Why Bob Menendez really can't stand Chris Christie

It remains the most bizarre -- and potentially troubling -- episode from Christie's stint U.S. Attorney

Topics: 2012 Elections,

Why Bob Menendez really can't stand Chris ChristieChris Christie and Bob Menendez (Credit: AP)

The New York Times has a piece today about the strained-to-hostile personal relationships that Chris Christie enjoys with New Jersey’s two Democratic senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez. As the story makes clear, Christie’s friction with Lautenberg is pretty straight-forward, but when it comes to Menendez, the history is a little more complicated:

The enmity between Mr. Christie and Mr. Menendez dates at least to 2006, when Mr. Menendez was running for Senate and Mr. Christie was the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey. Mr. Christie’s office started an investigation that touched on Mr. Menendez’s dealings with a community group. Mr. Menendez charged that the inquiry was politically motivated — nothing came of it — and people close to the senator say he still resents it.

This is all true, but it’s worth looking closer at what happened — and what many Democrats strongly suspect may have happened — back in 2006, because the episode is easily the most puzzling, and potentially troubling, of Christie’s seven-year run as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. At issue is the suggestion that Christie — who used his position to attract glowing press coverage and to transform himself into his party’s dream gubernatorial candidate — responded to a threat from the Bush administration to fire him by ginning up a bogus, high-profile investigation of Menendez at a politically sensitive time.

The necessary context: In January 2006, Menendez was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Jon Corzine, who had resigned his Senate seat after being elected governor of New Jersey. There was only a year left on Corzine’s term, so Menendez would have to stand for election that fall. Republicans, in New Jersey and nationally, smelled opportunity: Menendez was a product of Hudson County, a notorious haven for political corruption, where he had climbed through the political ranks, won a U.S. House seat, and emerged as the area’s premier power-player. And corruption was a big issue in New Jersey in 2006, in the wake of the Torricelli and McGreevey sagas (McGreevey’s was about a lot more than sex) — and with Christie, the U.S. Attorney, waging a high-profile crusade against crooked politicians. Republicans, who recruited a candidate with a golden name (Tom Kean Jr.) into the Senate race, hoped the taint of Hudson County seediness would turn voters away from Menendez.



Nationally, the stakes were potentially enormous. In the wake of Katrina and with Iraq spiraling out of control, it was clear that the ’06 midterms would be rough for the GOP, and that their control of the House and Senate was in peril. It was also clear that Menendez was the only vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent up that year. Beating him became a Republican priority; flip the seat to their column and the Democrats would have virtually no chance of posting the net gain of six seats they needed nationally to win back the chamber.

As the fall arrived, polls showed Menendez and Kean locked in a tight race. Republicans hadn’t won a Senate seat since in New Jersey since 1972, but now it looked like they had a real chance.  And that’s when Christie entered the picture. On the night of Thursday, September 8 — less than two months before the general election — word leaked to the Star-Ledger and WNBC-TV that Menendez was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office and that records had been subpoenaed from a Hudson County nonprofit organization that received federal funds and that also rented space in a building owned by Menendez.

At first the news seemed like a devastating blow to Menendez’s campaign. Just four years earlier, ethics problems had forced Torricelli to abandon his reelection campaign five weeks before Election Day, and talk immediately began that Menendez would be forced to do the same. Kean’s campaign pounced, wasting no opportunity to remind voters that the guy whose ethics they had been questioning all year was now the subject of a federal criminal investigation. Menendez protested that it was a smear job, but his opponents quickly fired back that Christie’s record on corruption as U.S. Attorney was unimpeachable — he’d prosecuted polticians from both parties.

But Menendez had a point: It was different this time — very different. Christie had made public corruption his marquee issue upon taking over as U.S. Attorney in 2001, and his first high-profile takedown had famously been a Republican: James Treffinger, the Essex County executive who had been on course to win the ’02 GOP Senate nomination when Christie’s team raided his office. Christie’s won/loss record was impeccable: The politicians he went after all ended up being convicted or pleading guilty. Hence the suspicion that the news of a Menendez probe would quickly lead to more damning revelations and an indictment.

But it didn’t. Instead, the story just sat there for the balance of the campaign, with no new developments — no explanation of what exactly Menendez was suspected of doing wrong. The silence lent credence to Menendez’s adamant insistence that he’d done nothing and that Christie, a politically ambitious Republican (it was widely known throughout the ’00s that he planned to run for governor eventually), had essentially teamed up with his own party’s U.S. Senate candidate. It was also noted that Christie, in apparently leaking word of the probe, had broken with the tradition of not dropping such bombshells so close to an election, lest it create suspicions of political motive. As David Chen explained in the New York Times that fall:

And in this instance, Mr. Christie’s focus on official corruption complements Mr. Kean’s strategy of hammering away at the notion that Mr. Menendez, a veteran of Hudson County’s bruising brand of politics, is ethically suspect.

“It seems to dovetail with the message that Tom Kean has put on consistently: that the Democrats are irrevocably corrupt and can’t be trusted,” said Mr. Baker of Rutgers. “It magnifies the lack of specific knowledge on the part of ordinary voters of the connections between two Democratic politicians, in very much the same way that Democrats nationally are building up a culture of corruption argument of lumping Abramoff, Ney and DeLay altogether.”

In the end, the GOP’s “under federal investigation” talking point lost its teeth and Menendez, aided by the mighty anti-Bush tide and Kean’s own deficiencies as a candidate, won by nine points. And that’s pretty much the last we heard about a federal investigation of Menendez.

But then, a few months later, came a startling new wrinkle. In early 2007, the Bush Justice Department came under scrutiny for the way it handled U.S. attorneys. Revelations emerged that prosecutors around the country had been ranked according to their loyalty to the administration and its goals and that a surprisingly high number had been purged, or at least placed on to-be-fired lists. The controversy grew out of DOJ’s firing of seven prosecutors on the same day in December 2006. The New Jersey angle: It turned out that twice in 2006, Christie had appeared on informal lists of targeted prosecutors, but that his name had been scrubbed just before the firings were announced in December.

This created immediate suspicion. The U.S. Attorney’s job had literally made Christie’s political career. He’d been appointed to it after serving as an elite Bush fund-raiser in 2000, and before that his own political career had been in ruins. But his aggressive pursuit of political corruption put him in the headlines and on television the most enviable way — the fearless, corruption-busting prosecutor standing up for honest citizens everywhere. In 1997, he’d been defeated in a Republican primary for county office in suburban Morris County. By 2006, he was the state GOP’s dream candidate for major office. In other words, the U.S. Attorney’s job had been very good to him, and with the next governor’s race still three years away, he needed to hold on to it to keep the favorable headlines coming. Had Christie been aware that he was on the to-be-fired list in early 2006? And had his weird, out-of-character pursuit of Menendez — the national GOP’s top Senate target — been his way of proving his loyalty and saving his job?

Christie has always denied this, and asserted that he didn’t know he was on any list until after the December firings were announced. He’s also said that he has no idea why he would have been on the list in the first place. It may be that it was all a coincidence, his simultaneous inclusion on the firing list and decision to pursue Menendez. But the fact remains that the very public, very futile Menendez investigation stands as a glaring exception to the way Christie typically handled business as U.S. Attorney — and that holding on to his job was crucial to his eventual election as governor in 2009, and to his current status as a presidential prospect.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>