Ignoring cloud of investigations, Christie strikes inclusive tone at inauguration

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican Party star enmeshed in scandal after reelection in November, was sworn in Tuesday for a second term in the state capital of Trenton. (Reuters)

A flurry of investigations and heavy snowfall cast a cloud over the inauguration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was sworn in for a second term on Tuesday.

But a subdued Christie did not address the swirling storm over his aides’ role in causing a days-long traffic snarl last year. Instead, the embattled Republican struck an inclusive tone, extending an open hand to Democrats and encouraging compassion.

“We have to be willing to play outside the red and blue boxes the media and pundits put us in,” Christie said. “We have to be willing to personally reach out a helping hand to a neighbor suffering from drug addiction, depression or the dignity-stripping loss of a job.”

Christie went on to broadly highlight his second-term agenda, from economic growth to ending “the failed war on drugs.” In particular, he touted his work on immigration reform, an issue that has long divided Republican ranks and garnered him national attention.

“As we saw in December regarding the DREAM Act, we can put the future of our state ahead of the partisans,” he said.

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A look at the traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge
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See how lane closures created a traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge.

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Documents related to alleged retribution by the Christie administration against mayors who did not endorse the New Jersey governor's reelection.

Amid scandal, Christie also took care to cast himself as an opponent of “entrenched interests,” and as a public servant who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, worked to “restore” his state.

“We cannot fall victim to the attitude of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The attitude that says, ‘I am always right and you are always wrong.’ The attitude that puts everyone into a box they are not permitted to leave. The attitude that puts political victories ahead of policy agreements. The belief that compromise is a dirty word.”

Christie’s delivery was unusually down-tempo and scripted, with few deviations from the pair of teleprompter screens perched aside his podium. The setting, an ornate Art Deco-style theater at the city’s war memorial, was formal, as was Christie’s language. The bravado that has become his political signature was shelved.

In a rare swipe, Christie gently knocked New Jersey’s “neighbors,” a nod to New York state and New York City, for their tax policies.

“Growth will not happen by following the path that some of our neighbors seem prepared to pursue,” he said. “Let’s be different than our neighbors. Let’s put more money in the pockets of our middle class by not taking it out of their pockets in the first place.”

Christie frequently touted his mandate following his reelection last year and argued that he still has the political capital to push an ambitious program, in spite of the looming controversies over an apparent act of political retribution against a Democratic mayor.

The flap has led the state legislature to launch two investigations and issue subpoenas to several members of Christie’s inner circle. On Tuesday, Democratic legislators said they would combine those two investigations into a comprehensive inquiry.

“It wasn’t just some of our people who affirmed this course,” Christie said of his victory. It was not a vocal plurality like four years ago. No, this time, it was the largest and loudest voice of affirmation that the people of our state have given to any direction in three decades.”

Up on stage, Christie’s family and well-dressed Garden State politicos fanned out behind him in rows of folding chairs. A line of former governors, including Republican Tom Kean Sr. and Democrat Jim McGreevey, sat up front, mingling amiably.

The audience sitting before Christie was packed and gave him a slew of standing ovations. Much of the upper balcony was empty, save for a few reporters. An inauguration official said the inclement weather led some attendees to stay home.

McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 and now works as a spiritual counselor, said Christie was smart to reach for bigger, more centrist themes as his administration is deluged by inquiries.

“The governor sounded thoughtful when he talked about his commitment to helping those suffering from addiction,” he said. “It’s authentic, and I think that passion came through.”

“There was no purpose in a speech like this to go into the investigations,” Kean said. “He has addressed those issues before, and he will have to address them again, I’m sure. It was a moment for him to say he’ll take on the tough things, to look ahead.”

State Democratic leaders were more muted, but most said Christie was smart to leave the traffic episode alone, if but for a day.

“This state has to get back to governing, and we’re here to show the governor that we want to do that, too,” Joe DiVencenzo (D), an Essex County executive and occasional Christie ally, said. “He knows he’s got to work with us if he wants to get things done.”

“I actually enjoy the pomp of an inauguration, so let’s just leave things there, and we’ll get back to work tomorrow,” added State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D), who is chairing an investigative panel.

A number of national Republicans with long ties to Christie attended the ceremony — a nod to Christie’s continued standing as a 2016 presidential hopeful. Russ Schriefer, a former strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and veteran of Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns, was there, as was Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), like Christie a former United States attorney.

“Back in Washington, the view is that there is a long way to go between now and the presidential race,” Meehan said. “We don’t know yet who may or may not be a candidate. As for Chris, I think he’s doing a great job and over time, I’m hopeful the traffic incident will fall to the wayside as he continues to lead.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Tuesday showed Christie’s national popularity slipping. In a hypothetical matchup against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christie trails by eight points, and his numbers among independents have dropped.

Earlier Tuesday, Christie attended a service at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, the city of his birth. His planned evening gala on Ellis Island was canceled due to the blizzard conditions. Food from that event will be given to local food pantries.

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

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