The athletic programs at a pair of flagship state universities are dragging two Northeastern Republican governors through the political wringer.
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is drawing heat for backing Robert Barchi, the embattled president of Rutgers University, who is under fire for his stewardship of a scandal-plagued athletic department. In neighboring Pennsylvania, GOP Gov. Tom Corbett is dealing with fallout from Penn State's Jerry Sandusky scandal, back in the headlines this week because of a new Paterno family lawsuit against the NCAA.
Christie found himself in a particularly tricky situation this week over the persistent problems ailing Rutgers athletic department. In April, the university fired head basketball Mike Rice after abusive behavior towards his players, and athletic director Tim Pernetti was ousted in the process.
But the newly hired athletic director, Julie Hermann, sports an equally controversial track record of harassment and sexual discrimination, raising fresh questions about the vetting process and the judgment of the university president. The firm that researched Hermann's background for the school, turned up a 1997 case in which a jury awarded $150,000 to an assistant coach at Tennessee who said Hermann tried to persuade her not to get pregnant, The New York Times reported. Another case detailed that a former assistant coach at Louisville was fired after complaining about sexual discrimination. It is pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
After rushing to criticize now-ousted Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, Christie has been a steady backer of the embattled Barchi. The governor gave Barchi his stamp of approval on a recent call-in show: "I'm confident in President Barchi's judgment."
Now Barbara Buono, his Democratic opponent in this year's gubernatorial race, is seizing on the Hermann hiring as a way to score political points against the governor. "As the situation at Rutgers University continues to unfold, the lack of leadership on the part of Governor Christie is simply astounding," she said in a statement. "He has failed time and time again to address the clear problems present in President Barchi's office."
Still, the controversy is unlikely to dent Christie's sky-high approval ratings in the state, serving more as a nuisance. Christie's willingness to stand in Barchi's corner, though, signals that he's not concerned about any political blowback.
"Let's not engage in the character assassination that's going on here," Christie said. "I understand that there are some people that feel differently about it. It doesn't matter. What matters is: what did the administration at Rutgers believe?"
For Corbett in Pennsylvania, however, the scandal at Penn State could hurt his already-challenging re-election prospects.
News this week that the family of the late Joe Paterno is suing the NCAA to roll back sanctions against the university in an effort to rehabilitate the coach's legacy puts a potentially damaging issue back in the headlines for the vulnerable governor who's facing reelection in 2014.
The scandal places Corbett in a difficult spot politically because of his role as attorney general when allegations against Sandusky were first raised in 2008. The governor maintains his office acted appropriately, but 50 percent of voters disapproved of his handling of the situation during his time as the commonwealth's top law-enforcement official, according to a January Quinnipiac University poll.
The news of the new suit comes as Corbett is also under fire from Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who launched an investigation into how Corbett's office handled the Sandusky inquiry. Kane said earlier this month that there's no timetable for when her investigation will wrap up but said "we're leaving no stone unturned."
Corbett attempted to turn the scandal in his favor earlier this year when, in an effort to undo the unpopular sanctions against Penn State's football program, he sued the NCAA. Fifty-three percent of Quaker State voters thought the NCAA's punishment was too harsh, and more voters approved of the suit than disapproved, 43 percent to 37 percent. But his gambit isn't working yet.
Corbett is heading into his reelection campaign in 2014 with more voters disapproving of the job he's doing than approving, 47 percent to 38 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Three possible Democratic challengers each lead the governor by at least 9 points, the same survey found.
"The question", said longtime Pennsylvania pollster G. Terry Madonna, is "can he rehabilitate himself? I think we underestimated the damage that the Penn State scandal has done to Corbett's reputation."