Looking to minimize the damage from two scandals, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie led off his State of the State Address Tuesday by taking responsibility for any mistakes, but also saying he won’t allow those controversies — or partisan politics — to bog down the rest of his agenda.
Mr. Christie said the last week has “tested this administration” and admitted that “mistakes were clearly made.”
“I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch — both good and bad,” Mr. Christie said. “Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.”
The Republican, though, also said that the scandals will not prevent him from working with the legislature to build on the bipartisan accomplishments of his first four years in office.
“This administration and this legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed,” Mr. Christie said. “The best part of our turnaround in these past four years is because we have chosen to work together.”
Tuesday’s speech was delivered under the cloud of the ongoing bridge scandal and new reports this week that Mr. Christie is facing a federal probe over whether he improperly used Hurricane Sandy emergency relief funds for tourism ads starring him and his family during his gubernatorial campaign last fall.
“Christie is surely going to try to use the State of the State speech to try to refocus attention on the policy initiative he wants as he starts his second term,” said David P. Redlawsk, political science professor at Rutgers University. “Unfortunately for him, both ‘Bridgegate’ and the Sandy funding issue are going to hang over him no matter what he says.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, said Monday that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is preparing to audit the state’s use of $25 million of disaster funds, some of which went toward the marketing campaign to promote tourism on the Jersey Shore and which featured Mr. Christie.
The 51-year-old governor was already reeling from the bridge scandal, which broke after emails and text messages linked members of Mr. Christie’s inner circle and some of his appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to lane closures at George Washington Bridge, apparently as part of a politically motivated scheme to punish a Democratic mayor in Fort Lee for not endorsing his re-election effort.
Mr. Christie said last week he was duped by his staff and fired a top aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, who wrote to one of the governor’s appointees at the Port Authority: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
He also withdrew his nomination of Bill Stepien, who managed his successful re-election campaign, to take over the New Jersey Republican Party, and stripped Mr. Stepien of his consulting role with the Republican Governors Association, which Mr. Christie chairs.
Since then, the New Jersey Assembly has released thousands of emails and texts that quote Christie advisers and offer a clearer picture of the timeline of events that led up to the lane closures.
State lawmakers also have formed a special investigatory committee that is focusing on the bridge saga and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democrat leading the panel, said he will issue subpoenas requiring several of Mr. Christie’s advisers to testify.
The scandal has raised questions about Mr. Christie’s leadership skills and brash political style, and tarnished his image.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released last week showed that most New Jersey voters think that Mr. Christie was at least somewhat aware of that the traffic lanes were being closed as retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee, which sits at the mouth of the George Washington Bridge.
The episode also fueled new doubts about the Republican’s chances of running for president in 2016 and opened him up to criticism from Democrats.
“Christie and his allies have time and again used their positions and influence to exact revenge on political enemies, even if it means putting the public at risk and wasting taxpayer resources.” said Michael Czin, Democratic National Committee spokesman.
The New Jersey Democratic Party, meanwhile releasing an online ad before Mr. Christe’s address that featured jokes from late-night comedians and news reports about the bridge scandal. “He’s once again made New Jersey into a national punchline,” the ad says.
Looking to repair his dented public image, Mr. Christie rattled off the accomplishments that have been made on his watch, saying the state’s unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in five years and the state has had four straight years of private sector job growth.
He highlighted how lawmakers have reformed the state’s pension and teacher tenure systems, while also putting a cap on property taxes and holding the line on “any new taxes.”
“We acted and we acted together,” he said. “Even though the competition among the states is fierce, no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation over the last four years than New Jersey and our people are proud of it.”
Mr. Christie said that there is more work to be done on these and others issues, and warned that the legislative must face the fact that the cost of the state’s pension and long-term debt obligations are crowding out other priorities.
“If we continue in an era where we believe we can choose everything, we are really choosing nothing,” he said.
Mr. Christie vowed to oppose tax hikes, to end sick leave payouts for retiring public employees and to weed out fraud in the state’s disability retirement system.
He said that New Jersey courts should have the ability to withhold bail from violent criminals. He applauded the success of charter schools, and said that in order for students to compete against their counterparts across the globe they must spend more time in the classroom.
“Our school calendar is antiquated both educationally and culturally,” Mr. Christie said. “Life in 2014 demands something more for our students. It is time to lengthen both the school day and school year in New Jersey.”
And he said he will not rest until every person hurt by Superstorm Sandy gets back on their feet. “That is my mission,” he said