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NJ Gov. Chris Christie Faces Economic Turmoil at Home as He Seeks GOP Presidential Nomination

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Two-term New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has formally launched his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, promising “straight talk” and touting his record. In the months ahead, Christie will work on repairing his battered image after last year’s “Bridgegate” lane closure scandal. Critics say the closings were political retribution against a Democratic New Jersey mayor who refused to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign. But the governor has denied any knowledge of the closures. Meanwhile, Christie’s approval ratings in his home state have fallen to new lows amid a series of credit downgrades and weak job growth. We are joined by Bob Hennelly, political analyst and investigative reporter for Newark’s WBGO and a regular contributor to Salon.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Tuesday, yet another Republican candidate announced he’s running for president. Two-term New Jersey Governor Chris Christie formally launched his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, promising “straight talk” and touting his record.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: America is tired of handwringing and indecisiveness and weakness in the Oval Office. We need to have strength and decision making and authority back in the Oval Office. And that is why today I am proud to announce my candidacy for the Republican nomination for president of United States of America. And unlike some people who offer themselves for the presidency in 2016, you’re not going to have to wonder whether I can do it or not. In New Jersey, as governor, I have stood up against economic calamity and unprecedented natural disaster. We have brought ourselves together, we have pushed back that economic calamity, and we are recovering from that natural disaster. And that’s because we’ve led, and we’ve worked together to do it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the months ahead, Christie will work on repairing his battered image after last year’s Bridgegate lane closure scandal. Critics say the closings were political retribution against a Democratic New Jersey mayor who refused to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign. But the governor has denied any knowledge of the closures. Meanwhile, Christie’s approval ratings in his home state have fallen to new lows in a series of credit downgrades—amidst a series of credit downgrades and weak job growth.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Christie now heads out on the campaign trail to New Hampshire, where he’ll hold the first of what’s expected to be a series of town hall sessions.

For more, we’re joined by Bob Hennelly, political analyst, investigative reporter for WBGO, Newark’s NPR station, and a regular contributor to Salon. He’s also a reporter for CBS MoneyWatch.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

BOB HENNELLY: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what you think we should know about Governor Christie.

BOB HENNELLY: I think there’s really key three things. One is that you had a situation where we have not really come out of the Great Recession in New Jersey. The reality is, out of the top five American cities with the most mortgages underwater, where the mortgage is at least 25 percent, sometimes higher, more higher than the actual value of the home, three of them—three of them—are in New Jersey. That would be Newark, Paterson and Elizabeth. Every day, Amy and Juan, this is what we see—page after page of foreclosure notices—

AMY GOODMAN: What are you holding up?

BOB HENNELLY: I’m holding up The Star-Ledger, just a sample day, three full sections of household after household that is imploding. This is not really covered by the media, because the narrative is that this—we’re in recovery. And the reality is that money that was—came through these universal settlements, when the banks didn’t admit wrongdoing but passed money through to the department of—to the Treasury, that money didn’t find its way to New Jersey’s homeowners. So, in places like Newark, you have a situation where, in 2012, three children and two adults died in a fire in their home because squatters had moved in, smoking crack, and set fire to the house. If you walk in the West Ward, you will see that every other home is abandoned. This is the New Jersey that Chris Christie has presided over. Job growth—he’s only brought back 72 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, compared to the robust performance by Governor Cuomo, over 200 percent. So that’s the reality, and that’s why you’ve seen the downgrades. He just didn’t understand how to fix the economy. And when it came to crunch time, he became distracted with running for president.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the situation with New Jersey’s pension systems? And teachers have been in the forefront of all the protests against Christie.

BOB HENNELLY: Right. Well, that’s the tragedy, because, I will say—I live in the same town as Governor Christie. I’ve been covering him since he was a freeholder, which is a county legislator in New Jersey. And there was a moment—there was a potential Capraesque moment, if you will, in 2011, where Steve Sweeney, the Democratic Senate president and ironworker union leader, and Speaker Sheila Oliver, former speaker, came forward. The unions saw their retirement age pushed off. They were going to contribute more. And all he had to do was fully fund the pension. And that was the grand bargain. Had he done that, you would have seen something where he would have had something to bring to the nation, that he could resolve something that his predecessors had failed to do. But he didn’t make that payment.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how he compares to other candidates who have entered the presidential race. He is often referred to as one of the, well, more moderate.

BOB HENNELLY: Well, I think moderate—you have to look at how has he governed. And what’s happened is that the gap between the super wealthy and the working class has only opened up more wider. The one area where he is, I will say, offering something different is the idea that he wants to see drug addiction looked at as a public health issue and not as a criminal justice matter. We’re seeing that kind of movement with Senator Booker and Senator Paul coming together. So, that is something where he—but as far as in urban policy and as far as how he governs, what you see is pretty much how it is: He just brutalizes people he doesn’t agree with.

AMY GOODMAN: We mentioned Bridgegate at the top of this. Is it fair to say he’s scandal-plagued? And for people who don’t live near the Washington—George Washington Bridge, explain what happened and the number of people who have been indicted around him.

