Chris Christie speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)

The rise and fall of Chris Christie: How the N.J. governor went from powerful Republican leader to political joke

The larger-than-life politician could have been president. Then VP. Now he's second fiddle on the transition team


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Charlie May
November 12, 2016 9:59PM (UTC)

In 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held an approval rating of 77 percent. He was one of the most visible people in New Jersey — a hero to some, even — because of how he handled Hurricane Sandy. Christie’s coalition with President Barack Obama helped propel the Republican governor to a dominating re-election victory in a historically blue-leaning state.

By 2016, the boisterous bully made infamous by Bridgegate was licking his wounds from a failed presidential campaign. Less than three weeks after ending his White House hopes, Christie endorsed Donald Trump.

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Christie, once seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, currently holds an all-time low approval rating of 21 percent in his home state. Here's a look at how he went from front-runner to also-ran to someone who may never run again.

August 2010: The Price You Pay for not completing education paperwork comes out to $400 million

Christie's feuds with the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, have helped contribute to his downfall. In 2010, the state fell three points short of winning $400 million in federal grants because of an application error by the Christie administration.

Before the mindless application error, Christie's commissioner of education, Bret Schundler, completed a draft application with the NJEA, where both parties agreed on new reforms. The compromise would have won them the grant. However, Christie felt that this collaboration would weaken his ability to have political influence over the state's largest teachers union, so he got rid of the agreed-upon reforms, just days before the application was due.

“Throughout his entire tenure there was just a lack of good faith, and as a result of that lack of good faith, there grew an incredible distrust between us and his administration,” Ginger Gold Schnitzer, director of government relations for the NJEA, told SalonStill, Schnitzer said she had to work with Christie in order to secure government funds for the children. "You don't have the luxury of saying, We don't trust this guy, we're not going to deal with him."

October 2010: Chris Christie scraps tunnel in favor of re-building Thunder Road

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In 2010, Christie shot down an $8.7 billion plan for a commuter rail that would run between New Jersey and New York City, known as Access to the Region's Core. The new tunnel will ultimately be necessary to keep New Jersey's transportation system functioning properly and efficiently. The two current tunnels are over a century old, and run both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit commuter trains.

Christie said the project was expected to be more expensive than originally planned, and he didn't want to force the taxpayers to take on the cost overruns. However, canceling the plan still wound up costing taxpayers $1.2 billion — stemming from expenses related to lawyers, environmental studies and other costs. The state had nothing to show for it.

To add insult to injury, flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy deteriorated the tunnels and left them both in desperate need of repair. Experts say that in 20 years one or both of the tunnels will need to be shut down for renovations that would last a year or even longer. The ARC project would have opened a new tunnel by 2018.

Christie now supports plans for a new tunnel, known as the Gateway project. This tunnel is projected to cost around $23.9 billion, almost four times the cost of ARC.

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June 2011: It's So Hard to Be a Public Sector Worker in Christie's City

Christie signed a bill that forced public employees to pay additional amounts of their paychecks into the pension and healthcare system. In return, the state would increase its payments to the pension program. At the time, this was seen as one of his administration's landmark achievements. However, his promise that the state would make all of its payments into the pension program fell short, with Christie claiming he would not have balanced the state's budget otherwise. Consequently, Christie was sued by various unions, including teachers, police officers, firefighters and more.

New Jersey's pension woes have continued, and as of a Bloomberg report this month, the state has the worst-funded public worker pension system in the country. Failing to make pension payments has also resulted in New Jersey's credit rating being downgraded a total of nine times under the Christie administration, making it harder to borrow money for the state's needs.

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August 2012: Chris Christie completes the Teacher Street Shuffle

Though his victories were few and far between, Christie's tenure overhaul bill in 2012 was seen as a major positive achievement for him. His rare compromise with teachers unions was also widely praised. The bill made reforms to the way public school employees obtain tenure, making the employees' performance a key factor. It also made it easier to fire those who weren't performing to standards.

Initially, Christie and his administration had different intentions for tenure. “His original bill would have all but gutted tenure. It would have eliminated seniority protection, it would have taken away any true due process, and we were successful at getting them to pull back on a lot of that," Schnitzer told Salon. "We're always the organization that says, Okay, let's have a meeting; you don't get things done unless you talk.

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"I think the only reason that they agreed to our tenure bill, to move things off the table and everything else, is because he was interested in running for president. You knew he was going to run for governor again, and he wanted to build up his numbers, and if that's what it took to get it done then he was willing to do that," Schnitzer added.

October 2012: Blood Brothers with President Obama

The pinnacle of Chris Christie's governorship was undoubtedly his leadership during Hurricane Sandy. Christie's approval rating skyrocketed after he urged people off the beaches. He was visible during the ordeal, and his public handling of the issue got him re-elected. It wasn't perfect, though; Christie was widely criticized by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, as well as other top Republicans, for hugging President Obama, who visited New Jersey. Christie has since repeatedly denied he ever hugged Obama.

