Bridge scandal looms over Chris Christie’s visit to post-Sandy Jersey Shore


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hugs Amy Peters in Manahawkin, N.J., as he meets with homeowners who lost their homes last year to Superstorm Sandy. (Mel Evans/AP)
January 16, 2014

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) traveled to the Jersey Shore on Thursday to tout the state’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy, returning to an issue that cemented his reputation as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.

But the visit was clouded by the growing political storm over his top advisers’ involvement in causing a days-long traffic jam last year in an apparent act of political retribution. Democratic lawmakers issued 20 subpoenas Thursday seeking information about the episode, while Christie’s aides announced that he has retained legal counsel in the case.

Christie alluded to his troubles in remarks at a volunteer fire company here but pledged to stay focused on governing.

“Nothing will distract me from getting that job done,” he said. “No one, I can assure you, ever told me or anybody on my team that it was going to be easy. It hadn’t been up to this point, and there are all kinds of challenges, as you know, that come every day out of nowhere to test you.”

Christie’s team will face new scrutiny in coming days. On Thursday, the state legislature in Trenton approved two special committees to investigate the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. The burgeoning scandal has ensnared several of the governor’s closest aides, who have quit or been fired.

State Democrats said Bill Stepien and Bridget Anne Kelly — two advisers who were cut loose by Christie last week — would soon be called to testify about their roles in the controversy.

And Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D), who is chairing one of the investigative panels, said more Christie associates should expect to be called as the inquiries continue. His committee issued subpoenas to 17 individuals and three organizations Thursday afternoon. It declined to disclose the names until the subpoenas are served.

Also Thursday, Christie’s office announced that it has hired Randy Mastro, a former federal prosecutor now at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, as outside legal counsel to advise the governor as he faces mounting inquiries.

“Their presence will bring an outside, third-party perspective to the situation, and they will be a valuable asset as we move forward,” Christie’s office said in a statement. “This administration is committed to ensuring that what happened here never happens again.”

Christie acknowledged the increased attention Thursday with a slight nod and a grin at the more than 20 television cameras that were lined up inside the firehouse.

“I suspect there are a few more cameras here today than we might have originally thought for a Sandy event,” he said.

The rest of Christie’s presentation, however, was unusually subdued, a break from the Republican’s often brash and unscripted delivery. He read from prepared remarks and largely stuck to them.

“When you take that oath, the tagline at the end is not ‘if everything goes the way it’s supposed to,’ ” Christie said. “The tagline at the end is, ‘So help me, God,’ and I think all of us have thought about that.”

Before addressing the crowd, Christie met privately with a small group of Hurricane Sandy victims from the area. He embraced one of the attendees, Amy Peters, near the podium. Peters lost her home during the storm, which ravaged the state’s coastline in October 2012.

“We’re both maulers,” Peters said later. “We hug in New Jersey.”

Other local residents at the event offered mixed assessments of Christie. Some praised him and said they support him as he attempts to press on. A few complained that he was using the hurricane to deflect attention from the four-day September traffic snarl, which was set in motion possibly as part of an act of punishment against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.

“It’s a joke,” said David Garrison, a Stafford Township employee. “This all,” he added, gesturing to the row of cameras, “is a publicity stunt.”

But Sharon McKenna, a Republican Stafford Township Council member, said of Christie: “People are going after him because he’s a threat. We’re used to him, we get him, but I’m not sure if the rest of the country does.”

Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora (R) said that, regardless of Christie’s political problems, he will continue to work with the governor on Hurricane Sandy projects. “That’s the priority,” he said.

Christie did not take questions from reporters after his speech, ducking into a black SUV after shaking hands with township officials. His father, Bill Christie, hung around after his son left and spoke with members of the audience about the hurricane and its aftermath.

The stop was the governor’s lone public event Thursday. Christie, who is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, will travel to Florida this weekend to raise money for Gov. Rick Scott (R), who faces a tough reelection race. On Sunday, Christie will meet with more than 100 Republican donors at a reception held by Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot.

On Tuesday, Christie will be sworn in for a second term at a ceremony in Trenton, N.J., and will then hold an evening gala on Ellis Island.

Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
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