BOB HENNELLY: All right. So, in a couple of minutes, right. Well, I think it’s important to understand that back in—around the time of the September 11th thing, he had just—he was trying to get ramped up for re-election. There was tremendous pressure to have Democrats—

AMY GOODMAN: Just a few years ago, not 2001.

BOB HENNELLY: Yeah, right, right. And we were looking for—he was looking for Democrats to endorse him. There were a number who did. The idea was, if we can get Democratic mayors to endorse him, he’s going to look like that dream candidate—in a blue state, getting re-elected as a Republican. There were people around who were pressuring the mayor of Fort Lee, Sokolich, Mayor Sokolich, to endorse. There were other mayors who he was pressuring. And then, around September 11th, all of a sudden the Port Authority—well, the George Washington Bridge is controlled by the Port Authority. Governor Christie has people within the Port Authority who are political supporters. They came up with this idea of basically shutting down one of the toll lanes as some kind of retribution. Subsequently, what’s happened is David Wildstein, who is a close Christie confidant and was working in the Port Authority, has agreed to plead guilty. You have Bill Baroni, another confidant of Governor Christie, who was working in the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, a high-level staffer within the Christie administration, are going to be on trial this summer for their role in it. This is something that Christie denied his staff had anything—

AMY GOODMAN: This was back in 2013.

BOB HENNELLY: Right. And he—this was something he had denied his staff had any role in. And then, finally, when emails came out and were published by the Bergen Record that showed this internal scandal was going on, he then summarily fired Bridget Kelly, but made no inquiry of her about why she did what she did. And so now, this summer, you’re going to see a major political show trial, which is going to keep this in the headlines, and it’s going to be hard, I think, for Christie to get away from it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about something that Governor Christie touts a lot: his role in rebuilding the Jersey Shore after the Sandy damage that occurred. I know in New York City, it was very, very slow, the rebuilding process.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What’s happened in New Jersey?

BOB HENNELLY: Well, there are people that kind of follow him around, making a point that they’re not back in their homes. Star-Ledger has done a good job reporting on that. Years later, people are still totally outside of their homes and dealing with all kinds of fraud, waste and abuse by the contractors and the insurance companies.

Also, it’s important to know that what Governor Christie did with the Exxon settlement, which we covered the last time I was on. The state had contemplated getting $9 billion from Exxon to make up for environmental damage that they had done in the Newark Bay, which was badly hit by Sandy, in an urban environment. By not fully funding that settlement and by agreeing to let Exxon off the hook for just $225 million, the governor gave up on a plan to put 30,000 acres of wetland and marshland as buffers to protect the most critical part of New York and New Jersey’s port. By walking away from that, he left that entire urban area, which, I might say, is primarily new immigrants—the people that live there are primarily low-income, were already hit by Sandy and the toxic waste that came out of the wall of water. So, he really has—he really shouldn’t base his running for president on Sandy. There’s too much of a record out there.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, there was the politics of it, embracing President Obama, and a lot is being made of this now by the pundits, and then—and touring with him, of course, around Hurricane Sandy, and then basically saying that Romney should stay away.

BOB HENNELLY: Well, I think that what he did then was, in his—he’s a brilliant politician in the sense of figuring out the thing that appears to be in the public interest but also in his political interest. And that’s why his opponents should keep an eye on him, I mean, shouldn’t count him out.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about healthcare for a moment. Christie gave the keynote at the 2012 Republican National Convention, drawing loud applause for a comment he made about healthcare.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world’s greatest healthcare system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor!

AMY GOODMAN: So, there he’s talking about healthcare. I think he didn’t mention Mitt Romney’s name, though he was chosen to be the keynote—

BOB HENNELLY: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —until 17 minutes in. But what about this? And the significance of what he’s saying?

BOB HENNELLY: Well, I think it’s important to know that Governor Christie has made war on Planned Parenthood. One of the key things to understand is that he has single-handedly undercut funding there consistently. And what’s so shortsighted about it is it means he walked away from millions of dollars of federal money. So, when it comes to certain kinds of ideological things, there’s no compromise. Chris Christie, it’s either his way or the highway.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about education, too, because public education is going to be a big topic in this presidential campaign. What’s been Christie’s record in terms of the inner-city public school systems? And he’s put in quite—he’s had quite a few state controls of a lot of city school boards, hasn’t he?

BOB HENNELLY: Right, right, and that state control went on a long time before Governor Christie. And what’s happening now is that his whole approach has been—and his predecessors’, too—to impose these kinds of changes and reforms from the outside. And it creates a tremendous problem, because the reality is, experts will tell you, the way for transformation in school districts is through each household. People themselves in their household have to buy into what you’re doing. And what he did was that whole approach he had just created more conflict, and they lost a lot of time. But I think what’s also important to keep in mind is that he has flipped on things like Common Core. He was for it, then he saw something stirring, and he flipped on that. So, he put his finger up in the wind on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bob Hennelly, thanks so much for being with us, political analyst, investigative reporter for WBGO.

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