Chris Christie Heads for the Door, Minus the Earlier Throngs
NEWARK — As the final months of his tenure in Trenton wind down, Gov. Chris Christie has kept himself conspicuously busy. He celebrated the opening of a new drug treatment facility. He delved into the intricacies of the Mets’ pitching rotation on a sports radio station. He dropped by the Prudential Center to warn children about the dangers of drug addiction.
This is not how he thought it would end, running out the calendar with largely dutiful tasks.
“Well, one, I thought I might be president,” he said in an extended interview in his office earlier this month, “so that’s a fairly material change.”
With a 20 percent approval rating that secures his place among the most unliked governors in New Jersey history, the final nine months of the Christie administration, which began in 2010, reflect a governor in a dimming twilight.
His legacy has been battered by a brazen political scandal known widely as Bridgegate; his once promising quest for the White House was profoundly quashed. Nonetheless, Mr. Christie aggressively defended what he said he had done for the state, and said he was focused on what he still wanted to accomplish.
“My obit will be fine; I’m not worried about that,” Mr. Christie said in the interview. “The first graph of my obit will be pretty, pretty good, and my children and hopefully someday grandchildren will be able to read it and go, ‘O.K., Grandpa lived a life of consequence.’ That’ll be good.”
But as he travels the state promoting his initiative against the opioid epidemic plaguing the country, the energy seems different. Gone are the throngs of national media who in 2013 thought they were covering the probable Republican presidential nominee. Gone are the nearly daily outrages and television clips of him berating an opponent or dressing down a lawmaker.
In their place is a man keenly aware of his legacy, evident in the battles he chooses and in the reflexive defense against criticism. He has recently supplanted his small-government conservatism with populist rants against corporate America — Amtrak, United Airlines and Horizon health insurance were his most recent targets. The rhetoric is in line with the Trumpian politics of the moment, perhaps as a way to rehabilitate his image as he ponders his future.
“You think about it, you go back prior to Bridgegate, his numbers were off the charts,” said Stephen M. Sweeney, New Jersey’s Senate president and a Democrat who has both sparred and collaborated with the governor. “You go from being loved to not being liked, it’s pretty tough.”
Mr. Christie said he was not concerned with his approval ratings, only in being a “governor of consequence,” and that his final legislative ambitions may appear modest simply because of political realities: He is a governor on his way out, facing a risk-averse Legislature all up for election.
He has signaled three main goals for his final year: getting Horizon — the state’s largest health insurance carrier — to subsidize his drug program, shifting lottery revenue to shore up the heavily underfunded pension system and “cementing” the changes he’s brought to drug and alcohol treatment and punishment.
His main agenda item, combating the opioid epidemic plaguing his state and the country, is one he addressed during his 2009 initial run at the governorship. It also reignited his focus during his presidential campaign, when he spent weeks at a time in heroin-ravaged New Hampshire.
“I absolutely believe that, in part, that’s the hand of God redeeming lives, and if you can be a part of that, it’s a great thing,” he said.
It is an issue likely to provoke little opposition, and yet Mr. Christie seems to be marshaling his rhetoric behind it: He spent roughly 60 of his 75 minutes in his final State of the State address focused on the issue.
“If you’re in your last year you’ve got to decide if you want to be uniting or divisive,” Mr. Christie said. “I want to be uniting on the way out.”
For years, Mr. Christie carved an agenda from which he could build a path toward the White House. He took hard lines on spending, often sacrificing much-needed improvements to transportation infrastructure, which left many of his constituents furious this spring.
He spent weeks at a time out of state building up his presidential run, drawing the ire of members of both parties and further dividing his state against him. And when he chose to endorse Mr. Trump, a candidate whom the more moderate Republicans of New Jersey abhorred, Mr. Christie saw his support in the state splinter further, though he professed not to worry because “I knew I was never going to run in New Jersey again.”
All those choices were calculated to help the governor rise to the White House, either as president or vice president, a position he does not fail to mention he was considered for. “Twice.”
“I was doing what I thought was best for the country,” he said of his endorsement of Mr. Trump. “And for me.”
His early support for Mr. Trump — he said he was receiving two to three calls a week from Mr. Trump, courting him — seemed sure to land him a top post in the White House, if not on the ticket. But as the Bridgegate guilty verdicts were handed up, Mr. Christie found himself shut out.
Having failed to land a cabinet post, the governor has started to contemplate what he might consider doing after his term ends, musing aloud in an interview on various jobs he might be interested in — assuming his services were desired — so long as the price was right, of course.
“Might I associate with a law firm? Sure, or some type of other business or investment firm, maybe,” he offered.
“Might I be involved in media? Sure. I enjoy that,” he said (he had just finished three hours as a co-host of a sports radio talk show).
“Could I be involved to be on corporate boards? Sure, that’s a possibility,” he said, adding an important caveat: “I want to have fun, and I want to make money. If I’m not going to be in public service, then I want to make money.”
To be sure, Mr. Christie, 54, still believes that there may be a place for him in the Trump administration in the near future. (The governor is currently reading a biography of John Quincy Adams, prompting a minor fixation on the notion of finding different ways to serve the federal government.)
Indeed, Mr. Christie still boasts of a close relationship with Mr. Trump, one that’s based on 15 years of friendship and involves at least one extended phone conversation with the president each week, sometimes to talk policy, or sometimes just to talk.
“There are other nights where we talk where we literally just don’t talk about business at all,” he said of his calls with the president. “And he’ll be shooting the bull about sports or some show he saw on television or a movie or whatever, or he’ll be asking me about Mary Pat and the kids,” a reference to his family.
“It will be purely just a friendly conversation. And then at the end he might say, ‘So how do you think I’m doing? How do you think it’s going?’”
For the early part of his final year, Mr. Christie seemed intent on lying low — saying he wanted to dedicate his efforts to his drug initiative and counseling Mr. Trump — and pointedly avoiding needless public battles.
“You know, in the beginning you come in, you’re younger and you’re less experienced and you’re like, ‘I want to fight everything,’” Mr. Christie said. “And you learn over time that if you fight everything you may win nothing.”
In recent days, signs of the old Mr. Christie have re-emerged, although he seemed to be selecting weakened and universally loathed opponents.
First he picked on Amtrak, channeling his constituents’ rage through harsh letters that threatened the punitive action of withholding payments from New Jersey Transit. He also appeared on cable news to criticize Amtrak after its rails were found to have caused the derailment of a New Jersey Transit train at Pennsylvania Station — causing weeklong delays and cancellations across the region.
Then he turned on United Airlines — the company that happened to be at the center of a bribery scandal involving his close friend, David Samson — over its recent treatment of a forcibly removed passenger.
But he saved his harshest rhetoric for perhaps his most hated adversary: the media. In a news conference in Whippany, Mr. Christie took exception to a question from a reporter from The Star-Ledger of Newark regarding Mr. Samson.
“People like you are stupid enough to go and cover it,” he snarled in response to a question about Mr. Samson. “Just because you’re dumb enough to cover it doesn’t mean I’m going to be just as stupid and answer a question about it.”
The moment was vintage Christie, but it did not ricochet around social media or splash across cable news shows. The remark dissipated into the silence of the room.
The governor briefly looked down at the lectern, glanced to the back of the room, and took the next question.