Chris Christie's nightmare worsens: Walls caving in amid new revelations and poll

The governor’s numbers crater at home and in Iowa, as we learn he gave 9/11 wreckage as political gifts

Published March 11, 2014 5:41PM (EDT)

Chris Christie                          (AP/Susan Walsh)
Chris Christie (AP/Susan Walsh)

While reporters pondered the meaning of of former Chris Christie aide Bridget Kelly appearing in court personally to fight subpoenas for her email and documents – Why would Kelly show up at all? Might she eventually talk? Why is she wearing a black cardigan and pearls? -- the bad news for Christie continued. A Des Moines Register poll shows that Iowa voters are paying attention to Christie’s bridge scandal woes, with 57 percent disapproving of the way he’s handled it and only 25 percent approving.

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, the damage is even worse. Christie’s approval numbers have flipped in the new Fairleigh Dickinson poll: the man who won reelection in a landslide in November has seen his disapproval ratings spike, and for the first time since his first election, more New Jersey voters disapprove than approve of the job he’s doing as governor. A Rutgers/Eagleton poll also released Tuesday found that trust in Christie has cratered, too: 23 percent of those polled said the word "trustworthy" could be used to describe Christie "very well;” that’s down 20 percent just since October.

In some ways, the Iowa news doesn’t matter much to Christie: it was never going to be a strong Christie state in the 2016 GOP nominating process, since social conservatives dominate its first-in-the-nation caucuses. Christie’s only hope was mobilizing Republican-leaning independents to join the caucuses, a heavy lift in any scenario.

But now even that path seems closed to Christie, as Iowa Independents disapprove of Christie’s bridge-scandal handling 60-20. Among registered Republicans, 47 percent disapprove while 34 percent say he’s doing all right. “If Governor Christie runs, he may choose to follow John McCain and Rudy Giuliani’s path and skip Iowa,” a top Iowa GOP strategist told the Des Moines Register. That worked for McCain, temporarily anyway, but not at all for Giuliani, who was once the towering Christie figure on the GOP horizon – a blue-state Republican tough guy beloved by the media -- whose presidential campaign flame-out was a remarkable display of hubris and incompetence.

Still, the most damaging developments for Christie are closer to home. A New York Times investigation published Tuesday shows he’d turned the Port Authority “into a de facto political operation” even before Kelly declared it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”  Christie used big Port Authority projects to win endorsement from Democrats and union leaders, and in a ghoulish touch, even handed out wreckage from the World Trade Center to reward mayors who backed him. Just last week a WNYC-NJ Spotlight investigation revealed that his administration mishandled $25 million in Hurricane Sandy grants, giving huge awards where there was no storm damage, stiffing places with huge flooding problems while, yes, underpaying the city of Hoboken by about $700,000, as Mayor Dawn Zimmer has alleged.

All of this corruption has been hiding in plain sight, but the bridge scandal suddenly helped people connect the dots.

Christie continues to insist he’s putting the mess behind him. He took his son to watch New York Mets spring training baseball over the weekend, then showed up at another local town hall Tuesday, though he hasn’t taken questions from the media since his two-hour pity party in early January. Christie is still being covered like a top-tier 2016 candidate, which, given his competition, is somewhat defensible, I suppose. So it’s hard to ignore the bad Iowa news for Christie, and yet it’s irrelevant. Christie’s national career is over, and his tenure in Trenton is endangered as well.

Back to Bridget Kelly: She may win this round in court, but only because it’s become clear that she has a reasonable fear of federal prosecution for her role in the bridge lane closures. Until this round, committee counsel Reid Schar had denied that Kelly might be incriminating herself if she shared the documents the committee wants. In court Tuesday, he acknowledged that risk but insisted his subpoena was narrow enough to protect Kelly’s Fifth Amendment rights.

But if state investigators don’t get Kelly’s documents, federal prosecutors are likely to. I read Kelly’s black-cardigan-and-pearls appearance in court today as designed to remind everyone that she sacrificed her personal and professional life for Christie, and her reward to date has been enormous legal bills and lots of time with lawyers. It’s hard for me to imagine Kelly taking the fall for her ex-boss. But either way, voters are holding her ex-boss accountable.

By Joan Walsh