New Jersey Nasty

Photo: Edward Keating (left); Jeff Mermelstein (right)

Chris Christie, the Republican candidate for New Jersey governor, barrels into the room with the force of an NFL lineman. His outstretched hand swallows mine whole in a firm, fleshy grip. All head, chin, and midriff, even by outsize Jersey standards, Christie is large. George Bush—for whom Christie helped raise $350,000 during the 2000 presidential campaign—nicknamed him “Big Boy.”

It’s a rain-soaked afternoon in late September. Christie meets me at a campaign stop in Jersey City, shortly before he’s to pitch himself at a Rotary Club luncheon as the man to unseat Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs CEO turned struggling incumbent Democratic governor. His dark-navy suit is punctuated with a candy-colored orange tie. An American-flag pin in the shape of New Jersey is affixed to his bulging lapel. We’re seated in a private dining room with a fully stocked wet bar. A waitress brings Christie a pitcher of Diet Coke.

We begin to talk, but suddenly Christie’s eyes dart over my shoulder as he spots Zachary Fink, a political reporter for New Jersey public television, hovering nearby. “Will you go deal with Zach Fink out there who’s pacing and staring?” Christie snaps at his communications director, Maria Comella, who scurries out of the room.

Christie’s aggression has made him a force. Christie racked up an impressive 130 convictions without losing a single case during his seven years as U.S. Attorney in Newark. Even critics acknowledge that his crusade against political corruption—most recently, an investigation he spearheaded resulted in 44 arrests, including three mayors, five rabbis, and two state assemblymen—at least made a start at cleaning up New Jersey’s notoriously dirty politics. The gawdy record is controversial—he’s accused of pursuing Democrats disproportionately, as well as doing the White House’s bidding—but it catapulted Christie into a position to mount a credible Republican campaign in a resolutely liberal state.

Christie sips more Diet Coke, and our conversation turns back to the race. Corzine, he says, is “a guy who is lurching from crisis to crisis with no plan.” He crouches forward across the table and hammers away at Corzine’s record. “I had a ringside seat to the problems of the political system in New Jersey,” Christie says. I ask him what the governor could have done differently, given the depths of the recession and Trenton’s notoriously obstructionist political class. “He could have done a lot of other things,” Christie says flatly. “He didn’t lay off one state worker.”

Soon Christie is continuing his broadsides at the podium in front of a dining room full of Rotarians, who listen between bites of the perfectly stereotypical rubber chicken. “In exactly the same way that many of the bad actors on Wall Street used smoke and mirrors and gimmicks to run our national economy into the ground, Jon Corzine has brought that same style of leadership to New Jersey, and he has driven our economy into the economic ditch.” Christie’s 50-minute speech, a catalogue of age-old Republican grievances against Big Government, would, in normal years, fall flat in a liberal state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 700,000 voters. “This obviously should not be a close race,” says former U.S. senator Bob Torricelli, a Corzine friend. “Why is there a race? Americans are not going to adjust gently to a declining standard of living. It’s just the wrong election at the wrong time.”

Christie has been surprising the New Jersey political Establishment by leading the polls for most of the year. In recent weeks, the race has tightened, largely as a result of a barrage of negative ads from the Corzine camp. In a cratering economy, Corzine has never had much positive to run on; from early on, they knew their only chance was to tarnish Christie, and they’ve spent some $17 million (more than three times what Christie has spent) to do so, releasing ads that have mocked Christie’s erratic driving record (and thus neutralizing Corzine’s own seat-belt issue), his failure to report interest on a $46,000 loan he gave to his friend and former subordinate Michele Brown, and his ties to the Bush White House—not to mention his weight, which was employed as a metaphor for his ambition and lack of self-control. “He was a one-issue candidate,” Corzine’s campaign manager, Maggie Moran, tells me, referring to Christie’s presentation as a crusading reformer. “He rode into this race a white knight on a white horse, and he’s now sitting on a pig in the mud.”

“I have never been running on an ethics campaign,” Christie says. “I’ve given one speech in 260 days on corruption.”

