New Jersey Gov. and ex-officio University trustee Chris Christie’s approval rating is at an all-time low of 41 percent, according to a March 11 Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll.
Emails and text messages between Christie aides Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein surfaced in early January, which suggested that the aides orchestrated the closure of lanes in September 2013 on the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest bridge, causing gridlock.
The bridge connects Manhattan to Fort Lee, N.J., whose mayor, Mark Sokolich, had previously declined to endorse Christie for reelection and whose state senator, Loretta Weinberg, opposed a judge Christie had nominated for the New Jersey State Supreme Court. Christie apologized in January for the incident but has denied personal involvement.
Wildstein has said he had told the governor about the lane closures.
A lawyer for Sokolich said in a statement on Feb. 24 that the mayor had met with federal prosecutors regarding an investigation into the lane closures. NBC New York reported later that week that ambulance response times had doubled or quadrupled during the gridlock, citing Fort Lee officials.
Also in February, a legislative commission charged with investigating the so-called Bridgegate scandal issued subpoenas to Kelly and former campaign manager Bill Stepien, to which their lawyers refused to respond. The issue was debated in court on March 11, and the judge in the case has yet to issue a ruling.
The outside counsel hired by the Christie administration to investigate Bridgegate exonerated Christie on March 27, blaming rogue aides.
“Gov. Christie’s account of these events rings true,” the report reads. “It’s corroborated by many witnesses, and he has conducted himself at every turn as someone who has nothing to hide.”
However, State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, faulted the report for not interviewing Kelly and other Christie aides, some of whom had refused to cooperate. The Democratic National Committee called the report “nothing more than an expensive sham.”
David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, resigned a day later. A Sept. 13 email from Wildstein to Kelly stated, “Samson [is] helping us to retaliate,” but Christie attributed the resignation not to the Bridgegate incident but to Samson recognizing the need for new leadership.
“[Samson] has been an effective handmaiden of the governor in getting funds to projects that the governor wants, and I’d said he’s been irresponsible in terms of the mission of the Port Authority,” Jameson Doig, University professor emeritus of politics and public affairs, said.
Doig added that Christie’s recent proposal to split the Port Authority into separate New Jersey and New York agencies is a smokescreen intended to divert attention from Christie and Samson’s irresponsible behavior.
However, Tom Byrne ’76, former New Jersey State Democratic Committee chair, called Christie “resilient.”
“His stock has gone down nationally, but most donors have been around politics for a long time, and they know how quickly things can change, both on the downside, as we’ve seen, but also on the upside,” Byrne said.
Byrne noted that his own father, former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne ’49, was reelected with 55 percent of the vote eight months after he had had a 16 percent approval rating. He added that while the scandal may have hurt Christie, Christie still has a pathway to the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
“Where I see things now is that most mainstream Republicans are now sounding out Jeb Bush than was the case before,” Byrne said. “And so if Bush isn’t interested or doesn’t catch on, and Bridgegate settles out, and people are convinced he didn’t have any role in it, his stock could come back up.”
Evan Draim ’16, president of the Princeton College Republicans, said Christie’s record of achievement and bipartisanship qualified him to be President.
Draim is a former writer for The Daily Princetonian.
“The fact that he’s able to accomplish things like property tax reduction, taking on the teacher’s unions — those are things he’s been able to accomplish with people across the aisle, and I think that’s a skill he brings to the table in 2016,” he said.
Draim added that Christie’s charisma and status as a Washington, D.C. outsider would serve him well in 2016, noting that voters tend to seek out the antithesis of any two-term president like Barack Obama after eight years in office.
In terms of Bridgegate, Draim said Christie’s response to the scandal was more indicative of his quality as a leader than the fact that a scandal occurred.
“Within that four-, eight-year period, it’s almost inevitable that there’s going to be some scandal, big or small, that threatens their trust or their credibility,” Draim said. “Christie was very forthright about everything he knew about the scandal [and] gave a two-hour-long press conference right after it broke.”
“I think people within New Jersey still realize all the great work he’s done,” he said.
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie, did not respond to a request for comment.