Giuliani vs. Christie: Two GOP politicians from the Northeast have lots in common

April 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 11, 2014

In 2007, when I was working as a newspaper reporter in a small North Carolina town, my editor asked me if I was excited that Rudy Giuliani, a fellow New Yorker, might become president. I scoffed.

There were two reasons for this. One was that I thought Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, would never be able to win the Republican nomination. The other was that I thought Giuliani was temperamentally ill-suited to serve as president.

Giuliani became known as America’s mayor for his performance on Sept. 11, 2001, when he provided a calm and steadying voice even as President George W. Bush temporarily disappeared from view. A former U.S. attorney who had successfully prosecuted mafiosi, Giuliani was a Republican who presided over one of the nation’s most Democratic cities. His mayoralty coincided with — and, to be fair, helped prompt — the renaissance of the Big Apple. Unemployment in the city dropped nearly 40 percent during the 1990s; in the same period, assault also fell 40 percent, and rates of murder, robbery, car theft and burglary all dropped by 66 percent to 73 percent.

That’s all well and good, although it remains an open question just how much Giuliani’s leadership had to do with those declines. But while these positives were well-publicized, fewer Americans outside of the New York-New Jersey area were acquainted with the mayor’s negatives. In mid-2000, upon separating from his second wife, Giuliani moved out of Gracie Mansion and into the apartment of a gay couple. He had a penchant for dressing up in drag. Giuliani was essentially moderate — which is to say, liberal, at least in the context of the post–Bush-the-younger Republican Party — on issues such as gay rights, abortion, gun control and immigration. Giuliani’s family situation — by 2007, he was largely estranged from his children, and he was on his third marriage — was no help. One particularly damning episode involved his announcement to the press of his aforementioned separation from his second wife, which preceded the mayor’s actually informing said wife of their split.

So I had significant doubts about Giuliani’s appeal to the Republican base. I was also skeptical that he would make a good president. Giuliani had a strong vindictive streak. Once, after an unarmed security guard was shot to death in a struggle with undercover police officers, Giuliani released the victim’s juvenile court records in an attempt to show that the man was a bad egg. (A grand jury declined to indict the officer who fired the fatal bullet.)

“Even old friends and supporters were appalled,” Eric Pooley wrote of the disclosure of juvenile records in a Time magazine feature designating Giuliani the 2001 person of the year. “The man who had saved New York City saw his job-approval rating drop to 32%.”

Pooley also recounts another telling anecdote: that of a New York promotional campaign in which the magazine declared itself “Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.” The mayor pulled the ads from the sides of city buses, prompting a lawsuit that the publication won. And let’s not forget Giuliani’s tempestuous relationship with his first police commissioner, William Bratton, whose resignation the mayor demanded in part because Bratton got too much good press for his honor’s liking.

It speaks to the mayor’s self-regard that after 9/11, Giuliani explored seeking a statutory exemption that would have allowed him to remain in office after his second term expired. (He abandoned this idea, but shamefully, his successor, Michael Bloomberg, received such an exemption and served a third term.)

Giuliani made other, more substantial mistakes. Under his leadership, the city created an Office of Emergency Management and constructed a $13 million emergency command center. Unfortunately, even though the World Trade Center had been bombed by Muslim terrorists in 1993, what was derided as “Rudy’s bunker” was placed in the complex’s Building 7. The facility didn’t get much use on Sept. 11, 2001; it was evacuated, and the building collapsed.

A deadlier mistake — although arguably less directly tied to Giuliani decision-making — involved an expensive contract for new handheld radios for New York firefighters. Disastrously, the devices were never field-tested, and the Fire Department had to reissue its older, ineffective radios. Inadequate communications contributed to the deaths of hundreds of firefighters who never received a warning that the Twin Towers might collapse. A National Institute of Standards and Technology study found that a third to half of transmissions from all emergency responders at the World Trade Center on 9/11 were garbled.

Not all of this information had percolated to the national media, let alone to the public at large. But there were plenty of reasons for knowledgable New Yorkers (and New Yorkers-in-exile and New Jerseyans, etc.) to believe that Giuliani (a) might not be an entirely competent executive and (b) might be prone to abusing his power if elected to the Oval Office.

Why do I dredge up the past? Not because Giuliani is particularly relevant today, but because another Tri-State Area official is. That person, of course, is Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey.

The parallels between Christie and Giuliani are considerable. Both served as federal prosecutors prior to being elected. Both are Republicans who were elected to two terms in Democratic strongholds. Both have reputations as no-nonsense tough guys. And, crucially, both have also been said to be vindictive bullies.

