- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2014

Not many Republicans bother to campaign for statewide office in Oakland, a small northern New Jersey borough that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and usually is considered safe GOP territory.

But the town’s Democratic mayor, Linda Schwager, received an unexpected phone call last fall from a political ally of Gov. Chris Christie. The Republican assemblyman pressed Ms. Schwager to endorse the governor’s re-election bid, saying a local Democratic Party leader said he wouldn’t mind if she defected from Sen. Barbara Buono, Mr. Christie’s Democratic challenger.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it; they don’t really like Barbara anyway,’” Ms. Schwager said in an interview this week.

It turned out the lawmaker’s claim didn’t check out, Ms. Schwager said. She declined to back Mr. Christie — but the call seeking a Democratic mayor’s endorsement wasn’t unusual.

Indeed, the bridge scandal facing Mr. Christie seems to underscore just how intent the Republican governor and his aides were on rounding up Democratic supporters as part of a major show of bipartisanship ahead of a potential 2016 presidential bid.

“One by one, Democratic mayors were getting these calls,” Ms. Schwager said.

Mr. Christie’s push for Democratic supporters became an issue last week after emails revealed that a top aide ordered traffic problems in Fort Lee, seemingly in response to Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich’s decision not to endorse the governor.

Armed with subpoena power and the help of a well-known former federal prosecutor, a state legislative committee is investigating the Christie administration’s role in tying up traffic for days at the George Washington Bridge last year.

Mr. Christie moved swiftly to try to contain the controversy. He declared that he knew nothing of the idea, fired his deputy chief of staff, ousted a longtime political aide, and apologized in person to Fort Lee officials and residents.

“What has happened does not reflect well on us or our state,” Mr. Christie said in his State of the State speech this week.

“Even though the competition among the states is fierce, no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation over the last four years than New Jersey,” he said.

Courting Democrats

As Mr. Christie portrays himself as a bipartisan leader, The Washington Times reached out to Democratic municipal officials across the state, several of whom were courted by the Christie campaign.

None of these officials described suffering any retribution for declining to endorse the governor, but interviews suggest a concentrated effort by Mr. Christie’s political operation to get Democrats to defect during his re-election bid. No endorsement was too small.

By bagging Democratic endorsements even in small towns such as Dover and Palmyra, the governor’s political team tried to give credence to the emerging national narrative of Mr. Christie as a tough but bipartisan leader who could attract support beyond the Republican base. It’s an image that has vaulted him into the top tier of likely Republican White House candidates.

“The common wisdom is he’s trying to tout himself as a Republican in a blue state,” said Stuart Green, a professor at Rutgers University. “He’s trying to create an image of bipartisanship, and the more he gets from Democrats, the more that helps.”

As Mr. Christie piled up Democratic endorsements, news media kept running tallies. In one highly publicized campaign stop, he picked up endorsements from the mayor and council president in Palmyra, a small city near the Delaware River in southern New Jersey.

The council president ended up losing his own re-election bid after a union withdrew its support.

Five of the nearly 60 Democrats who backed Mr. Christie came from the small town of Dover, whose mayor did not return email messages.

In West Milford, Mayor Bettina Bieri said she was asked to endorse Mr. Christie but declined, citing a long-standing policy of avoiding backing any state or national politicians.

“In my opinion, political labels are predominantly meaningless at the local level,” she said. “I believe the Christie administration understood and respected my position and my verifiable history of not providing endorsements.”

The mayor said she saw no evidence of political retribution for her decision.

She said a regional director in the Christie administration’s legislative affairs office contacted her early this year to talk about topics important to her town requiring input, cooperation or approval from state agencies.

“While I suppose some would disagree, I would neither conclude nor insinuate that the lack of endorsement had any impact,” Ms. Bieri said.

Richard LaBarbiera, the Democratic mayor of Paramus, said he has had good relations with the Christie administration over the years. But he said he made clear before anyone even asked him to endorse Mr. Christie that he wasn’t interested.

“I cut it off,” he said. “I didn’t want politics to change the relationship, and his office has always been responsive.”

Not all Democrats who endorsed Mr. Christie needed to be asked.

Point Pleasant Mayor William Schroeder, whose town was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, said Mr. Christie’s rapport with residents at town-hall meetings across the state impressed him in a way no other governor had.

“I liked his desire to bring government to the level of the residents,” Mr. Schroeder said. “He has these town-hall meetings and asked them about their concerns and he’d relay it to the proper departments and actually touch people with being able to solve problems.

“For the first time in 20 years, we had a governor who had the desire to involve local officials in the statewide arena. And I’d never seen this before,” the mayor said.

Like other New Jerseyans, however, Mr. Schroeder is waiting for the “Bridgegate” investigation to play itself out.

“I can see how when people get into that level of politics, you get very ambitious people in positions and things can go wrong,” Mr. Schroeder said.

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