Christie largely praised for crisis management

Posted: January 11, 2014

TRENTON - A day after one of his top aides was ensnared in a bizarre tale of petty payback politics, Gov. Christie on Thursday faced what he called a "crisis of confidence."

"You can't prevent everything," he said. "The test of leadership is: When you find it out, what do you do?"

From Trenton to Washington, lawmakers and political analysts mostly praised Christie's response to the crisis, which ballooned into a full-blown scandal after documents surfaced Wednesday showing that some of his inner staff punished a Democratic mayor who did not endorse the Republican governor for reelection by closing his town's lanes to the George Washington Bridge for four days.

While Christie did not utter a word publicly Wednesday - apart from a vague, four-sentence statement in the late afternoon - he spent 108 minutes Thursday at a news conference condemning the culprits, taking responsibility for their actions, and apologizing to his constituents.

To be sure, state and federal investigations into the September lane closures in Fort Lee continue and could turn up more damaging evidence. And Wednesday's revelations reinforced a perception of Christie, fair or not, as a bully.

Some Democrats continued to assail Christie Thursday. The Democratic National Committee, for example, said the governor had ignored the issue "until his administration was finally caught red-handed."

But while the story won't go away, most observers said Christie passed his first, and perhaps most important, test.

"He did very well," said former Gov. Thomas H. Kean Sr., a longtime Christie mentor who has clashed with the governor over the treatment of his son, a state senator. "If I had been advising him - and I wasn't on this one - I would tell him to do what he did. To get out there and state it, make an apology, and clean house."

Specifically, Christie announced that he had fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who wrote an e-mail in August to a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Christie said he also had instructed his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to resign from his consulting job with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads. He also asked Stepien to withdraw his name from consideration for chairman of the state GOP, just two days after asking him to take the job.

In one e-mail that surfaced Wednesday, Stepien called Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich "an idiot."

Another plus for Christie, some said, was taking questions for nearly two hours. (Though he did allow for plenty of candor, as when asked by a reporter if he had considered personally resigning. "Oh God, no," he responded. "That's a crazy question, man.")

"I was impressed that every so often, he kept saying, 'Let me make it clear' " that he was responsible, said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire and former adviser to the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.

He added: "I didn't see any lawyerly dancing around."

Others were less convinced that Christie had adequately addressed the controversy. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chair of the transportation committee that has been investigating the matter, said the governor should voluntarily turn over his staff's e-mails to the committee.

"It's appropriate for him to apologize," Wisniewski, a Democrat, told reporters. "I think it's a couple of months too late. . . . It still doesn't answer the questions."

Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University, said Christie did not do enough to assuage concerns that other members of his staff may have been involved. For example, Christie said he had not talked with Kelly.

"Most of us are still left wondering if there's another shoe left to drop," she said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat whose district includes Fort Lee, said Christie "was making himself the victim."

"It's not about the e-mails, Governor," he told CNN. "It's about what happened in September in Fort Lee."

Matthew Kerbel, a political scientist at Villanova University, was more blunt. "This is the kind of scandal that brings down politicians, because it is easy to explain in one sentence, people have a visceral reaction to it, and there is a paper trail," he wrote in an e-mail.

"It involves violation of the public trust and illegal activities."

Even Christie's political allies concede that if new revelations further tie his office to the scandal or contradict what he said Thursday, his political future could be in peril.

But "my feeling is that if everything he said today stands and there isn't more information that comes out in various investigations, then I think he's going to survive this in very reasonable shape," Kean said.

In Washington, some of Christie's biggest potential rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 did not come out swinging. U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky largely brushed off questions from reporters Thursday.



Inquirer staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.

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