By Edith Honan
TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered a fresh apology and vowed to cooperate with an investigation into a traffic scandal rocking his administration, but mostly touted the state’s bipartisan cooperation during a key speech on Tuesday.
Christie, a charismatic conservative and an early favorite in the Republican bid for the White House in 2016, used his State of the State address to list his conservative policy prescriptions, trying to leave two scandals behind.
“The last week has certainly tested this administration. Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve,” Christie said in opening his annual address. “Without a doubt, we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure that this breach of trust does not happen again.”
Re-elected in a landslide victory last November, he faces accusations that his aides orchestrated a bridge blocking to punish a political opponent, coupled with new allegations, pushed by a democratic lawmaker, over Christie’s use of federal storm aid.
Two sets of emails last week appeared to show that aides planned lane closures for several days last September on a stretch of highway leading to the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan, and then lied about it.
Christie has denied any knowledge of the plan to snarl traffic at the bridge as political payback against the Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, for his refusal to endorse Christie’s gubernatorial bid.
The governor’s speech mostly addressed the “Jersey Comeback” – which Christie has long claimed has resulted in private sector jobs growth and secured public-private investment in the Garden State – and his cooperation with the Democrat-controlled state legislature in this heavily Democratic state.
“No state in this country has shown more bipartisan cooperation and governance over the last four years than New Jersey, and our people are proud of it. Let’s resolve today that we will continue to put those people first. We will do our jobs,” Christie said.
“These are our achievements: Four balanced budgets. Passed with bipartisan support. Pension reform and tenure reform. Passed with bipartisan support. A cap on property taxes. Passed with bipartisan support,” Christie said. “We acted, and we acted together.”
Christie also gave a nod to an issue that was at the top of his agenda in his first term – an across-the-board tax cut – though he said he will wait to announce specific ideas when he gives his budget address next month.
He also vowed to tackle abuses in the state pension system.
The state’s economy has seen signs of improvement over the last several months. Its unemployment rate experienced the largest monthly drop on record in November, dropping 0.6 percentage point to 7.8 percent, according to the state labor department.
Revenue has also been recovering steadily. In the first five months of fiscal 2014, which began on July 1, New Jersey took in 7.9 percent more revenue – from income, sales, corporate and other taxes – than in the same period the previous fiscal year. But that is still 1.2 percent, or $98 million, under budget.
Still, the state’s fiscal situation and Christie’s ideas for improving it could be overshadowed by his response to the scandals and speculation about his political future.
Since taking office four years ago, Christie – a former federal prosecutor – has built a national reputation as a Republican capable of winning bipartisan support for his conservative priorities, such as spending cuts, while repairing New Jersey’s reputation for corruption and graft.
TAKEN DOWN A PEG
A prolific fundraiser for GOP officials and candidates across the country, Christie has taken on a leadership role with the Republican Governor’s Association. But the brewing scandals threaten to tarnish that reputation and Christie’s national appeal.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the bridge closure scandal had taken a toll on Christie’s image, with 26 percent of those asked saying they were now less favorable toward him, compared with 3 percent, who said they were more favorable, and 49 percent, whose view was the same.
More respondents believed he had a hand in the scandal, with 31 percent saying they thought he was aware his staff intentionally caused the traffic jam, compared with 28 percent, who said they believed his statements that he was in the dark.
The poll included responses from 986 people contacted Jan. 10-14 and had a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
The poll showed Christie with effectively equal support from Republicans and independents among possible GOP candidates, backed by 18 percent of those asked, narrowly leading Congressman Paul Ryan, who was favored by 17 percent of respondents, according to results from 771 polled January 10-14. That result had a credibility interval of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
Democrats, who control both houses of the New Jersey state legislature, have called a special session to address the traffic scandal.
Meanwhile, a New Jersey Democrat has requested a federal probe into the use of storm relief funds for an advertising campaign, intended to draw visitors back to the Jersey Shore, that featured Christie as he was seeking re-election.
In a brief press conference following Christie’s speech, the state’s Democratic leadership laid out their policy differences with Christie on issues ranging from the state pension to tax cuts. But they also echoed Christie’s message that officials needed to get on with the business of the state.
“We know everyone’s fascinated by Bridgegate,” Louis Greenwald, the assembly Democratic leader, said in response to a series of questions about the scandal. “New Jersey continued to fall behind neighboring states and to languish.”
(Additional reporting by Hilary Russ and Zach Cook; editing by Gunna Dickson)