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.