Christie sees desperation in Corzine’s attacks. On the loan, he tells me: “It was an honest mistake; you’re talking about $420 in income I forgot to put on my tax return because I didn’t view a loan to a friend as an investment.” He’s even more combative when I ask about his driving, including a 2002 accident in which he escaped being ticketed after turning the wrong way onto a one-way street and colliding with a motorcyclist in Elizabeth. “They’re desperate to talk about anything but his record,” Christie tells me. “And if you had his record, you’d be desperate not to talk about it, too.”

Chris Christie on the campaign trail earlier this year.Photo: Jeff Mermelstein for New York Magazine

Christie lacks the easy charm of a traditional front-runner. For one, he’s fat. In a state where dirty politics competes with the Jets as the favored spectator sport, Christie’s weight has become fodder during a race that has been intensely personal and nasty, at times comically so. “He looks hideous! And unhealthy,” says longtime Democratic state senator Ray Lesniak. “That doesn’t portray the discipline that’s necessary to lead this state.” This summer, the Corzine campaign ran an unflattering television spot that featured slow-motion shots of Christie’s massive gut after members of a focus group responded that they were turned off by his tubby physique. “They chose to run with the ad because people were appalled by his obesity,” one Democrat close to the Corzine campaign told me. In September, another Corzine ad took a more direct approach, saying that Christie “threw his weight around” as prosecutor. Comella says the ad “is clearly part of an overarching strategy to personally attack Chris Christie.” The Corzine campaign denies this. “The ad’s only purpose was to show how Chris Christie used his position as U.S. Attorney to get out of traffic stops,” responds Corzine’s spokesperson, Sean Darcy.

But with voters still raging at Wall Street elites, Christie’s rotund appearance and Everyman appeal—he’s a Jersey native and avowed Springsteen fan—have served him well against an opponent who earned more than $300 million at the highest echelons of Goldman Sachs and continues to spend many nights across the river in Manhattan. Privately, even Democrats acknowledge Corzine has been a major disappointment as governor. When he first ran, Corzine promised to bring his hard-nosed business skills to Trenton. “Hold me accountable,” he declared in his inaugural address. He then installed a coterie of former Goldman executives to key posts, only to watch his administration clash with the Legislature and fail to complete signature agenda items like turning over management of the turnpike to private companies and cutting property taxes.

“I had two conversations with [Rove] in seven years, I don’t know if you’d call that a relationship,” says Christie, who knew Bush well enough to have a nickname: Big Boy.

Beginning this summer, Democrats pushed news that Karl Rove admitted he had advised Christie on his future political plans while he was a sitting U.S. Attorney, a potential violation of the Hatch Act, which bars prosecutors from engaging in campaign politics (Rove didn’t respond to multiple calls for comment). The Corzine campaign has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to any communications Christie may have traded with Rove, but so far has been rebuffed in its efforts. Christie is putting as much distance as possible between him and his former mentors. “I had two conversations with [Rove] in seven years,” Christie tells me, “so I don’t know if you’d call that a relationship. You and I are now halfway to my relationship with Karl Rove, so you know, I didn’t have to apologize for it, certainly.”

Days after the story broke, in August, it was revealed that Christie had failed to report interest on a $46,000 loan he gave to his friend and assistant U.S. Attorney Michele Brown, who later resigned over the flap. News of the loan swirled through New Jersey political circles as the prospect of a race-altering scandal energized Democrats. It was quickly followed by other embarrassing headlines over his driving record and previous charges that, as a prosecutor, he gave millions of dollars in no-bid legal contracts to his former boss John Ashcroft, as well as to a federal prosecutor who spared Christie’s brother Todd, a trader with the Wall Street firm Spear, Leeds, while fourteen other Spear employees were charged with fraud. “He’s a failed governor,” Christie fires back. “And failed governors can’t talk about their own record, so what they do instead is try to demonize their opponent.”