For years, Christie’s flaws, like Giuliani’s, were more or less invisible to many people outside of the Tri-State region. (The governor did earn the enmity of die-hard conservatives who resented his embrace of President Obama in the wake of so-called superstorm Sandy, shortly before the 2012 election.) But the New Jerseyan’s negatives came to light last year after it became apparent that his aides had engineered the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

This stunt, supposedly conducted to facilitate a traffic study, caused massive gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J., for four days in September. It’s not yet clear if Christie ordered or was aware of the closures, but evidence suggests that his aides may have arranged the lane closures to punish Democrats for their refusal to accede to the governor’s wishes. (The exact act that angered Christie’s circle remains unclear; it’s been widely speculated that they were angered by the refusal of Fort Lee’s mayor to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election bid, but some have also postulated that the true motive was tied to a local development project.)

Although the Bridgegate motive remains unknown, it seems clear that Christie either encouraged his staff to punish state politicians who resisted their imperatives or was clueless enough to employ aides who did so without his knowledge. Both scenarios are obviously damaging to Christie’s presidential aspirations.

The governor also has been hurt by an allegation that emerged in the wake of Bridgegate: The accusation from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Christie’s lieutenant governor and another of his officials pressured her to speed approval for a redevelopment plan. Zimmer claims that her city received a small fraction of the requested relief aid in the wake of Sandy when she failed to comply with the fast-track requests.

It’s not yet clear how much merit Zimmer’s assertions have, although she has provided supporting documents, and it appears that Hoboken — for whatever reason — was shortchanged at least some of the aid money for which it may have been eligible. At least one investigation has found anomalies in a state-administered hazard-relief program. While Nutley, a town that has historically suffered minimal storm damage, received more than half a million dollars, more vulnerable locales such as Atlantic City and Belmar didn’t get any funding. Politics may not have played much of a role, if any, in the decision-making for the program, but the discrepancies don’t make Christie and his staff look any better.

And there’s even more bad news for Christie. He’s the subject of a new feature article by Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, and the story is chock-full of unflattering details. The opening sequence alone, depicting an April 1 celebrity roast of a 90-year-old former Garden State governor, made me squirm:

Joy Behar, the former co-host of “The View,” was even more pointed. “When I first heard that he was accused of blocking off three lanes on the bridge, I said, ‘What the hell is he doing, standing in the middle of the bridge?’” After another barb, Christie interrupted her. “This is a Byrne roast,” he said. He stood up and tried to grab her notes. The audience laughed awkwardly. “Stop bullying me,” Behar said as he sat down. Christie said something out of earshot and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?” Christie stood up again and moved in front of the lectern as Behar retreated.  “At least I don’t get paid for this,” he said.

Christie sat down and Behar continued, though she was noticeably rattled. “I really don’t know about the Presidency,” she said. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”

Christie’s relationship with former Gov. Thomas Kean seems to be particularly telling. Although the two sat next to each other at the roast, Lizza reports that Christie did not greet his mentor. Later, he writes:

When Christie ran for governor, in 2009, Kean told me, he was the first major figure to endorse him. “I campaigned with him a lot, and raised money for him,” he said. On Election Night last November, Kean spent time with Christie and his family before his victory speech, which was nationally televised. But they hadn’t spoken since that evening. Christie has a way of distancing allies, and he and Kean have had a falling out.

“He doesn’t always try to persuade you with reason,” Kean said. “He makes you feel that your life’s going to be very unhappy if you don’t do what he says.” He added that one of Christie’s flaws “is that he makes enemies and keeps them. As long as you’re riding high, they’ll stay in the weeds, because they don’t want to get in your way. But you get in trouble, they’ll all come out of the weeds, and come at you.”

When newly designated President-Elect George W. Bush nominated Christie to be the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, it seemed to be a favor to a devoted campaign supporter — one who, amazingly, possessed zero criminal or prosecutorial experience. “He wasn’t the most qualified,” Kean told Lizza. “Just on legal expertise and law-enforcement expertise, there were people who wanted the nomination who were better qualified.”

While in office, Christie vigorously prosecuted corruption. There are lingering questions about a few of his decisions, however; for instance, some believe that he dropped a case against George Norcross III, a South Jersey power broker, in 2006 in order to gain a powerful ally.

There are plenty of other things that potentially disqualify Christie from national office. Check out, for instance, this Jonathan Chait assessment, published by New York magazine shortly before Bridgegate came to light. (Be sure to check out the eye-opening excerpt from Double Down: Game Change, a review of the 2012 campaign by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, near the bottom of Chait’s article.)

For all their similarities, there’s one key difference between Christie in the run-up to 2016 and Giuliani in the run-up to 2012. Thanks to Bridgegate, the media has shown a much brighter spotlight on the New Jersey governor’s failings than Giuliani received.

For me, the bottom line is this: If you see any Christie 2016 paraphernalia, snap it up.

It’s bound to be a rarity.

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