Chris Christie managed the feat of parlaying his position as a crime-fighting federal prosecutor into becoming the most corrupt governor in the history of New Jersey by repeatedly using his powerful position to blackmail or otherwise punish people who would not support him. That was then, but the big story these days is that Christie, who has become best known for being Donald Trump’s poodle, apparently has learned nothing from a presidential bid that spectacularly crashed and burned because of his reputation as a bully. He continues to blackmail his political foes even as the trial in Bridgegate, the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal that he approved, gets underway on Thursday.
On the eve of Labor Day weekend, Christie tore up a decades-long agreement between New Jersey and Pennsylvania that has allowed commuters to pay income tax in the state where they live, not where they work.
The move, which will dearly cost higher-income Pennsylvanians who commute to New Jersey, was prompted by sheer malice: The Democratic-controlled legislature had failed to make the $250 million in savings Christie demanded in teacher tenure reforms and health-care costs for the public employee unions he has repeatedly pilloried in trying to appear tough to Republicans in presenting himself as a viable presidential candidate who would bash unions in the finest tradition of the GOP. Never mind that we’re talking police officers, fire fighters, school teachers and prison guards here.
There also is an element of political skullduggery: Christie is attempting to exploit the political vulnerabilities of Senate President Steve Sweeney, a union man and probable Democratic candidate for governor in 2017 who has relied on public-sector unions to help fund Democratic campaigns.
If the legislature relents and does Christie’s bidding, he will reinstate the tax agreement. If not, Pennsylvania commuters will be punished and the counties bordering the Delaware River where they live will be hard hit.
Christie’s blackmail attempt could have catastrophic consequences in Monroe County, home of the Pocono Mountains.
There are relatively few higher income jobs in Monroe, and a consequence is that about 40 percent of Monroe residents work outside the county, including about 6,000 who work in New York City and about 7,000 in New Jersey. Many of those 7,000 residents will not only pay substantially higher taxes, but now have less motivation to continue living in an area with high unemployment that is depressed economically, has been losing population for years and already has extremely high local taxes and depressed local property values.
Although about 125,000 people commute from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and an identical number from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, Christie’s mischief disproportionately affects commuters from Monroe and other Pennsylvania counties, including Bucks, Delaware, Lehigh, Northampton and Philadelphia.
This is because Pennsylvania commuters will no longer pay their state’s flat 3.07 percent income tax, but up to 5.9 percent more on income subject to New Jersey’s top 8.97 percent income tax. Christie’s office refuses to say how much additional money the state would haul in, but it is a hefty $180 million, according to a former Christie budget director.
New Jersey’s budget woes are substantially of Christie’s own doing.
The state’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times on Christie’s watch — more than under any governor in the state’s history, and he brought a reputation for profligate spending as a U.S. attorney, along with his sizable girth, to the governor’s mansion. As if to emphasize his selfishness at a time when the Garden State was descending into fiscal crisis, he arrived at a son’s baseball game in May 2011 aboard a spanking new $12.5 million state police helicopter, which landed on an adjacent football field. Christie disembarked from the helicopter and got into a car with tinted windows and was driven about 100 yards to the baseball field.
But it is in transit that Christie has left the biggest stink.
In 2010, the governor singlehandedly killed a planned $8.7 billion commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River that virtually everyone else believed would ensure the future health of New York’s regional economy. Christie argued that the tunnel was just too damned expensive for the frugal times in which he governed (not counting himself, of course), an argument that sprung a ginormous leak when it turned out that Christie planned all along to use New Jersey’s share of tunnel construction dough to bail out the state’s highway and bridge system, which under his “leadership” had been driven deeply in debt.
There was just one problem with Christie’s secret scheme: The unspent tunnel money was under the control of the $8 billion a year bistate Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
But that didn’t prevent the governor from moving ahead anyway because he had been using the authority as a patronage trough and personal piggy bank, and in 2013 as an arm of his campaign for a second term and a cudgel to cajole mayors into endorsing him for re-election and disciplining them if he did not. Which brings us back to Bridgegate.
Christie will not be in the dock nor is he likely to be a witness when the trial of two of his key aides begins on Thursday in Newark federal court with jury selection, but it is an open secret that he approved of a plan by those aides to deliberately create a traffic jam at the world’s busiest bridge as a political payback for not being endorsed for re-election by the mayor of Fort Lee, which is on the New Jersey bridge approach.
The four-day closure of two of the three access lanes from Fort Lee in September 2013 was timed to achieve maximum impact — a week in which public schools opened, Yom Kippur was observed and there were 9/11 anniversary events. It succeeded spectacularly, causing massive traffic jams and a public-safety crisis as ambulances and other emergency vehicles were gridlocked for hours.
Defense lawyers will assert that the lane closings were “normal politics,” which is a howler, but true insofar as the meaning of the phrase applies to the unrepentant Chris Christie.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on September 8, 2016, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.