One of the top Democrats in New Jersey tells Salon that the Trenton world is suddenly treating a presidential candidacy by Gov. Chris Christie as a real possibility.
“It’s more serious now,” Richard Codey, who served as acting governor from 2004 to 2006, said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “Definitely. No question about it.”
A story in Thursday’s New York Post — written by Josh Margolin, a former Star-Ledger political reporter who is well-connected to Christie World — claims that urgent pleas from Republican luminaries have helped convince him to rethink his long-standing opposition to running.
Among New Jersey politicos, Codey said, the sense is that “it’s more likely that he’d run today as opposed to two weeks ago. When you’ve got Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and all those Republican bigwigs calling you, saying you’ve got to do it for the party, you’ve got to do it for the country — it’s intoxicating. A lot of people would get drunk off that.”
“I think as each day goes by and more and more people ask him to do it, the more flattered he is … and it makes him more likely to do it than not, in my opinion,” Codey said.
Earlier this week, Christie claimed in a speech at the Reagan library that his state has become a national model of bipartisan productivity on his watch. “Our bipartisan accomplishments in New Jersey have helped to set a tone that has taken hold across many other states,” he said. “This is the only effective way to lead in America during these times.”
Codey laughed at this, noting that the votes that have allowed Christie to push much of his agenda — including a controversial overhaul of the state’s public employee pension system — through a Democratic Legislature came from loyalists of a pair of regional party bosses with their own parochial and personal interests.
“It’s not bipartisan,” he said. “He’s made deals with two party bosses who deliver their employees’ votes. That’s not bipartisanship.”
If anything, Codey said, Christie’s governorship has polarized the state, with some voters rallying around his pugnacious, in-your-face style and others fiercely resenting it. “We see with white males over 50, he’s cleaning our clocks — no question about it. But females? No, not at all.”
A poll released by Fairleigh Dickinson University this week showed men approving of Christie’s job performance by a 2-to-1 margin, with the governor barely breaking even among women. Overall, Christie’s approval rating stands at 54 percent, a marked uptick from earlier in the summer — and an obvious result, Codey said, of the fact that Christie “was on TV every 10 seconds” during Hurricane Irene.
If Christie were to win the Republican nomination, “it would be a battle for him to win New Jersey. We’re still a blue state,” said Codey. And among minority voters, “you’d see a turnout like you’ve never seen for Obama — it would be both a pro-Obama vote and an anti-Christie vote.”
Christie’s shaky home-state standing could complicate any decision on a presidential bid. To win the governorship in 2009, Christie strained to project a moderate-to-conservative image, something that could come back to haunt him in a national GOP race. But any pandering to national GOP audiences could send his New Jersey numbers plummeting, and make it even more difficult for him to come back to the state after a presidential loss and run for reelection in 2013.
“He’s moved to the right, without question,” Codey said. “The question is if he’s moved far enough right to satisfy those people in South Carolina, Mississippi and other states that are very far right. And I think that remains to be seen.”
And, he noted, there’s a flip side to Christie’s feisty style: “He’s got very, very thin skin” — something that could get him in serious trouble on the national stage. “I mean, just one time during a debate if he goes off and says the wrong thing — and he’s certainly capable of that — he could be down the tubes.”
Codey, 64, has himself been talked up as a potential Christie challenger in ’13. Seven years ago, he was the little-known president of the state Senate when Gov. Jim McGreevey abruptly resigned because of a bizarre gay sex scandal. Codey was next in line for the governorship, and racked up sky-high popularity during his 15-month run. But his party’s bosses, with whom he’s long had acrimonious relationships, united behind Jon Corzine and effectively blocked Codey from seeking a full term.
Still, he remains quite popular; the new FDU polls shows him in a dead heat with Newark Mayor Cory Booker for the ’13 Democratic nomination, with every other prospective candidate far behind. He said he’s focusing on his own reelection to the state Senate this fall — redistricting tossed him into a new, more Republican-friendly district — and that he wants “to see how this whole thing plays out with [Christie], and then make up my mind.”
While he wouldn’t vote for Christie for president, Codey said he wouldn’t necessarily be upset if he ran and won. Why?
“Because then we’d get a new governor.”