George W. Bush nicknamed him “Big Boy.” Will Mitt Romney call him “my running mate”?
Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power
by Bob Ingle and Michael Symons
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp.
To his admirers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a blunt, tenacious, corruption-gutting former U.S. attorney who is cleaning up the mess in Trenton one union boss at a time. He may well be the man who helps the Republicans reclaim the White House, either as the vice presidential nominee this year or as a presidential candidate in 2016. To his critics, Christie represents the worst of Garden State politics: an arrogant, crass opportunist who used his prosecutorial authority for political gain and never misses a chance to publicly berate those who disagree with his policies.
So which is it?
In their new book, Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise To Power, veteran New Jersey reporters Bob Ingle and Michael Symons seem to be suggesting it’s the former, painting a mostly glowing portrait of the man who once called a state assemblyman “numbnuts.” The authors use upbeat phrases like “humorous crime-buster,” “blunt establishment challenger,” and “a leader since childhood” to describe Christie, especially in comparison to his Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine. (Ingle and Symons make little effort to hide their disdain for Corzine and his team, referring, for instance, to his reelection staff as the “Kiddie Corps.”) Christie, by contrast, they say, “has the makings of a productive vice president” because of his take-no-prisoners approach to both campaigning and governing.
Despite his own avowals to the contrary, Christie is still considered a likely top contender to be Mitt Romney’s running mate this fall. Christie is highly regarded for taking on New Jersey’s powerful public-sector unions—especially the teachers—even though it turns out that his mother was a Democrat who once belonged to the New Jersey Education Association. Ingle and Symons describe how Christie pushed a 2 percent property tax increase cap, which meant that there was less money for salary increases at the local level, and attempted to balance the overburdened state budget by slashing state aid to local school districts, forcing towns to make tough choices about capital improvements and class size. It was, however, Jon Corzine who did much of the hard work that moved New Jersey toward solvency. Indeed, Corzine became wildly unpopular with his own base when he forced public employees to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their own health care and raised the retirement age.
Christie, however, has endeared himself to Tea Party types by telling public servants they should choose another line of work if they don’t like his reforms, or suggesting that billionaire Warren Buffet (who would like to raise taxes on the rich) should “just write a check and shut up.” (Another favorite quote that riled up the base was Christie’s comment that President Obama “is a guy who literally is walking around in a dark room trying to find the light switch of leadership.”)
The book opens with a fawning account of one of Christie’s favorite anecdotes—one that he has told to constituents across the state innumerable times—about the last moments he shared with his mother before she died in 2004. As the story goes, Christie raced to her side when it became clear she didn’t have much longer to live, but she insisted that he didn’t need to be there. “Christopher, go to work,” she told her oldest son. “It’s where you belong. There’s nothing left unsaid between us.” The authors use this exchange between mother and son to explain why Christie isn’t afraid to use language that sometimes makes the political elite clutch their collective pearls. Like the time he told the press to “take the bat out on” State Senator Loretta Weinberg, a seventy-six-year-old widow, for collecting a pension and criticizing his legislative agenda. It’s just Christie speaking his mind, leaving nothing unsaid, being the way his mom taught him to be.
In fairness, Ingle and Symons do not gloss over the many controversies and criticisms that have plagued the Christie administration over the past two years. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the authors give Christie the benefit of the doubt a little too easily. Remember the massive snowstorms at the end of 2010 when the governor was at Disney World with his family and didn’t come back right away? That was Christie being a family man because he had promised to take his kids, even though the lieutenant governor was also out of state at the time and had (amazingly) also declined to come home.
As for the charges that Christie rewards his friends and former colleagues—like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, his former boss at the Justice Department—with paid government positions and fat contracts? Christie is loyal, say his biographers, and likes working with people he knows. And the controversy over taking the state helicopter to his son’s baseball game? On this Christie gets the last word, too.
For those not well versed in New Jersey politics, the book details Christie’s erratic path to the governorship. He started out small as a candidate for the state senate in 1993. He ran as a Republican on a platform of gun control and pension reform for lawmakers. His candidacy lasted all of nine days before it fizzled out. The next year, he was elected Morris County freeholder—a member of the county legislature—but his tenure was marked by lawsuits, and his combative demeanor won him no friends within his own party. Three years later, he was voted out of office. The GOP crowd that had assembled to hear his concession speech turned their backs on him and began talking when he took the stage.
Christie left for the private sector and began a lucrative career as a lobbyist at Dughi, Hewit, a friend’s law firm, advocating for such clients as the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college; Edison Schools, a for-profit operator of public schools; and the Hackensack University Medical Center.
Whether he meant it or not at the time, Christie said he would never run for office again, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t still be involved in politics. He volunteered his legal services to the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign and raised, with the help of a longtime friend, more than $500,000 for their coffers. The effort didn’t go unnoticed. When it came time to hand out appointments, Bush offered the position of U.S. attorney to Christie—whom he had nicknamed “Big Boy”—despite the fact that Christie had little prosecutorial experience. During his seven-year tenure as a federal prosecutor, Christie became infamous for his perp walks, parading dozens of corrupt politicians in front of the cameras to show off his tough-on-crime credentials. He amassed more than a thousand convictions, bringing down child pornographers, violent gang members, and crooked politicians. (His record against corrupt public servants was more than 130 convictions to zero acquittals.) Christie’s office squeezed a $311 million settlement out of hip and knee replacement companies that had been paying off doctors to use their products. It was this record as a federal prosecutor that most cite as his main qualification to be the chief executive of New Jersey. Of course, it also helped that he wasn’t Jon Corzine, who had become an anathema even to members of his own party, thanks to an $8 billion budget shortfall and a difficult relationship with the legislative leadership.
The best part of the book is the meticulously researched glimpse into Christie’s upbringing. The governor grew up with two siblings in a strict home in a well-to-do suburb of Newark even though the family had limited means. All five Christies shared one bathroom and rarely went on vacation. Christie shared a small room with his younger brother, Todd, and was an athlete all throughout high school, eventually becoming captain of the baseball team.
Christie’s Republican father and Democratic mother were both strong-willed and quick-tempered, which led to many arguments over the years. Their incongruent political philosophies may explain why Chris Christie has an independent streak that riles the party faithful at times and could spoil his chances for higher office. Even though he pulled the Garden State out of regional climate change initiatives, Christie has acknowledged that global warming is both real and caused by humans. He nominated a Muslim man, Sohail Mohammed, for a state judgeship. When conservative critics accused Mohammed of following sharia law, Christie defended his choice, calling the criticism “crap.” He has also staked out a moderate position on illegal immigration, saying it’s not a crime to be in the United States without the proper documentation and advocating for a path to citizenship.
Whether Christie will become a force in national politics remains to be seen, but it looks like his spot in New Jersey is certainly secure for the next few years, if recent polling is any guide. Which is good for Christie, who has said he’s not ready to leave, because he still has a long list of things to do as governor. But wherever he ends up, as Ingle and Symons note, whether you love him or hate him, at least he won’t be boring.
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