TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on Tuesday vowed in a high-profile speech to take steps to ensure the “breach of trust” that led to the turbulent political scandal rocking his office will not happen again.
“The last week has certainly tested this administration,” Christie said. “Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better.”
Christie made his remarks at the top of his annual State of the State address as questions swirled about a traffic incident involving top aides and appointees. What could have been a plum opportunity to solidify his standing atop the probable 2016 GOP field was instead the latest chapter in an unfolding political drama.
The governor pledged to “cooperate with all appropriate inquiries” to prevent a repeat of the incident. State legislators have intensified their efforts to uncover more information about the matter.
Christie’s policy prescriptions were upstaged by the continuing controversy over a scheme in which top aides to the governor worked to paralyze traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., in an apparent plot against the town’s Democratic mayor. A separate inquiry from the federal government about the use of disaster-relief funds has also complicated the governor’s outlook.
“I’m the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch — both good and bad,” said Christie.
A new element of the unfolding traffic story emerged Tuesday when the Wall Street Journal published a Sept. 11 photo of Christie and David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who helped orchestrate lane closures that led to the traffic. The two appeared at a ceremony commemorating the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The traffic jam began Sept. 9 and lasted four days.
Christie said at a news conference last week that he “had no contact” with Wildstein “in a long time, a long time, well before the election,” which was held Nov. 5.
Christie’s office said Wildstein was just one of many people the governor encountered that day.
“Of course, Gov. Christie attended the Sept. 11 ceremony, as he has done every year since he took office,” Christie spokesman Colin Reed said in a statement. “He had numerous interactions with public officials that morning, including representatives of the Port Authority. They were all there for one reason — to pay tribute to the heroes of 9/11.”
In his speech, Christie quickly pivoted from the scandal to his policy agenda. He emphasized property-tax relief, education reform and reducing crime in the state’s urban areas, especially Newark and Camden.
Inside Christie’s inner circle, many staffers said they hoped the formal setting and measured tone of Christie’s speech would help to steady the embattled administration, though they acknowledge that the task would be difficult. There is also hope that the national media, which have been camped outside of the state capitol for a week — roving reporters and television trucks dot ice-covered State Street — will take note of Christie’s push for bipartisanship and teamwork.
One of Christie’s main policy proposals was a longer school day and year, an increasingly popular idea. The school calendar is “antiquated both educationally and culturally for the world we live in,” Christie said.
Christie’s focus on education marked a return to his political strengths and harkened back to his battles with the state’s public-education unions in 2010, when he passed reforms to the state’s pension system during a budget debate.
“I welcome the opportunity to sit down with Gov. Christie and the Department of Education to discuss the benefits and challenges of implementing an extended school day and school year,” Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said in a statement. “That discussion must include educators and parents as well, to ensure that all concerns are taken into account and it should be based on research and evidence.”
Christie mentioned the work of Paymon Rouhanifard, the recently installed Camden School District Superintendent. He noted that Rouhanifard started at a difficult point: Only three students in Camden last year graduated “college ready,” meaning they scored at least 1550 on the SAT test.
Two Republican officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Christie gave lawmakers no preview of his speech and was largely out of sight, hunkering down in his second-floor suite with his advisers.
The governor sounded a cooperative note in his speech, reinforcing his commitment to working with the other side.
“Four balanced budgets. Passed with bipartisan support. Pension reform. Passed with bipartisan support. Teacher tenure reform. Passed with bipartisan support,” Christie said.
The governor has cemented a reputation as a politician who collaborates with Democrats where possible, and voters have rewarded him. He carried nearly a third of Democratic voters in his landslide win last fall, according to exit poll data.
But that reputation has been imperiled by the revelations of the past week. A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released Monday showed Christie’s approval rating falling nine points among New Jersey Democrats since December.
Concerns about Christie beyond the Garden State have also cropped up. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman (R) raised questions Tuesday about communication in the governor’s office.
“There’s something here that just does not connect fully in terms of how communication was handled and the issues were put forward to the governor,” Huntsman said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I hope that part is clarified, because I know how governors’ offices run.”
Mike DuHaime, a top Christie political adviser, told the Washington Post on Tuesday that Christie has recently received “positive, pro-active feedback” from leading Republican donors and will continue to travel nationally to raise money for GOP candidates.
“There have been plenty of calls,” DuHaime said in an interview before Christie’s speech. “There has been positive, pro-active feedback.”
DuHaime, who was a lead consultant on Christie’s 2009 and 2013 gubernatorial campaigns, added that Christie would travel to Florida later this week to support Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is up for reelection there.
DuHaime said the release of former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien from the governor’s inner circle has not led to any sort of further shake up within Christie’s tight-knit team. Stepien was tied to the lane closures in Fort Lee.
Christie’s kitchen cabinet came under new scrutiny earlier Monday when state Democrats announced the creation of two special investigative committees, both with subpoena power, to delve into the Christie’s team’s role in the Fort Lee traffic snarl.
Meanwhile, new documents released by Jersey City officials Monday suggest that the Christie administration punished the Democratic mayor of that town last summer by cutting off his access to top state officials after he declined to back the governor’s reelection bid.
And in Washington, federal auditors have begun looking into Christie’s use of Hurricane Sandy recovery money to pay for an expensive tourism-marketing campaign last year, starring him and his family.
Former New Jersey governor Richard Codey, currently a Democratic state senator, smiled wryly Monday when asked to speculate about Christie’s frame of mind before his annual address to lawmakers.
“If I were him, would I be sleeping nine hours a night? Of course not,” Codey said, as Christie was finalizing his speech down the hall at the state capitol. “It’s not fun times for the governor. Everybody’s all over him.”
Christie’s activities over the weekend were low-key, according to several Republicans who are close to him. Working and relaxing with his family at his home in Mendham, N.J., Christie made few calls and spent Saturday watching a University of Notre Dame basketball game on television with his oldest daughter, Sarah, who plans to enroll at Notre Dame in the fall.
Beyond Christie’s Tuesday speech, his advisers are reevaluating their plans for his Jan. 21 inauguration, which was set to be an upbeat and swanky affair featuring an evening gala on Ellis Island in New York. A Christie aide said the governor is moving ahead as planned with his schedule, which also includes a fundraising trip to Florida later this week.
Christie, long a popular figure among Republican contributors, is chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Mike Murphy, a Republican political consultant who has advised several presidential candidates, said that a “few donors may be panicking, but the moment he leads another poll, they’ll be back.”
Costa reported from Trenton. Sullivan reported from Washington. Aaron Blake, Matea Gold and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.