Supporters of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrated on Thursday when the news broke that federal prosecutors have found no evidence he knew about a plot hatched by some of his staff to close off a town’s access to a major bridge in an act of political revenge. The news certainly isn’t bad for Christie’s 2016 presidential aspirations – and it vindicates his insistence that he had no knowledge of the closure plan beforehand – but the bridge scandal, along with a number of other issues that have arisen in recent months, still leave him a diminished candidate.
The story, citing unnamed federal sources with knowledge of the investigation, was broken by television station WNBC in New York last night. “Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made, but say that authorities haven’t uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes.”
The story falls short of the exoneration that many Christie supporters claimed it to be, and certainly leaves open the question of his leadership – given that key staffers and associates appear to have been closely involved in the decision to shut down access to the George Washington Bridge for the town of Fort Lee, N.J. for several days in 2013. The closure, apparently an act of political retaliation against the town’s mayor, impacted thousands of New Jersey residents and stranded Emergency Response vehicles and school buses.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the news is good for Christie, but that he may never get back to the status of frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.
“This has really contributed to the dimming of his star,” Kondik said. “It plays into preexisting questions about him being a bully and having an out of control staff.”
However, he said that Democrats, who “made a really big deal of it” when the bridge scandal story broke earlier this year, may find that rather than being the issue that defines Christie, it will be reduced to just one issue among many on which they go after the New Jersey governor.
“Americans have tremendously short memories,” Kondik said. “If Christie’s not getting indicted for this … there may still be headlines about it, but it may not be disqualifying the way people thought it would be.”
He said that on the campaign trail, Christie may be able to push much of the bridge fallout to the side. “Christie is a really, really impressive public speaker and a very gifted politician in ways that maybe some of these other candidates aren’t,” Kondik said.
That said, the story Christie wants to tell voters about his tenure running New Jersey is getting increasingly complicated.
Some of the major Atlantic City casinos are closing down, taking a large portion of Southern New Jersey’s tax base with them.
Christie is currently mired in another controversy over his handling of the state pension program, which remains seriously underfunded and which was, until recently, partially invested with a firm whose owner contributed to Christie’s political campaigns.
Bond rating firms have downgraded the state’s credit rating, making it more expensive for New Jersey to fund long-term projects.
And finally, on one of the biggest economic questions of the day, job creation, New Jersey has largely been a failure.
According to Kondik, being cleared in the bridge case will help Christie, but not much. “This news clears up some of the dark clouds. But there are some other chinks in his armor that remain.”
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