While most of the headlines involving Governor Chris Christie the last couple months have revolved around the controversies regarding the George Washington Bridge lane closings and Hurricane Sandy relief aid, the New Jersey Republican governor had two major platforms this past month to set his own narrative: his State of the State address and his second inaugural. Both provided him a chance to reshape headlines and create a brand for himself for the year ahead and the next four years especially if that involves a presidential run in two years.
As he prepared to give his State of the State address, Christie would quickly speak about the George Washington Bridge scandal by expressing,
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. I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch — both good and bad. Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again. But I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state. This Administration and this Legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed. I am the leader of this state and its people and I stand here today proud to be both. And always determined to do better.
He then shifted to the economic state of affairs in New Jersey by voicing,
Four years ago, we were in the throes of economic crisis. Today, our unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, the lowest in 5 years. Four years ago, we were losing jobs.Today, we have gained 70,000 jobs in the last year alone, and a total of 156,000 in the last four years. Four years ago, wealth and jobs were leaving the state. Today, personal income for New Jerseyans is at an all-time high, and we are attracting new companies. And that has brought jobs — four straight years of private sector job growth. In fact, in November, the drop in our unemployment rate was the largest one month drop ever measured. And in the last year, New Jersey had the second largest drop in its unemployment rate in America. It’s no accident how we got to this place today. We chose the way. And in this new year and in the next four years, we need to build on this momentum by creating a new attitude: we need to create an attitude of choice.
After addressing the economy, the governor would then turn to possibly the most contentious issue for many residents in the state: property taxes.
Property taxes are still too high. So today, I ask for you to join me in enacting a new property tax relief initiative that tackles the root causes that are driving up property taxes in the first place.
One of the major agenda items of Christie's first term was a two percent tax level to try and lower costs cities were seeing. It was a rough transition and still is not quite near the end result that many in the state would like to see.
The next major area for Christie: education.
We’ve made some great progress in these past four years: a record amount of school aid, long-overdue reform of our system of teacher tenure, an increase in the number of charter schools and an Urban Hope Act that is bringing renaissance schools to some of our most challenged cities.
During Christie's first term there may have been reforms and money raised for education, but there were also cuts and layoffs that affected school districts around the state. In cities like Newark, there is still more that needs to be done in terms of resources and increasing the success rate of students.
As he transitioned from the last four years to the next four years with education in the state, Christie would speak further about one of his main proposals for the year ahead: expanding the school calendar.
Life in 2014 demands something more for our students. It is time to lengthen both the school day and school year in New Jersey. If student achievement is lagging at the exact moment when we need improvement more than ever in order to compete in the world economy, we should take these steps — every possible step — to boost student achievement. And one key step is to lengthen the school day and the school year. So, working with Commissioner Cerf, I will present to you shortly a proposal to increase the length of both the school day and the school year in New Jersey. This is a key step to improve student outcomes and boost our competitiveness. We should do it now.
The next big area for Christie during his speech was bail reform, criminals, and overall crime reduction. Christie highlighted improvements in cities like Newark or Camden, but like education; there is still a lot that can be improved especially after city budget cuts have impacted public safety negatively the last couple years. In order to make New Jersey cities' streets safer, Christie is urging bail reform to be passed in order to prevent dangerous individuals from reentering the streets so easily. At the same time, improving prisoner rehabilitation is something that the governor has worked on during his first term. Reacquainting non-violent criminals into society is key in allowing them the ability to show they have reformed and contribute to the state and save the state money by not imprisoning such individuals.
Lastly, Christie would speak about the progress the state has seen in the year plus since Hurricane Sandy in October 2012; but like other areas addressed during his speech; there is still work ahead. The speech itself would fall days before news would break regarding speculation around his administration withholding hurricane relief for cities like Hoboken if deals were not agreed to.
With everything that Christie aimed to lay out in his State of the State address, it will not be easy for him as he embarks on his second term. He will not only be dealing with a State Legislature that essentially the same and one he has butted heads with multiple times in the last four years, but he will have to deal with the ongoing developments related to the George Washington Bridge and Hurricane Sandy and anything negative linked to either. Roughly eighteen months ago, Christie took the stage in Tampa, FL at the Republican National Convention to not only speak favorably of then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney but also himself. He rode that platform and favorable poll numbers in the wake of his actions dealing with Hurricane Sandy relief to a big victory in a Democratic-leaning state last November.
Giving a state of the state address is the easy part of the year ahead for Christie. Getting action going on his agenda will the hard part. He is forced to juggle between his agenda, his role as the leader of the Republican Governors Association, his role within the Republican Party, and his ability to do damage control for multiple scandals related to his administration. He will need to continue to find a working relationship with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3) and grow and develop one with new Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32). Many of those same Democrats he will need to steer his way on his agenda are likely going to be questioning his role in scandals related to his administration and his role in each.
As Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor, stated;
Obviously he (Christie) will be wounded if new revelations undermine his image as someone who is truthful and honest. Worst-case scenario, this scandal becomes a criminal matter and ends up bringing him down. That’s the nightmare scenario. In that case, it ends his ability to govern.
Christie could be aided in his image damage control by allies like state Senator Kevin O'Toole (R-40).
O'Toole would voice,
As humiliated as he (Christie) was, as uncomfortable and sad as he was, he identified the problem and took the right corrective action. He made a very heartfelt apology, and I think that resonated with the people of New Jersey. He’s worked in a bipartisan manner, and he will continue to work in a bipartisan manner.
Ben Dworkin, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, would provide another snapshot for the road ahead for Christie:
Part of Christie’s success in his first term was his ability to command media attention and, more importantly, public attention toward whatever issues he cared about. That ability is going to be diminished as long as the shadow of these ongoing investigations hangs over his administration.
As elected officials, pundits, politicos, and residents of the state reflected on Christie's message in his State of the State address; he would a week later be on a major state stage again as he officially began his second term as governor.
As he prepared to start a second term as governor, Christie would exclaim;
The people (of New Jersey) have definitively set the course for the next four years. They have affirmed the decision to take on the big problems. They have validated the idea that our answers to our problems must be bold. They have rewarded the principle that we must tell the truth about the depths of our challenges and the difficulty of real solutions.
Christie would touch upon areas he brought up during his speech to the state a week earlier like education, crime, and Hurricane Sandy.
With two speeches behind him and two scandals circling his administration, 2014 and his second term are not off to the best of starts.
The Washington Post's Dan Balz might have summed up the current state of Christie's world:
As the lines harden — and Democratic legislators press forward with their investigation and federal authorities look at how hurricane relief money was administered — Christie's ability to fight a partisan battle over the inquiries and practice bipartisanship in governing will become more difficult. That's not to say he will not emerge from this in a position to run an effective presidential campaign, but only to suggest that, even if he does get through this, he might not look like the Christie who was so celebrated such a short time ago.
The year is still early. His second term is still in its early stages. Regardless of what he may have accomplished with policies or his reelection win; Christie will be find himself in a tough spot in Trenton. For him, it looks like what was already going to be another tough four years negotiating with Democrats will be that much tougher with all these stories swirling around him.