Christie’s ascendancy should be familiar to New Yorkers in its symmetry to Rudy Giuliani’s rise a generation ago: the famous prosecutor who busted dirty politicians and businessmen before launching a political career (former Giuliani aides Mike DuHaime and Comella now work for Christie).
Christie was born in Newark, and except for four years spent at the University of Delaware (where he was class president), he’s lived in the Garden State all his life, a point he makes repeatedly on the campaign trail.
But Christie’s performance in the polls thus far is all the more surprising given that his political career was effectively over before it even started. His early campaigns in the nineties were hurt by unchecked ambition that alienated his fellow Republicans. As a 31-year-old corporate lawyer, Christie tried to run for State Senate in 1993 against Majority Leader John Dorsey in the primary but failed to get the proper signatures. The following year, he ran for a seat on the Morris County Board of Freeholders. Christie ran and won on an ethics platform, saying he would end the awarding of no-bid contracts for county business. But the race is remembered as a particularly ugly one. Following the election, Christie’s opponents, Edward Tamm and Cecilia Laureys, sued him for libel over a Christie ad claiming Tamm and Laureys were being investigated by a prosecutor (they weren’t). Christie settled for an undisclosed sum. “The guy just lied!” Tamm recently told me. “He’ll do anything to get elected. He’ll say anything, do anything.”
Then, only months into his term as freeholder, Christie decided to run for the State Assembly, turning off many local Republicans who saw him as grasping. He lost the race, and it took more than a decade to recover politically. Two years later, Christie came in last place in the freeholder primary and was out of local politics altogether. “When I lost in 1997, I thought to myself, Maybe I’m not suited for that,” he told me.
“The guy just lied,” says a political opponent who sued Christie for libel and forced a settlement. “He’ll say anything to get elected.”
Christie returned to private law practice and a comfortable suburban life with his wife, Mary Pat, an investment banker with Cantor Fitzgerald. He registered as a lobbyist in 1999 and, through his friend and law partner Bill Palatucci, gained entrée into the Bush World. Palatucci had become close with Bush during George Bush Sr.’s 1988 presidential campaign. In January 1999, Christie boarded a Continental flight in Newark and flew down to Austin with Palatucci and eight top New Jersey Republicans to meet Bush for a private lunch at the Governor’s Mansion with Karl Rove, during which Bush discussed the possibility of him running for president. Christie made a total of three trips to Texas to meet Bush and signed on as the campaign’s New Jersey lawyer. His fund-raising earned him vaunted “Pioneer” status. After the election, Palatucci recommended Christie for U.S. Attorney and personally sent his résumé with a cover letter to Rove.
Christie, understandably, doesn’t want to talk much about George Bush, still a reviled figure in New Jersey. “Lets be clear, I worked for [Bush], but it wasn’t like I was in the room watching him all the time … I only really saw him from a distance, like everyone else did,” Christie says. Legal groups protested Christie’s lack of law-enforcement experience. Corzine, then serving as New Jersey’s junior U.S. senator, supported his nomination along with Torricelli. “Jon Corzine was a big supporter of mine up until I decided to run against him,” Christie says. (“That was probably one of the wrong votes I made in the U.S. Senate,” Corzine told me.)
The convictions soon started rolling in. In addition to the roundup of 44 politicians, businessmen, and rabbis this summer, Christie took down such well-known Democrats as former Newark mayor Sharpe James and real-estate magnate Charles Kushner. In 2006, Christie issued a highly controversial subpoena for records of Robert Menendez shortly before Menendez’s tough 2006 election, drawing complaints that Christie was following the Bush Justice Department line (Christie points out that at one point he was included on a list of U.S. Attorneys to be fired, though he was subsequently removed from the list). “He had a great relationship with Attorney General Ashcroft,” says Mark Corallo, who served as Ashcroft’s public-affairs director. Some prosecutors detected a conservative shift under his leadership. “Washington was just much more of a presence,” one explains. “You were reminded of certain things Washington wanted done. They wanted lots of gun cases. They wanted things from election-related fraud. Chris would remind us if we didn’t keep gun numbers up, jobs could be lost.”
On the campaign trail, Christie talks frequently about the 2003 prosecution of James Treffinger, the powerful Essex County Republican boss, as evidence of his neutrality. But that corruption case had been started by a prosecutor working for Christie’s predecessor, Robert Cleary, and was well under way by the time he got into office.