As US Attorney, Chris Christie had the opportunity to witness the rough and tumble of New Jersey and New York politics. This territory is the former home of boss politics including the Hague machine of New Jersey and Tammany Hall in New York City. They were synonymous with patronage and corruption.
And while the big names of corruption are long gone, the remnants and memories linger.
I suspect Chris Christie understood the lessons of the past and applied them well. As US Attorney he went after those politicians who misused the public trust and rapidly became the Elliot Ness of New Jersey politics. Clearly, he was going to do what no predecessor could and that was to wipe out political corruption.
This became his path to the Governorship and he continued his aggressive pursuit against what he called “shadowy governments” – citadels of government power where unelected officials could dispense money and power with little accountability. The pursuit of justice expanded to include government unions and bureaucrats using abusive power over the public purse.
But, unlike Elliot Ness, Christie was neither modest nor retiring in his manner. No, he was the bull elephant who trampled the peoples’ enemies and took regular wipes at anyone including reporters or citizens who dared ask questions that he deemed inappropriate.
Was he a bully? Absolutely, but he was our bully and he was matching the power of good against the power of evil. So it’s all right. To many, he was the resurrection of Theodore Roosevelt.
Immediately, he became an immensely popular political figure and his style was fully embraced not just by the political faithful including an increasing number of democrats but also by the national media housed in New York and Washington. He was their hero as well and he was a Republican.
This element of the media feeds daily on the politics of politics and what could be more attractive than a national collision between two giants – Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton.
But while Christie was dazzling the pundits with the bluster of his right hand, they failed to notice what he was doing on the left. And therein lies the Christie problem. While going after the smaller “shadow governments”, little attention was being paid to the biggest of them all: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. With a budget exceeding $7 billion of federal and state monies it had not only money and power but it lent itself to easy control and operated in the shadows of public scrutiny.
By way of background, this was also the former home of Robert Moses who almost singlehandedly developed New York City and was said to have more power than the Mayor or Governor. He was truly an appointed czar.
It is curious that so few paid attention to Governor Christies’ highly political appointments to the Port Authority nor to his veto of legislation requiring more financial and policy transparency. After all, if he did not like the reform bill, where was his proposal?
Nor was there much attention when episodes of abuse were revealed including the firing of a prosecutor who indicted one of his political allies, the closing of a TV station that ran an unfavorable story, or the elimination of funding for a project favored by a University professor who ruled against Christie’s reapportionment plan. Even serious questions of mismanagement of Sandy funds were pushed aside.
No, the politics of politics was way more important than the substance of governance and that is why the national media focuses and advances the show horses of politics rather than the diligent and purposeful efforts of the work horses.
In this environment, Christie could thrive. The Port Authority rapidly became his political playground and the governance system had the one ingredient that is the milk of corruption – very, very little oversight.
While the Governor’s office dazzled the public at the capitol, they were also dealing with development projects at the Port Authority dripping with money and endless potential for campaign contributions which are so vital to the launching of a Presidential bid.
And what setup could be better? The Governor appoints the Chairperson as well as members to the Board. Further, the organization legitimatized conflicts of interest. How is it that a reform Governor would appoint a prominent New Jersey attorney as chairman of the authority knowing full well that his law firm regularly lobbied the authority for development monies on behalf of its clients? Anyone with an IQ approaching room temperature knows this is a blatant conflict of interest. But for an anti corruption crusader to not only make such an appointment and then pack the Port Authority with his political operatives strongly suggests incompetence or dishonesty.
But like all scandals, this did not occur in a vacuum. It was clearly an event waiting to be discovered. Christie did not invent the murky environment of the Port Authority nor did he create the centralization of power concentrated in the Governor. That all preceded him and likely was home to considerably prior abuse by both parties.
Nevertheless, how could such a system of concentrated authority not draw more attention much earlier? Here we have a Governor empowered to appoint the Attorney General – the chief legal authority of the state and have virtual control over this immense Port Authority.
Where was the independent financial oversight for both the federal as well as state monies? Where were the legal checks and balances?
Where was the Governor of New York and his appointees to the Authority?
And there will be an increasing number of questions involving the Hurricane Sandy money. Where was the federal financial oversight relative to the hundreds of millions of dollars given by national taxpayers?
Why is it that we were doused with endless pictures of a GOP Governor embracing a Democrat President with a huge supply of federal hurricane dollars and endless campaign rhetoric of bi-partisan cooperation but not one word about the legitimacy of how that money was spent?
In all instances – state and federal – where was the oversight – both in terms of financial as well as management?
As to the balance of the scandal, it will no doubt widen and steadily become increasingly apparent that that all roads lead to money and power and, ultimately to Christie. Will he fall? That is most likely.
But that is neither the sole tragedy nor the end of the story. The latter will only come when we respect and insist on competency over celebrity and insist on the imposition of honest standards of management in public service.
The vast sprawl of the federal government has not had a major overhaul since the Hoover Commission was formed by President Harry Truman. This bi-partisan effort involving two Presidents helped open the door of cooperation between Presidents and is one of the key examples cited in the widely acclaimed book, The President’s Club.
Today, we are very much in need of bi-partisan cooperation at the very highest level and we are also in need of serious management overhaul of government. This would be a perfect time for President Obama to reach out to former Governor and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney for the purpose of heading a similar type of commission. Frankly, we need Romney’s management skill sets and we need the President to restore trust in the competency of government.
If the Christie scandal is to have any meaning it is that we must enhance at all levels of government an appreciation of divided power, true transparency and oversight, and an appreciation for the quality of leadership over the celebration of sizzle.
Leadership can make it happen.