speaks to the media.

So far, this isn't affecting the way the Christie front office deals with local officials and lobbyists, says Bill Dressel, head of the League of Municipalities. His calls in recent weeks have been promptly returned by Christie officials.

"I haven't seen where they've skipped a beat," he said. "I have no complaints."

But other lobbyists and legislative staffers point to several key positions that are unfilled. Beyond Kelly and Renna, Christie chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd’s nomination to be attorney general, which once seemed like a sure thing, is now on hold indefinitely. That means the state has an acting attorney general. The commissioner of education announced his resignation this week. That had been expected before the scandal, but it is uncertain if top talent will come to a state government in crisis.

And one lobbyist said a client expecting to land a consultancy at a state department was told that no decisions are being made right now.

Christie said during an appearance in Chicago Tuesday that he is determined not to let the scandal interfere.

“I don’t think that it will curtail for the long haul a second term agenda because I think the public in New Jersey won’t tolerate it," he said. "The fact is they expect me and the Legislature to do what we did in the first four years, which was to find solutions for New Jersey’s problems and get things done."

But there are evident signs of distraction. His normally pitch-perfect communications operation hastily issued a memo attacking a key Bridgegate witness, David Wildstein, that was mocked in the media because it focused on Wildstein’s transgressions from high school. The governor wasn't aware of a bill that he had just signed into law when he was asked about it during a call-in radio show. And he hasn't held a news conference in more than a month — one of the longest droughts of his gubernatorial career.

Crisis management sucks up time, as does preparing responses to the subpoenas that have hit Christie and several of his aides.

As one lobbyist, who has watched administrations in crisis before, put it, Christie’s people could be more consumed with keeping their jobs than doing them.

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