Democratic mayors who backed Christie struggled to weigh politics vs. local needs


U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, left, and Sea Bright, N.J., Mayor Dina Long appear with Gov. Chris Christie in February 2013. Long was one of the first Democrats to publicly endorse Christie. (Mel Evans/AP)

In September, Adam Schneider, the liberal mayor of the New Jersey shore town of Long Branch, was having trouble with the state utility board. After repeatedly getting the run-around, Schneider decided to instead try his luck with the office of Gov. Chris Christie.

“I’m not talking to any more underlings, and I’m not being delegated to,” Schneider said he told Christie’s aides. In the end, he said, it worked. “I got what I needed.”

Schneider’s call came four months after he crossed party lines to endorse the 2013 reelection of Christie (R), whose performance he admired after Hurricane Sandy. Schneider said that the governor never promised him anything but that he believes he has received “enhanced” access to state officials since the endorsement.

Schneider’s experience is typical of many Democratic mayors, who made clear that they thought endorsing Christie’s reelection bid likely directly benefited their towns in the pursuit of Sandy recovery aid and other state support.

Now Christie, a top GOP 2016 presidential hopeful who has been engulfed by the George Washington Bridge political-retribution scandal, has been put on the defensive about his governing style.

Gov. Chris Christie's current "Bridge-gate" incident has brought new attention to an old allegation from the Democratic mayor of Elizabeth, N.J. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

On Saturday, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken alleged that two top Christie officials threatened to withhold Sandy aid from the hard-hit city unless she supported a development project backed by the governor.

Mayor Dawn Zimmer said she was told once in person by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and once in person by Richard Constable, Christie’s community affairs commissioner, that she needed to support the project in order for storm funds requested by her city to be approved. Zimmer, whose allegations were first reported by MSNBC, said she had also rejected Christie’s request for her endorsement.

The governor’s office called the accusations regarding Sandy aid and the development project “outlandishly false.”

Nevertheless, what has emerged among Democrats in New Jersey is a feeling that those who played ball with the governor enjoy favored status, while others have been shut out or had access curtailed. That is not an entirely unusual dynamic in politics, but it is one that conflicts with Christie’s carefully groomed image as a leader driven only by what is right, not petty politics.

Allegations of retribution are at the center of the bridge scandal, in which top aides to Christie caused a massive traffic jam, possibly to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing Christie. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has said the administration suddenly yanked his access to a contingent of top officials slated to offer guidance on navigating the state bureaucracy after he declined to back the governor.

Christie spokesman Colin Reed said the governor earned the backing of Democrats “because of his bipartisan approach toward governing.”

“Every one of the major accomplishments from the first term, whether it be balancing budgets, capping property taxes or reforming our schools and pension systems, was accomplished by working with both Republicans and Democrats,” Reed said in a statement. “That’s how divided government is supposed to work, and it’s too bad Washington D.C. can’t follow New Jersey’s lead and get the big things done for our country.”

But some Democratic critics now say Christie’s success in wooing cross-party support last year masked a sense of fear felt by local officials under pressure from constituents to deliver funds for towns still damaged more than a year after the storm.

State Sen. Barbara Buono, who was trying to build support for her election challenge to Christie, said some Democratic elected leaders privately confided that they did not want to draw the governor’s ire at the time Sandy aid was flowing out of Trenton.

“You don’t think it’s such a big ask to ask a Democrat for endorsement or a meeting . . . but it proved to be more difficult,” she said.

The allegations revealed Saturday by Hoboken’s Zimmer that Christie aides held desperately needed storm funds for other political concerns could prove damaging to Christie’s widely praised post-Sandy record.

Hoboken requested $127 million in aid to initiate projects to prevent flooding from the Hudson River during future storms, a figure that represented more than a third of the total dollars available to the state.

State officials, who administered the dispersal of federal funds, approved $142,000 — less than the cost of one new generator. The city also received $200,000 from a separate pot of $1.8 billion to rebuild in the wake of Sandy, again a small fraction of its request.

Zimmer provided MSNBC with a diary entry, from a day after she said she received the second threat from a Christie aide, in which she recounted both incidents.

In a separate interview with The Washington Post, she said Guadagno pulled her aside in May after touring a ShopRite that had been rebuilt after the storm and told her the aid requests were linked to her support for a politically connected proposal to develop a three-block section of north Hoboken.

“It is very important to the governor,” the diary describes Guadagno as saying of the development project. “The word is that you are against it, and you need to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you. I know it’s not right — these things should not be connected — but they are, she says, and if you tell anyone, I will deny it.”

A similar message came four days later from Constable, Zimmer said, as the two prepared to appear on a television program about Sandy recovery.

A number of those who crossed party lines to endorse Christie say they were not pressured into doing so, nor did they feel any fear about losing aid. But they did see the potential upsides.

Mayor Michael Blunt of Chesilhurst, a 1,600-person, largely African American town in Camden County, said endorsing Christie was a “no-brainer” after the governor kept a promise to hold a town hall in his community.

“I was a staunch, hard-core Democrat,” said Blunt, a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. “I had to sit down and think about, why am I supporting this party? What is my town getting?”

When Christie’s campaign released its first television ad of the general election, it featured a clip of the Chesilhurst mayor hugging the governor.

Dina Long, the Democratic mayor of the battered shore town of Sea Bright, said: “I made my endorsement based on who was with Sea Bright. That’s it.”

Long was one of the first Democrats to publicly endorse Christie. She cited her personal experience with the governor, who showed up in Sea Bright after the storm, delivered on support and gave her his personal cellphone number should she have trouble in the future.

Even so, some of the pro-Christie mayors felt heat from fellow Democrats. Long lost her position as chair of the local party committee. She said she put her “town ahead of party politics.”

After Sandy Moscaritolo, the Democratic mayor of River Edge, announced his backing of Christie in October, three Democrats on the town council held an event emphasizing their support for Buono.

For the most part, the mayors who backed Christie say the benefits to their communities far outweighed any local political fallout.

In heavily Democratic Essex County, hit hard by flooding from Sandy, Belleville Mayor Ray Kimble told the Newark Star-Ledger in May that he would support the governor’s reelection because he “is going to help the town of Belleville with certain projects we need.”

A few weeks later, Christie visited Belleville for the ceremonial groundbreaking of an $18 million, 137-unit affordable-housing complex for senior citizens, to be constructed largely with state money.

Schneider, the Long Branch mayor, said nobody should confuse his support for Christie last year as a precursor for what he and other Democrats might do if the governor runs for president in 2016.

At times, Schneider said, he has found himself cringing at some of the governor’s remarks, particularly on climate change.

“He’s reminding me why I’m not going to vote for him as president,” the mayor said. “But what I was being asked in spring of 2013 was, is he the best guy to support for governor of the state? He was.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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