Before Gov. Chris Christie fell out of favor along the Trump administration’s path toward the White House, he had a chance to become the 2016 Republican candidate for president.
He had national visibility and high-level Republican connections, Wall Street friends and donors, a reputation as a bipartisan political operator, and formidable gifts as a campaigner. Add the national public’s ignorance of his real political career and of the bully behind the “Jersey style” mask, and his ascendance seemed like a real possibility.
Then came the fall: a cascade of primary defeats, his rejection by President-elect Donald J. Trump, convictions of two high-level officials in the “Bridgegate” scandal, and Christie’s ignominious retreat to New Jersey, whose no-longer-amused citizens have whacked him with an 18 percent approval rating.
But make no mistake about it – he will be back. In political terms, the 54-year-old Christie is a young man. In recent stories in Politico and Vanity Fair and local media, he claims to have turned down “multiple offers” from Trump, settling into the limbo of courtier-in-waiting, hoping to capture high office if jobs open up due to Trump’s abrasive, capricious behavior.
He may still have to leap over one serious pothole in the road to Washington. Despite attempts by the Bergen County prosecutor and state Attorney General to bury it, a citizen’s complaint charging Christie with misconduct in office, based on testimony from his convicted minions in the Bridgegate trial, will still probably get a second, more detailed probable-cause hearing to determine if the case against the governor is strong enough to go forward.
Meanwhile, the legislature has refused to allow him to profit from the book he has said he hopes to write.
So those who want to understand Christie’s deep character and ambitions can turn to two books: “Ruthless Ambition: The Rise and Fall of Chris Christie” by former Hudson County Assemblyman (and Jersey City native) Louis Manzo, who was a defendant in Operation Bid Rig; and “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption,” by Matt Katz, the WNYC-FM reporter who covered the Bridgegate scandal on an almost daily basis.
Each book has its strengths and weaknesses. Each focuses on the two biggest early chapters of Christie’s career. Neither covers Christie’s dogged, futile quest to win the Republican nomination that has been his prime goal since he was sworn in as governor in 2009.
The books complement each other. Manzo’s is driven by the sense of outrage one would expect from a victim of Christie’s over-reaching. Katz’s book, which touches early on Bid Rig, widens out to a personal and political biography and finally includes Bridgegate as it unfolded. It has a warmer tone and, while not overly hostile or friendly to Christie, does give you a nuanced sense of the man behind the calculating and ambitious politician.
‘Ruthless Ambition: The Rise and Fall of Chris Christie’
Manzo’s book focuses relentlessly and with ice-cold precision on how the strategies and legal corner-cutting of Operation Bid Rig exposed Christie’s ruthlessness and pragmatic willingness to flout law and regulation in pursuit of his ambitions. Manzo’s fight to eventually prove the injustice of the charges against him and his innocence consumed over two years of his life and his entire personal fortune.
Most important, Manzo’s heavily researched story details how Christie’s allies in the U.S. Attorney’s office ignored laws prohibiting federal prosecutors from influencing elections.
Manzo charges that they were hungry for the jobs as governor Christie could grant them if they helped get him elected.
The centerpiece of Manzo’s examination of Operation Bid Rig is the unholy alliance between federal prosecutors and key Bid Rig informant Solomon Dwek. Manzo reports that, with Dwek facing 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine for bank fraud in 2006, “Christie’s office rescued Dwek by offering him a plea deal and agreeing not to seek prosecution on any of the ‘thousands’ of crimes that Dwek admitted to under oath, at an estimated cost to his victims of hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Wired for video and audio, posing as a developer willing to pay off any officials who would help him realize his plans, Dwek foraged for grafters throughout North Jersey, and especially Hudson County. Manzo was a candidate at the time for mayor of Jersey City, and was swept up in the web but ultimately exonerated.
He charges that he was specifically targeted by the Department of Justice and arrested in the federal sting in July 2009 that preceded Christie’s defeat of Governor Jon Corzine. After a defense that took two and a half years and focused on the legal guidelines that Manzo alleges were breached in his case, he was found not guilty of all charges in February 2012.
His book is an impressive piece of investigative reporting that goes well beyond his personal legal case to portray a system in which political ambition and the willingness to flout the law by its own guardians was business-as-usual.
“The evidence was conclusive,” Manzo writes, “that federal prosecutors, including United States Attorney Chris Christie, used their offices to personally and politically profit themselves, obstruct justice, and engage in what appeared to be a government orchestrated coup to disrupt the 2009 gubernatorial election.”
‘American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption’
Katz has written a combination biography of a political striver and a very well documented exposé of the lane-closing scandal that may have toppled Christie from frontrunner. Rich in local history, the story is deeply knowing about the machinery underlying New Jersey political life, especially in how immediately the newly-elected governor kissed the rings of the North and South Jersey bosses of the opposing party, Joe DiVincenzo and George Norcross, who enabled Christie to get a lot of his agenda through a Democratic-controlled legislature.
Due credit is given to how Christie took charge when Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey, resulting in the high point in his popularity and national reputation, but also how state and federal aid for storm recovery was likely manipulated for political advantage, most notoriously when his lieutenant governor supposedly pressured Hoboken’s mayor to push for a real estate development involving Christie confidante David Samson.
But the centerpiece of Katz’s story is a meticulous recounting of the rolling Bridgegate scandal. His book was obviously rushed into print to capitalize on Christie’s part in the 2016 presidential race and it ends a year before the Iowa caucuses, the deflation of Christie’s campaign balloon, the conviction of two of his top aides in the scandal, his embrace of, then rejection by, Trump, and his return to his home state.
Katz’s book gets closer to Christie, the man and politician, than Manzo’s. Readers may finish it hoping Katz will return to his subject and investigate why a politician who seemingly had so many advantages conducted such a dud of a campaign.
That story may prepare us for Christie’s inevitable rise from the swamps of Jersey, whether as part of the Trump administration or as a candidate again in 2020…or 2024…or 2028. “American Governor: The Sequel” could serve as a valuable, er, bridge, to whatever comes next in the governor’s career.
This essay and others by the author may be read at www.generitchings.com