TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have spent the better part of the last two weeks apologizing for "Bridgegate," but now, it seems, the apologies are over.
In a 20-minute inaugural address in an auditorium at the War Memorial in Trenton, Christie made no mention of the allegations that have dogged his administration. Instead, he emphasized his sweeping margin of victory in November and the bipartisan, common-sense spirit that he has often said characterizes New Jersey. It was his reputation as a bipartisan leader, carefully cultivated by Christie, that helped vault him to the top of 2016 GOP presidential shortlists before the current scandal hit.
“We cannot fall victim to the attitude of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The attitude that says I am always right and you are always wrong. The attitude that puts everyone into a box they are not permitted to leave. The attitude that puts political victories ahead of policy agreements. The belief that 'compromise' is a dirty word.”
Reeling from 2012's superstorm Sandy, New Jersey had the chance to bond together and forget political parties, Christie said. And voters did so. The state reelected him with “the largest and loudest voice of affirmation that the people of our state have given to any direction in three decades,” he said.
But bipartisan spirit is eroding in Trenton as Democratic lawmakers continue to investigate the scandals that have plagued Christie’s administration over the last two weeks, and Republicans accuse them of running a witch hunt.
Adding to the partisan divide, much of the controversy has centered on alleged threats of retribution to Democratic politicians who did not march as Christie's team ordered.
The schism broadened after Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said on MSNBC last weekend that Christie’s administration had threatened to withhold Sandy recovery funds until she gave her support to a development deal tied to Christie allies.
Republicans, including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, came forward to defend Christie, and some Republicans suggested that Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski resign as chairman of the committee investigating the decision by Christie operatives to close off access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September, an act that caused a massive four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee. Republicans also criticized New Jersey Democrats for creating two separate committees to investigate the matter.
Democrats responded to some of the criticisms Tuesday: Not long before Christie’s inaugural address, state Democrats announced that the Senate and Assembly had combined their investigative committees.
“We need to move forward in a unified way to get to the bottom of these issues that are seemingly growing by the minute,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
Reid Schar, a former federal prosecutor hired last week as special counsel for the Assembly committee, will work for the joint committee. The Assembly last week issued 20 subpoenas, many to top Christie staffers who were part of a chain of email released two weeks ago that suggested the lane closures were political payback. Democrats said they would not immediately begin looking into the allegations of political strong-arming by Zimmer.
“We’ll follow that trail wherever it leads, but we’re not going to switch gears now and start following another investigation,” Wisniewski said.
Christie all but ignored the swirl of investigations on inauguration day, which began at a Newark church service. (An evening celebration was canceled as a snowstorm pelted the region.) Instead he outlined his goals for his second term, saying repeatedly that he sees things differently than other politicians.
“This election has taught us that the ways we divide each other -- by race, by class, by ethnicity, by wealth, and yes, by political party is neither permanent nor necessary,” he said. “You see, our dreams are the same: a good job, a great education for our children, safe streets in our neighborhood and core values which give lives real meaning.”
He referred specifically to the state Dream Act, which allows children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state schools. He announced his support for the Dream Act last year after opposing it, a sign to many that he was moving to the political middle because he had higher political aspirations. Christie signed the measure in December.
With an eye to those aspirations, Christie also touched Tuesday on traditional Republican themes, saying that New Jersey didn’t want a “bigger, more expensive government that penalizes success” and that the state would help the middle class keep money in its pockets.
“Every person, no matter what challenge they are facing in their lives, must believe that they have inside of them all of the God-given ability needed to be happy,” he said. “They will not believe that if all they hear is that life is unfair and that only government can fix that unfairness.”
He also pledged to continue to reform the state’s education system and expand the economy. New Jersey’s economy has struggled in the last few months; its unemployment rate is currently 7.8% and it is tied with Nevada for the highest rate of long-term unemployment in the nation.
Christie was surrounded by family and friends during the swearing-in; his brother Todd was the co-chair of his inauguration committee, his sons Andrew and Patrick and daughters Sarah and Bridget each had small roles in the ceremony. The audience, which braved a heavy snowstorm and gusty winds to attend, was also on his side, breaking out into sustained applause when Christie and his family took the stage.
Christie and his family kicked off the day at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where Pastor Joe A. Carter attempted to comfort the governor.
"There will be times of testing and seasons of frustration, but the good news of the gospel that we preach is that God works best in the nighttime," he said.
Manny Calaguio, 65, a retiree who volunteered on Christie’s campaign, was gleeful after the inaugural speech. He said Christie appeared upbeat, and that despite all that’s gone on in recent days Christie will improve New Jersey’s education system and lower its taxes.
“He is the only one who can get that bipartisan support,” he said.
Maureen Maloney drove for nearly an hour through the snow to see the speech.
“So many lines in that speech were really inspiring,” she said. Maloney, a technical recruiter for an information technology company, said she wasn’t worried at all about what’s happened over the last two weeks.
“I don’t believe half of the things I hear,” she said. “I think it’s a witch hunt.”
Whether the rest of the state -- or the country -- agrees with Christie's supporters remains to be seen. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed that in a nationwide presidential match-up Christie now trails Hillary Rodham Clinton by 46% to 38%; in December, Christie led Clinton by 42% to 41%.
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