In a state with a $7 billion budget gap, of course, any proposal of a way forward is liable to be unpopular. Corzine has carved out a platform involving green jobs, expanding early-childhood education, and expanding health-insurance programs. He touts a major recent victory in allocating school funding to troubled schools. “When someone is really under the gun, their life is struggling, I think there is a role for government to be there with a helping hand,” he says. Christie’s mantra, meanwhile, is cut, cut, cut, the old Republican standby, albeit with few specifics, a flaw that has become increasingly apparent recently. The struggles of both campaigns have left the door open for the independent candidate, Chris Daggett, to score points. Daggett, a former EPA official, promises to cut property taxes by 25 percent, partly by expanding the sales tax. His surprisingly witty and proficient performance in the October 1 debate gave him momentum; in a Fairleigh Dickinson Poll, he reached 17 percent by one measure. Most of his support seems to be coming from Christie.

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.

On the afternoon of September 24, Jon Corzine makes his way to the back of the aptly named Chairman’s Grill, in the lobby of the Meadowlands Sheraton. He eases into the corner booth wearing an imposing black pin-striped suit. Lately, operatives are talking about a shift in the race. The Corzine camp had seized on Christie’s plan to end mandates for insurance companies, claiming it would result in women’s not getting mammograms. (Christie issued his own attack ad calling Corzine’s claims “awful”.) I ask Corzine if he’s surprised he’s fighting to stay in office. He tells me he’s happy things aren’t any worse: “I’m glad it’s close, with what’s going on in this economy?”

Corzine’s political career has always had an accidental quality to it. When he was pushed out of Goldman Sachs amid a power grab by rival Hank Paulson in 1999, he ran for the Senate because it seemed what a former Goldman CEO should do.

During the presidential primary, Corzine campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton. Democrats close to Corzine told me he wanted to position himself to be Treasury secretary in a Hillary administration. Corzine’s spokesperson denies this. This spring, with his polls numbers sagging, rumors swirled that Corzine might not pursue a second term or even that the Democrats wanted him off the ticket. In March, Senator Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross, and Corzine’s senior advisers held a private meeting at Corzine’s Hoboken apartment. Menendez in particular was frustrated by Corzine’s refusal to push back against Christie’s attacks. “They gave him a kick in the ass,” one adviser familiar with the meeting said.

In the present environment, Corzine’s original selling point—his financial expertise—is a liability, a fact Christie has exploited. The attacks deeply frustrate Corzine, who prides himself on his midwestern mien. “I was out of sorts with a lot of my colleagues on Wall Street when I was there. I was more pro-regulatory than other folks,” he says. “I’m a guy who grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, worked from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. in college at the Post Office, was in the Marine Corps, went to night school to get my M.B.A., and started at the bottom.”

When I ask him about Christie’s complaints that businesses are fleeing New Jersey for lower taxes elsewhere, Corzine flashes anger. “That’s complete bullshit!” he snaps. “There is a recession. This guy’s description of New Jersey is a caricature of what it actually is. He’s the most negative human being of what the status of New Jersey is.” Corzine brings up Christie’s May 18 interview with Sean Hannity, when he said he might refuse Obama’s stimulus funds. “He was buying into the Sanford-Jindal-Palin view,” Corzine says, almost incredulously. “Now you don’t hear any talk about it.”

Corzine’s relationship with the White House has been another source of concern. Some Corzine aides were said to be miffed that Obama didn’t gush more over Corzine during a visit in July, though the campaign denies this. Corzine’s friend Orin Kramer, a Democratic fund-raiser, said that Corzine, when he was chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2004 when Obama was a long shot, “went privately to a few friends and said, ‘[Obama] is the most talented guy running in the country, you should help him.’ The president is well aware of that.”

Democrats are now confident that once voters tune in to the race in earnest, Christie’s conservative positions—he’s pro-life—will rally the party’s base back to Corzine. “At the end of the day, it will be what saves Corzine ass,” one operative says.

With only a month to go, Christie understands the uphill nature of his campaign. “I’m not the front-runner,” he offers. “I’m going to run through the tape on this, and run like I’m behind.”

New Jersey Nasty