‘You can teach everything else, but you can’t teach smart, and you can’t teach loyal.” That’s how Chris Christie praised his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, earlier this month, but he could just as easily have been talking about his friend and adviser Bill Palatucci.
He does not often make headlines, but Palatucci is widely considered to be Christie’s closest counselor and most trusted confidant. If the Garden State governor makes a run for the White House in 2016, Palatucci will play a unique part in the Christie operation as gatekeeper, fundraiser, adviser, and friend.
Palatucci’s role in the Christie administration is not tidily defined. He’d be the first to tell you he plays no role at all, and, technically speaking, he doesn’t. The governor’s former law partner, Palatucci has no formal position in the Christie administration. His influence, though, is unquestioned. “There is probably nobody more important to Chris Christie’s political operation than Bill Palatucci,” says Jay Webber, a New Jersey Republican assemblyman and former chairman of the state’s Republican party.
Christie’s inner circle is small and tight-knit, and getting Palatucci to talk about his friendship with the governor or his role in key decisions is like pulling teeth. “I’m on the outside of the official office, and so my view is, I’m helping my good friend who happens to be the governor right now, but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot I want to talk about,” Palatucci said when we first spoke. He’s a private person who would rather operate in the back room than in the spotlight, and he takes pains to shine it elsewhere. “We have a fabulous group of very talented people” in Trenton, he says.
Despite his protests to the contrary, Palatucci is more than just a friend to the second-term governor; he is also one of New Jersey’s most powerful political power brokers. In the state, where he has played a key role in nearly every Republican presidential campaign since 1984, his imprimatur matters. “If you’re running for statewide office in New Jersey, you would want to make sure to clear the way with Palatucci first,” says a Christie donor and longtime Republican activist. Former GOP Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, who has known Palatucci for a decade, calls him “the consummate kingmaker.” In October, Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, N.J., lost his bid for Senate to Newark mayor Cory Booker. “Had I established that sort of relationship with Bill Palatucci ten years ago, I would probably be the governor today, and that’s the highest tribute I can pay the guy,” Lonegan tells me.
In a business where loyalty matters and where operatives often flit from one office to another, Palatucci’s allegiance to Christie is unquestioned. “If it serves the greater good, he’ll do it, and the greater good is always Chris Christie’s interests,” says one New Jersey politico. The two are so close that Republicans familiar with the Christie operation say Palatucci serves, in some venues, as a proxy for Christie. In 2010, Christie installed him as national committeeman for the New Jersey Republican State Committee, replacing David Norcross, who had held the post for 30 years. He is described as Christie’s eyes and ears on the committee, which decides how the presidential primary process works. A Christie donor puts it more bluntly: “People know that when Palatucci speaks, it is really Chris Christie speaking.”
Palatucci is also an aggressive fundraiser on Christie’s behalf. As chairman of his reelection campaign, he helped the governor amass a record sum in the primary season, over $6 million, and over $12 million by Election Day in November. Now that Christie has taken the reins at the Republican Governors Association, Palatucci is helping him raise money for gubernatorial races across the country. “He understands that finances make the world go round,” says Palatucci pal and veteran GOP operative Scott Reed. “It’s a way to show political strength, and he’s become a closer.” Palatucci’s skills will redound to Christie’s benefit if he mounts a presidential campaign. Says Reed: “They’re going to have a national finance infrastructure in place overnight.”
At home in New Jersey, Palatucci is a Christie enforcer. Those on the receiving end of his reproofs for veering off-script or failing to demonstrate sufficient devotion to the governor say his message is clear. “If you’re even off the mark a little bit, you’re toast. You learn the rules of the road, and the rules are complete and total cooperation and loyalty or exclusion and suspicion,” says one New Jersey Republican. Asked whether this iteration of New Jersey politics can go national, Reed says yes. “National politics is not beanbag, it’s the ultimate sport, like the NFL, so you better put your pads on,” he tells me. “Palatucci’s an NFL player.”
The fourth of five children raised in a devout Italian Catholic family, Palatucci is trim, tanned, and handsome, his dark hair Romneyesque. Like the governor, he is a straight-talking Jersey lawyer with little patience for phonies or nonsense.