Sunday, January 12, 2014

What does it mean if Chris Christie survives this political scandal?

Let’s begin with something we can all agree on: Chris Christie is a mean, vindictive son-of-a bitch.

It seems unbelievable that Chris Christie would exact retribution against a mayor in his state for the perfectly reasonable position that he, the mayor, as a democrat should not endorse a Republican candidate for governor. So much the more so because the prank didn’t hit directly at the mayor of Fort Lee, but rather severely inconvenienced (and endangered) Fort Lee residents, most of whom voted for Christie.

Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki have other theories to explain why Christie would take such a mean, punitive action. These theories might be right or they might be wrong, but the fact is that the prevailing story is that Christie was just being mean because Mayor Mark Sokolitch of Ft. Lee refused to endorse him.

When such stories are not dismissed out of hand, and indeed, they are widely believed, it’s time to look at the culture that prevails in New Jersey. The picture that emerges is one of a political culture that has been described as “brass knuckles,” where revenge is not merely to be expected, but rather it is engaged in with the glee and élan that attaches to a favorite sport.

Let's take a closer look.

Christie hectors a member
of the Teacher's union
When Christie disagreed with the politics of State Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat, whose district includes Elizabeth, the governor shut down the DMV in that city, the fourth largest in the state, to show his displeasure.

Here’s another example: Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop accuses Christie’s office of canceling several meetings with N.J. department heads on the day after he refused to endorse the governor. You may remember that Fulop’s name has already come up in connection with Bridge-gate. Emails reveal that a top Christie aide asks then-Port Authority official David Wildstein whether the agency had responded to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s complaints about the closures. “Radio silence,” Wildstein, a Christie ally, wrote on Sept. 9. “His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.”

In the spring, when Christie asked Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to endorse him for re-election during a face-to-face meeting, Zimmer, a Democrat, told the governor no. After Hurricane Sandy, she applied to the state for a Hazard Mitigation Grant. When her request for grant funding came back, she said, Hoboken received $300,000 of the $100 million in grants requested — less than 1 percent. Pay-back, as they say in N.J., is a bitch.

Do you will recall that in Christie’s marathon press conference he talked about how important loyalty was to him? After Christie won the last election in a landside, former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr. said, “Chris just won reelection, he’s popular, and there is a sense he would be able to compete everywhere.” Kean is the only Republican in modern political history to score a higher percentage of the vote than Christie did in November. When he ran for reelection in 1985, Kean won with 71 percent of the vote. More importantly, he was Christie’s first political mentor. There’s a guy who deserves loyalty.

Unfortunately, it didn't extend to Kean’s son, Tom, Jr., who was in the Senate. He had a rather public feud with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D), with whom Christie has to work to get legislation through. As part of his effort to produce a Republican majority in the Senate majority, Kean had targeted Sweeney’s seat in the election. This is considered bad manners: New Jersey legislative leaders usually do not target each other for electoral defeat, and it didn’t go down well with Sweeney.

Rather than support his fellow Republican, Christie avoided campaigning in Southern NJ, where Kean hoped to oust Democrats. At a post-election news conference, Christie wouldn’t say he supported Kean’s continued leadership of the Senate caucus. Instead, Christie pointedly said he had just spoken — with Sweeney.

In 2010, when a blizzard paralyzed the state, State Senator Sean T. Kean, (no relation to Tom Kean) a Republican, told a reporter that the “one mistake” the Senate president and governor had made was not calling earlier for a state of emergency, which might have kept more cars off the roads. Christie could not abide that level of criticism. As the NYT tells the story,
Mr. Christie was smarting from criticism that he had remained at Disney World during the storm. When he returned, he held his first news conference in Mr. Kean’s home district. Shortly before, a member of the governor’s staff called Mr. Kean and warned him not to show up. His seat was eliminated in redistricting the following year. 
In another incident, Christie used his line item veto to eliminate a program to help women who suffer from post-partum depression. Why? Because the head of the foundation was married to State Senator Richard Cody, who happens to be a former governor. And what was his gripe against ex-guv Richard Cody? Nothing in particular. “I have to send Codey a message about who’s in charge,” said Chris Christie.

On another occasion, Christie tried to blame Cody for stalling two nominations that were not progressing in the Senate fast enough to please the governor. Quite reasonably, Cody pushed back by pointing out that he had not only signed off on the nominations, but had held a meeting to try to hurry them along. Christie reacted by stripping Cody of the security detail that is customarily afforded former governors. And, just in case that was too subtle, “that same day, his cousin, who had been appointed by Mr. McGreevey to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was fired, as was a close friend and former deputy chief of staff who was then working in the state Office of Consumer Affairs,” according to the NYT.

Last year, another Republican, State Senator Christopher Bateman, voted against the governor’s plan to reorganize the state’s public medical education system. Mr. Bateman had been working with the governor to get a judge appointed in his home county. Suddenly, after months when it looked as if it would happen, the nomination stalled.

Consider the example of noted and respected Rutgers Professor of Political Science Alan Rosenthal. He had been the chair of the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission in 1992 and again in 2001. His obituary notes that “Rosenthal cast the deciding vote in the 2011 legislative redistricting, a process that dragged on for weeks, approving the map favored by the commission’s Democratic members.”  What happened after that? The two programs at Rutgers that were most dear to Dr. Rosenthal were slashed in the next budget.

Bill Baroni, who resigned over Bridge-gate had in the past been tasked with executing the governor’s vengeance. When Bill Lavin, an officer with a state firefighters’ union, publicly called for more productive dialogue between his organization and the governor, he received a call from Baroni, who said more than once, “The governor told me to make sure you don’t get this message mixed up; say these exact words.” What were those exact words? The New York Times didn’t consider them fit to print, but other sources have said that Mr. Baroni, quoted Mr. Christie as, “Go fuck yourself.”

The question raised by this sordid portrait is this: Suppose Mr. Christie survives this scandal. Will this rough and tumble attitude play well in Iowa where it is assumed that traditional values of courtesy and fair play prevail?

Before Bridge-gate, Cristie was the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. It is not because he was a soft-spoken, “blow-dried” creation of image consultants. Rather, he was famously rude to teachers and other constituents. Although this might have been off-putting, it set him apart from the anodyne Washington politicians. Some regarded his brusque, no-nonsense manner as an endearing quirk. 

As Bridge-gate develops, the public will become more familiar with the dark underside of his cruelty, some of which is catalogued above. Psychologists and social scientists have long been aware of the authoritarian personality type. Originally, it was measured on something called the f-scale. The f stands for fascism. More recently, social scientists have refined the concept and now speak of Right Wing Authoritarian Personality Type.

Call it what you may, but one characteristic is that the authoritarian personality admires a “leader who will use any means necessary.” It values “power and toughness.”

If the good people of Iowa turn from the nice man in the sweater vest who won last go-round, and they decide that what the country needs is a mean son-of-a-bitch to run against Hillary Clinton, then we will know that the soul of the Republican is really, at its core, pretty high on the f scale.

Of course, in the meantime, a steady trickle of revelations may lead to a situation in 2016 where Christie is, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, a pariah.

“... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!”

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