New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a town hall meeting in Kenilworth earlier this year.
By John Celock
In a speech with themes similar to many of his past speeches over the years, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) Tuesday became the 14th Republican to enter this year’s presidential race.
Christie used a rally at Livingston High School in his hometown of Livingston, N.J. to highlight his family story and his record saying that America needs a president “telling it like it is.” The once rising GOP star now battling sagging poll numbers and questions over a political scandal vowed to end what he said is anxiety among Americans.
“When I stand up on a stage like this and look you in the eye you will know one thing I mean what I say and I say what I mean,” Christie said of what his presidency would bring.
Christie spent much of his speech saying that the blunt style that has characterized his governorship and national persona came from his mother and that he would be running on a theme that she helped shape. He said that he wanted to address the anxiety that he said he saw during his national tour last year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association with “strong leadership.”
Christie attacked President Barack Obama for what he said is the president lacking leadership on domestic and international issues. He also attacked the culture of Washington, D.C. saying the federal government has not had bipartisan conversations.
Christie returned to the theme of many of his speeches as governor and RGA chairman, including his annual address to the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington, where he said that Washington should look to New Jersey for leadership. He noted that he has worked with Democratic majorities in the state Legislature to enact his agenda since he took office in 2010.
He said as president, he would not “hide in the White House” and would work with congressional Democrats.
Christie focused less on policy specifics than other GOP hopefuls, talking instead more about his family and his record in Trenton. In the policy arena, Christie said that he wanted to fix a “broken entitlement system,” simplify the federal tax code, have strong leadership internationally and reduce federal regulation.
Instead of policy specifics, Christie focused on the personality that he would bring to the White House. He pledged blunt talk on the campaign trail and as president; he said he was not running to be popular.
“I am not running for president of the United States as a surrogate for being prom king of America,” Christie said.
Christie took a swipe at Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying that she would continue Obama’s legacy. Clinton served as Obama’s secretary of state for four years.
“After seven years of weakness by Barack Obama he better not turn it over to his second mate, Hillary Clinton,” Christie said.
Christie focused on his gubernatorial record, saying that he was able to reform teacher tenure, change the state’s public employee pension and benefit system and not raise taxes. Many of the issues he cited have been the ones that have put him into perennial conflict with the state’s public employee unions, including the New Jersey Education Association, who has been Christie’s near constant foe.
During the rally, teachers and public employees picketed outside, saying that the governor had failed New Jersey. Some were calling on Christie to resign the governorship, saying he would not be able to focus on New Jersey issues while running nationally.
Teachers have long been critical of Christie’s record, including the pension and benefit reform, frequently criticizing him at town hall meetings, with Christie quick to criticize the union. Teachers have also been critical of Christie’s March 2010 decision to slash state aid to local school districts and local governments by between 85 and 100 percent per district, leading to a series of dramatic budget cuts locally in a tight two week window before school budgets were due. At the time shell shocked local school officials called the cuts “draconian”. At the same time though, one Republican local official summed up her thoughts on the budget as “awesome.”
Christie would raise education aid in following years.
Tuesday’s rally was years in the making, with Christie rumored to be looking at a presidential campaign since his blunt style and criticism of unions vaulted him to national political stardom in 2010, before many of his 2016 presidential rivals had taken office.
Christie passed on a 2012 presidential race and was not picked for the vice presidential nomination that year. At the 2012 Republican National Convention, Christie delivered a keynote address that focused more on his own record than on presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
2012 also marked the high water mark of Christie’s governorship with his work in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy vaulting him to national stardom, including his close working relationship with Obama in the days preceding the presidential election.
Christie, who narrowly unseated Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in 2009, easily walked to reelection in 2013, defeating former state Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D) by 22 points. Christie’s defeat of Buono followed a campaign where most top Democrats including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D), then the Newark mayor, and state Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor, declined to challenge Christie. The campaign was noted by dozens of Democratic local officials endorsing Christie and Buono struggling to hold her party together.
Christie’s 2013 victory, which was meant to set him up for a 2014 stint as RGA chairman and the 2016 presidential race, started to come undone as his second term started. The blocking of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, leading to traffic in Fort Lee were reported to be launched by Christie aides to retaliate against the Democratic Fort Lee mayor not endorsing Christie. Further reports came that Christie canceled meetings in 2013 with newly elected Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D) because Fulop was planning to back Buono.
The Bridgegate scandal led to Christie firing several top aides including deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, Port Authority officials Bill Baroni and David Wildstein and political strategist Bill Stepien. Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein have since been indicted for their roles in Bridgegate. Christie faced hearings from a special state legislative committee in 2014 on the bridge lane closure, along with federal investigations on the issue.
The toll from the scandal impacted Christie’s once sky-high poll numbers, dropping them down to a record low 30 percent approval rating earlier this month. Christie though fought on, traveling to 37 states in 2014 as RGA chairman, raising a record sum for the organization. The national travel helped lay the groundwork for the 2016 campaign.
Christie’s campaign announcement comes 18 years after his political career seemed over following his defeat in the June 1997 Republican primary for a second term as a Morris County freeholder. Christie’s three years as a county freeholder were tumultuous, marked by battles with other Republicans and a failed 1995 GOP primary bid for the state Assembly.
Christie made a comeback in 2001 with his nomination by President George W. Bush to serve as New Jersey’s U.S. attorney. Christie’s nomination came after he and his brother, Todd, and law partner, Bill Palatucci, raised funds for Bush’s election. Christie’s seven years as U.S. attorney were marked with a focus on prosecuting political corruption in New Jersey. During his tenure as U.S. attorney, Republicans around the state buzzed that Christie would be a likely gubernatorial candidate in either 2005 or 2009.
Christie’s speech focused on his New Jersey background, saying that he was shaped by the state and that the state should shape the country. Christie is the first New Jersey politician to seek the White House since the campaigns of Democratic former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley and Republican businessman Steve Forbes in 2000. Only one New Jersey governor, Woodrow Wilson in 1912, has been elected president. The only other New Jersey native to be elected president was Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892. Cleveland, who was New York’s governor and a Buffalo, N.Y. resident when elected, was born in Caldwell, N.J. Cleveland later retired to New Jersey after leaving the White House.
Christie said that New Jersey helped his family achieve the American dream and the spirit of the state would help shape the country.
“This place that represents the most ethnically diverse state in the country, the most densely populated state in the country, where we are all on top of each other,” Christie said. “What comes from that is that we can all achieve what we want to achieve. Not only can we do it together we have to do it together. This country has to work together again not against each other.”