Election night 2009 was one Republicans could savor. A year after Barack Obama had won the presidency, and Democrats had expanded their majorities in the House and Senate, the GOP roared back with two big, hard-fought gubernatorial wins in two key states, with Chris Christie knocking off incumbent Jon Corzine in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell rolling to a landslide victory in Virginia. Both were considered potential future presidential candidates.
Fifty months later, the night appears to have been a false dawn, as both men face accusations, and mounting evidence, of betraying the public trust.
Christie campaigned as the tough guy who could clean up a dirty state, the state of Bob Torricelli, Jim McGreevey, and legendary forms of corruption: An FBI probe into money laundering ended up indicting three mayors and revealing a black-market kidney-smuggling ring. In the Garden State, crime wasn’t just organized, it was clinical.
New Jersey’s white knight doesn’t look so clean today. The explanation from Christie is that he never ordered or encouraged a form of political payback against the mayor of Fort Lee; it was just his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, an appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, conspiring on their own to ruin the commutes and stress the lives of thousands of people in Fort Lee. The e-mail and text messages between the two and some unidentified party make them sound like villains in an Elmore Leonard novel. First the blunt instruction to make misfortune happen:
Kelly to Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Wildstein to Kelly: “Got it.”
Then the gloating:
In one exchange of text messages on the second day of the lane closures, Wildstein alludes to messages the Fort Lee mayor had left complaining that school buses were having trouble getting through the traffic.
“Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” the recipient of the text message responded to Wildstein. The person’s identity is not clear because the documents are partially redacted for unknown reasons.
“No,” Wildstein wrote in response.
“I feel badly about the kids,” the person replied to Wildstein. “I guess.”
“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, making a reference to Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, who lost to Christie in a landslide in November.
Best-case scenario, Christie was oblivious to and way too incurious about wretched acts within his administration; worst-case scenario, he’s lying now and was in on it. Even if Christie knew nothing, he spent the past two months insisting the accusations of skulduggery were nonsense and a partisan witch hunt. No, he entrusted state power to several aides who took relish in the frustration and aggravation of schoolchildren because of an assumption about the voting patterns of their parents. This is an intolerable combination of cruelty and stupidity.
Again, the most exculpatory explanation for the governor is that he is an awful judge of character, too dismissive of complaints about and accusations of malfeasance in his administration, and too credulous that four days of hellacious traffic were just part of an as-yet-unproduced “traffic study.”
Christie’s explanation that he learned of his aides’ actions on Wednesday requires us to believe that Kelly and Wildstein turned over their e-mails and text messages to investigators, knowing what was in them, and even then still didn’t tell their boss anything, permitting him to be blindsided by the revelations. Thursday morning, that was Christie’s official explanation: “I was blindsided.”
Christie’s problems are exacerbated by his being the one most often calling out others for this sort of behavior — the media’s favorite Republican, willing to rip into his own party’s members in the House for holding up a Hurricane Sandy relief bill over concerns about extraneous or pork spending; Christie’s now-ironic declaration about House Republicans at the time was that “politics was placed before oaths to serve our citizens. For me, it was disappointing and disgusting to watch.”
The scandal surrounding McDonnell is clearer, and more personal, and may still result in the McDonnells’ facing charges in a federal courtroom.
McDonnell’s term ran aground after revelations that he and his family accepted more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a donor, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, Inc. The lavish gifts included a $6,500 Rolex watch; $15,000 to cover the costs of catering for the wedding of the governor’s daughter; a $15,000 shopping spree in New York City for the governor’s wife, Maureen; and a loan of $120,000 to her. Under state law in Virginia, governors are required to publicly disclose all gifts over $50, but are not required to disclose gifts to their family. The McDonnells paid back the loan in July of last year.
McDonnell insists he and his administration gave no special favors to Williams or his company. However, in 2011, McDonnell permitted Star Scientific to use the governor’s mansion for the company’s launch party for its new dietary supplement, Anatabloc. Members of the governor’s staff asked about the legality and propriety of the event but were overruled. The company’s Facebook page featured the governor holding its product, an implied endorsement that McDonnell’s staff claims wasn’t authorized.
We’ve become blasé about governors and presidents inviting donors to stay in their mansions or the Lincoln Bedroom. But the Commonwealth of Virginia does not provide its governor a mansion so that he can help donors sell their products.
Outside law firms that the Virginia Attorney General’s Office appointed to represent Governor Bob McDonnell and state employees in a criminal case involving a former Executive Mansion chef and related gift probes of the governor already have cost taxpayers more than $780,000.
In his final State of the Commonwealth address, McDonnell echoed the increasingly familiar — perhaps now clichéd — words of contrition of a public official caught with his hand in the cookie jar:
I am not perfect. But I have always worked tirelessly to do my very best for Virginia. I’ve set very high standards for myself. But, as a flawed human being, I’ve sometimes fallen short of my own expectations.
Choices I made were legal, and as several reviews have shown, no person or company received any special benefits during our administration.
However, I understand the adverse public impression some of my decisions have left. I have prayed fervently that the collective good we have done over the past four years will not be obscured by this ordeal.
No one made him take those gifts. No one made him decide that the public didn’t have a right to know about a six-figure loan to his wife from a campaign donor. And no one made him use the governor’s mansion as a corporate showroom for an afternoon.
The Washington Post reported that Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, intends to seek an indictment of the McDonnells for helping promote the company in exchange for gifts, citing “people familiar with the case.” The indictment is expected shortly after McDonnell officially leaves office January 11.
Despite his other achievements in office and the relative good times Virginia enjoyed during his term, Bob McDonnell is likely to be remembered as an embarrassment. The question is whether Christie can escape the same fate.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.