September 2013: Chris Christie's aides close a bridge over The River

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When two of three important toll lanes were closed to the George Washington Bridge — spanning the Hudson River to connect Fort Lee to New York — during early-morning rush hour, traffic became a nightmare in the New Jersey city. The incident sparked accusations of Christie coordinating, or at least having some knowledge of, the lane shutdowns.

In October, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and Port Authority official David Wildstein testified under oath that the governor knew of the lane closures beforehand. It was seen as an act of political vengeance against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie during his re-election campaign.

The governor's two top aides — Kelly and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — were found guilty of charges stemming from the traffic jams. Christie is sure to receive more criticism in his final year in office as a result of the closure.

February 2014: Chris Christie is Born to Run (an ad campaign starring him) 

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Christie's aforementioned 77 percent approval rating after Hurricane Sandy was proven to be merely an inflation that is commonly attributed to politicians in the aftermath of a tragic event.

Two years later, Christie was accused of diverting dozens of millions of dollars in Sandy federal relief aid to housing projects in counties that were damaged far less, but supported the governor. He also was featured prominently in television ad campaigns that were meant to focus on the state's recovery.

November 2014: Chris Christie's gift to Nebraska Iowa

To score points with Iowa for his upcoming presidential bid, Christie vetoed a law in New Jersey that would have banned confining gestating pigs inside of crates, causing a tremendous amount of backlash from animal activists. Iowa leads the nation in pork production, and is also home to the first voting event of presidential elections — the Iowa Caucus.

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Iowa governor Terry Branstad wanted Christie to veto the bill.

2015: My Hometown  

In 2015, Christie angered residents by spending 72 percent of the year traveling outside the state he was running, mainly to focus on his presidential aspirations. The majority of his time was dedicated to the state of New Hampshire, where he spent around 56 days, watching football games at local bars and appearing at more than 40 town hall meetings. Christie lost the New Hampshire primary election, winning 7 percent of the vote in February.

Christie has also received a lot of criticism for accepting gifts and spending quite a bit of time with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. The governor has appeared in the same suite as Jones both in Texas and New Jersey.

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August 2015: Chris Christie doesn't live up to The Promise

A New Jersey judge approved a settlement that Christie agreed upon with Exxon Mobil. The state was seeking $8.9 billion for environmental damages to wetlands, marshes and waterways. Christie settled for a mere $225 million — 3 cents on the dollar of what the state was asking.

February 2016: Chris Christie's Trump Avenue Freeze-out

Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump was fitting, as the two have been friends for quite some time nowChristie was in charge of Trump's transition team, and was even offered the vice presidential nomination, until Trump was advised to rescind his offer because "Christie's Bridgegate troubles would sink the campaign," the New York Post reported. It seems that the scandal may continue to haunt him, as this week Vice President-elect Mike Pence was named to lead the transition team, demoting Christie.

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Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, also more than likely had some influence in the vice presidential decision-making process. In 2004, while serving as U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Christie prosecuted Kushner's father, who pled guilty to 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering, as well as illegal campaign donations.

The people of New Jersey were not pleased with Christie's decision to assist the Trump campaign. A poll conducted last May by Fairleigh Dickinson showed that 46 percent of voters disliked him more because he worked with Trump. Only 6 percent of voters said that his allegiance to Trump was good.

August 2016: Chris Christie makes Trump a deal for Atlantic City

Christie took a leap of faith with his endorsement and hopped aboard a train that seemed it might be destined for the White House. He made the move in hopes that he could extend his political career, but instead separated himself from his own party, something Trump couldn't even manage to do. Even though he has poised himself as the anti-establishment candidate, Trump has actually collaborated with or around the establishment throughout his career.

As an example, the taxpayers were left to foot the bill for Trump’s failing casinos in Atlantic City, which owed $30 million to the state of New Jersey. One year into Christie’s first term as governor, he allowed Trump to settle for just $5 million.

November 2016: Chris Christie's transportation infrastructure plan gets stuck somewhere in the swamps of Jersey

Through tunnels and transit, Christie has failed to win the hearts of commuters. Early this month, New Jersey's gas tax rose 23 cents per gallon — a big hike for residents of a state known for its affordable gas.

The legislation increases the gas tax, phases out the estate tax by 2018, and includes other tax adjustments. The tax will be dedicated toward an eight-year, $16 billion infrastructure revamp that will restore the state's Transportation Trust Fund — which was bled dry this past summer, causing more than 1,000 road, bridge and rail projects to be halted. Analysts are skeptical that the tax will end up costing the state $170 million this year, and continue to increase to around $1.4 billion by 2022.

There are certainly many things that could have contributed to the downfall of Chris Christie over the years, and his cuddling up to Trump has yet to ensure his political career some longevity. In a series of bad bets and double-downs, the New Jersey governor, who has racked up more than $80,000 in MetLife Stadium concession stand fees, appeared to be the biggest loser.

It's only fitting, then, that, in the hours before Donald Trump was elected president — when it seemed that Trump, like Christie, would face defeat — Christie was seen quietly voting in the darkness on the edge of town.


Charlie May

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay

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