A Preview of President Chris Christie?

If you vote for a Jersey guy, you’re gonna get Jersey politics.

ASBURY PARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 05: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie arrives to speak at his election night event after winning a second term at the Asbury Park Convention Hall on November 05, 2013 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Incumbent Governor Chris Christie defeated his Democratic opponent Barbara Buono by a commanding margin. 
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Michael Hirsh
Jan. 21, 2014, 12:38 a.m.

New Jer­sey has al­ways prac­ticed a rough kind of polit­ics. This was true lit­er­ally from day one: Jonath­an Dayton, a Re­volu­tion­ary War hero who signed the Con­sti­tu­tion for the Jer­sey del­eg­a­tion, be­came no­tori­ous for us­ing his po­s­i­tion as Speak­er of the House to spec­u­late un­eth­ic­ally in pub­lic land war­rants, then cov­er up by telling a co-con­spir­at­or to des­troy in­crim­in­at­ing let­ters. Even then, Jer­sey led the way. “The deeds of oth­er mem­bers of Con­gress were scarcely known bey­ond the circle of their re­spect­ive states, but the spec­u­la­tions of this man have rung throughout the west­ern world,” John Wood wrote dis­dain­fully of Dayton in his con­tem­por­an­eous Sup­pressed His­tory of the Ad­min­is­tra­tion of John Adams. It didn’t both­er Jer­sey­ans much: Some­how Dayton’s less sa­vory side was for­got­ten by the time my ho­met­own of Spring­field, loc­ated about 20 miles west of Man­hat­tan in the heart of Sop­ranos coun­try, named our high school after him.

Chris Christie is a very pop­u­lar gov­ernor, and de­servedly so. But keep in mind he’s pop­u­lar in a state that has a some­what high­er tol­er­ance for tough-guy stuff and, the re­cord shows, for cor­rup­tion too. Wheth­er Christie ac­tu­ally knew of the de­tails of any of the con­ver­sa­tions his aides were in­volved in, it’s clear the lat­ter were op­er­at­ing in an en­vir­on­ment in which it was con­sidered OK to lean on people, and hard. The latest ac­cus­a­tion, that his lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor told the may­or of Hoboken (in a park­ing lot, yet!) that the town’s des­per­ately needed Hur­ricane Sandy re­lief money de­pended on her co­oper­a­tion in an­oth­er pro­ject, has promp­ted a new round of deni­als from the gov­ernor’s of­fice. But com­ing after “Bridge-gate,” this is an­oth­er sig­ni­fic­ant data point. As­sum­ing that Hoboken May­or Dawn Zi­m­mer is telling the truth, is it really pos­sible that such a wide range of people work­ing for Christie de­cided to be­have in this bul­ly­ing way en­tirely on their own, in­de­pend­ently of each oth­er? In any case, Zi­m­mer’s out there say­ing that her ant­ag­on­ist plainly de­clared to her the threat was a “dir­ect mes­sage from the gov­ernor.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. Strong chief ex­ec­ut­ives al­ways set the tone for their ad­min­is­tra­tions, eth­ic­al and oth­er­wise. This is es­pe­cially true of U.S. pres­id­ents, who come auto­mat­ic­ally “clothed in im­mense power,” as Daniel Day-Lewis pro­claims in Steven Spiel­berg’s movie Lin­coln. And one way or an­oth­er, des­pite his deni­als, Christie ap­par­ently has per­mit­ted some polit­ic­al bru­tal­ity in his. Per­haps we shouldn’t make any value judg­ments about this: Well in­to the second term of a pres­id­ent who has proved un­will­ing to lean very hard on a re­cal­cit­rant and ap­pallingly un­der­achiev­ing Con­gress — at least un­til last fall’s shut­down show­down — maybe some Jer­sey-style arm-twist­ing is what Wash­ing­ton needs. Lyn­don Baines John­son was a bully too, and to good ef­fect (at least un­til Vi­et­nam).

But at least we should know what we’d be get­ting.

What hasn’t really touched Christie yet is what New Jer­sey has most been known for, graft (al­though there are ques­tions about wheth­er the Hoboken de­vel­op­ment pro­ject in ques­tion is tied to a Christie-aligned build­er). It is a his­tory that has grown out of the state’s low-pro­file loc­a­tion between the monied power cen­ters of New York and Phil­adelphia, its mind-bog­gling pop­u­la­tion dens­ity (there are a lot of mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies, the bet­ter to bribe to) and his­tory as a trans­port­a­tion hub, and the en­trench­ment of the mob, Sop­ranos-style. A long his­tory of cor­rup­tion has tain­ted Jer­sey polit­ics from Frank (“I am the boss”) Hag­ue of Jer­sey City to the Ab­scam scan­dal of the 1970s (im­mor­tal­ized in Amer­ic­an Hustle) to the single-day ar­rest of 44 people, in­clud­ing three may­ors, two state as­sembly­men and oth­er pub­lic of­fi­cials, on cor­rup­tion charges three years ago.

Non­ethe­less, it’s already be­come clear that Christie is prac­ti­cing a dif­fer­ent kind of polit­ics than a lot of the rest of the coun­try is used to (though Chica­go and Illinois are no bar­gain). It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, even for New Jer­sey. The state has also been home to many ef­fect­ive but gen­teel politi­cians — Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whit­man, Christie’s two Re­pub­lic­an pre­de­cessors as gov­ernor, come to mind. But giv­en New Jer­sey’s his­tory it wouldn’t be all that sur­pris­ing if Christie, des­pite hav­ing been a protégé of the gen­tle­manly Kean, re­ver­ted to form.


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