In Chris Christie’s first successful campaign for public office, he sat down next to his wife and baby, looked into a camera and told voters something that wasn’t true.
It was 1994, and Christie was a 31-year-old lawyer running for the county board in suburban Morris County, N.J. He was making a television ad, saying to the camera that his opponents were “being investigated by the Morris County prosecutor.”
Actually, they weren’t. But Christie’s inaccurate ad ran more than 400 times on cable TV before the June GOP primary. He won.
Today, Christie is the Garden State’s governor, facing allegations that, during last year’s reelection campaign, his aides snarled traffic on a major bridge to punish a political enemy.
That 1994 race was New Jersey’s introduction to the brash and confident Christie, whose hardball tactics have repeatedly surprised people — even in a state that thinks it invented hardball.
But in Morris County back then, people thought Christie had learned the downside of playing so rough: That ad helped get him into his first elected office but then helped get him out of it. He was sued for defamation, required to apologize and then defeated at the polls after just one term.
“He needed a launchpad. That’s really how I look at it,” said Christopher Laureys, whose mother, Cecilia Laureys, was one of the candidates who sued Christie because of the ad. “I don’t think he really cared who was in the way of the flames when he launched.”
By the time of the election, Christie had been a man in a hurry for most of his life. He had won student council elections in high school in Livingston, N.J., and then at the University of Delaware. At age 15, he had also made a mentor of future governor Thomas H. Kean (R), then a state assemblyman, by showing up at Kean’s home and asking for advice.
In 1994, he ran for the office of freeholder, New Jersey’s equivalent of a county commissioner. In a deep-red county, the race that mattered was the GOP primary.
“There was one elected Democrat in the 20th century. Watergate. There was a one-term Democratic freeholder elected in the Watergate era. . . . He was out the next time,” said Paul Bangiola, who ran the county’s hapless Democratic Party from 1998 to 2002. “We have what is actually the strongest, most unified, most intact political machine in the United States. It just happens to be a Republican machine, where people have whales on their ties.”
Christie was an outsider — a transplant from a neighboring county — trying to force out GOP incumbents. The TV ad helped. It played while north Jersey was glued to the National Hockey League playoffs, watching the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers.
The problem was, it wasn’t true.
“I called the prosecutor, Mike Murphy, up and said, ‘Am I being investigated?,’ and he said, ‘You’re not,’ ” said Edward Tamm, one of the incumbents Christie ran against. “You cannot tell untruthful facts. I mean, that’s the part that really got me upset.”
The problem with Christie’s ad was the word “investigated,” with its connotations of corruption or criminal wrongdoing. The reality was less dramatic: The county prosecutor had conducted what he called an “inquiry” into whether freeholders had violated an open-meeting law.
Tamm and Laureys sued for defamation. But when the primary came, they lost. Christie and one of his allies won, along with one of the three incumbent candidates.
The race had been so bitter that, on primary night, people had trouble getting the winners to stand next to one another for a photo. Eventually, the Star-Ledger newspaper reported, they posed and grinned, but did not “give the usual signal of political unification — over-the-head hand-holding.”
“I am not here to do business as usual,” Christie said a few months later, when he was sworn in as a freeholder. “I know I was sent here to ensure that the public’s business is vigorously debated and decided in public.”
In office, Christie focused on some of the issues that have defined his career. He pressed for stronger ethics rules, called for lower taxes and attacked cronyism in the county’s business dealings. Former colleagues on the board said he was hardworking, confident and sometimes contentious.
“I don’t consider him a bully. I don’t. He’s a likable person. You may not always agree with him, and I can’t say I always agreed with him,” said Frank Druetzler (R), who served alongside Christie. “We debated the issue, and then we would have lunch, you know what I’m saying? That type of thing.”
But Christie continued to make enemies outside the chamber, by starting a new campaign just months after the old one ended. He ran for the state assembly, teaming up with another local Republican, Rick Merkt (in New Jersey, each assembly district elects two representatives).
“It turned out to be the worst mistake I ever made in politics, because he had ticked off so many people,” Merkt says now. “We got shellacked.”
That 1995 campaign fizzled in part because of lingering anger over the 1994 ad. Although New Jersey politics is famous for its eye-gouging tactics, some parts of Jersey are less Jersey than others. Morris County is one of those places. Republicans there were still mad at what Christie had done.
“It was considered below the belt. I don’t think it was below the belt,” said Rick Shaftan, a hard-bitten New Jersey political consultant who worked for one of Christie’s opponents in that race. Although the ad didn’t bother Shaftan, he knew it bothered others, and he crafted ads that showed Christie as a “career politician” grappling in a mud pit.
“Even though Christie had been in office a year, he was a ‘mud-wrestling career politician,’ ” Shaftan says, laughing now at the truth-stretching he employed to attack Christie’s truth-stretching. “What do you do, complain after the election?”
In 1996, Christie settled the defamation lawsuit. Tamm, one of those who sued him, said the terms required Christie to pay a sum of money — “I’m not at liberty to say” how much — and to run an apology in local newspapers.
The statements in the ad “were not accurate. Neither of you were under investigation by the Morris County prosecutor at any time,” Christie wrote in the apology, addressed to Tamm and Laureys. He continued: “I fully intend, in any future campaigns in which I am involved, to be much more sensitive to the impact of such tactics.”
The next spring, Christie faced another Republican primary, to keep his freeholder seat. He lost, finishing dead last in the field. That night, when he stood up at the GOP party to give his concession speech, there was an extra humiliation: The crowd talked over him and drowned him out.
Then, Christie has said, he walked off the stage to see a local Republican rival standing there.
“I said to him, ‘Well, it’s good to see you’re in such good humor tonight,’ ” he told the Star-Ledger in 1997. “And he said, ‘You know what I’m doing? I’m kissing your [expletive] career goodbye.’ ”
After that defeat, Christie returned to his law firm and helped open its lobbying office in the state capital, Trenton. He sued his rivals in the 1997 campaign, saying they had run misleading ads about him. That suit was settled years later with a statement of “regret” issued by Christie’s opponents.
“I pretty much decided I would never run for anything again,” Christie told authors Bob Ingle and Michael Symons, who wrote a 2012 biography of the governor. “I thought to myself, you know, maybe I was not cut out for this.”
Christie’s press office did not respond to a request for comment Friday about this period of his life.
Christie resurrected his career through a connection to George W. Bush: He was a top fundraiser for Bush’s presidential campaign, and in 2001 Bush appointed him U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Suddenly, Morris County’s also-ran had immense power statewide. In New Jersey, being the top federal prosecutor is “a little bit like being God Almighty,” said Bangiola, the Morris County Democrat.
In Morris County, Christie patched up relations with many of his old rivals, seeing them at church services and soccer games. Even Cecilia Laureys, one of the two who sued him for that inaccurate ad, endorsed him when he ran for governor. Laureys died in July at age 81.
“She always felt like he had turned a page” after that incident, said her son, Christopher. He said his mother also admired Christie’s corruption-busting work as U.S. attorney. She told her son: “In politics, you learn to forgive. And if you’re smart, you never forget.”