New Castle News

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January 13, 2014

Mitchel Olszak: Christie must bridge gap in his image

NEW CASTLE — As every political junkie knows, it’s never too early to handicap the next presidential election.

And so it is that pundits of all sorts are now assessing the impact a bridge scandal will have on the prospective candidacy of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Now, the 2016 primaries are a good two years off, and Christie hasn’t even said if he intends to run. But his big win as Republican governor in a Democratic state last year labeled him the prospective front-runner among GOP hopefuls — at least in some circles.

That conclusion, however, may change in light of revelations members of Christie’s staff were involved in a scheme to block lanes of the George Washington Bridge leading from Fort Lee, N.J., to New York City as payback for the refusal of Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor to endorse Christie in the gubernatorial contest.

The scenario sounds silly. After all, Christie seemed to be a shoo-in for re-election as governor, and indeed, he won by a landslide. Why would members of his staff engage in this sort of pettiness, particularly when the pain of massive traffic jams was inflicted on average citizens, not on Mayor Mark Sokolich?

But last week, emails and text messages surfaced indicating that’s exactly what happened. While the affair may not equate with the corruption and abuse of power in some of America’s epic political scandals, this is one that’s readily understood by the average individual and so utterly pointless.

To date, nothing has surfaced directly implicating Christie in the dirty trick. And the day after the scandal broke open, he held a marathon press conference to repeatedly apologize. He also fired a key aide linked to the emails. All in all, it was an aggressive house-cleaning move that compares well to politicians who allow their scandals to fester and envelope them.

And the implication is that Christie is telling the truth when he says he knew nothing about the lane-closing plot and his staff’s involvement. If he did, that news would almost certainly leak out from associates who were cut loose by the governor.

Christie has rocketed to fame as a politician who pulls no punches and takes stands on what he believes is right. He is not above criticizing officials in his own party when their actions appear to conflict with those of his state.

His blunt style and independent streak have earned him popularity among an increasing segment of voters who have no affinity for either major party. The idea that Christie is his own man has strong appeal for many voters tired of ideological nonsense.

Unfortunately for Christie, that image clashes with the one presented by this scandal. He has touted himself as a hands-on governor who works closely with his staff to get things done. Now we are being shown a chief executive who was oblivious to the political stunts pursued on his supposed behalf. And Christie has acknowledged there may be other unpleasant shoes out there waiting to be dropped.

Plus, Christie’s blunt, abrasive personality can veer into the obnoxious. While that may be beneficial in some circumstances, it also can make him look foolish — as he now does in video from last year where he mocked the notion of political motives in the Fort Lee lane closings.

Despite this, it’s far too early to tell if any of this will have an impact on his presidential ambitions — assuming he has any. The record would suggest that people who vote in Republican primaries want a candidate who toes a solid ideological line.

And that’s not Christie. Should he run, a bridge scandal may be the least of his problems.

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