Forget the bridge – the real danger for Chris Christie is Sandy relief funds

Bridgegate. George Washington Bridge lane closures. Political payback. Call it what you will, but the story of how two Christie appointees working for the Port Authority closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge for a “traffic study” has opponents and critics smelling blood in the Hudson River.

Many, including some of my political cartoonist compadres, already see it as damaging to Chris Christie’s “brand,” despite the fact that there is no evidence Christie knew anything about it. And chances are, their won’t be, since Christie’s keeps his well-honed image locked down tighter than Al Gore’s lock box.

If you want to discuss a political situation that I think really threatens Chris Christie’s chances at becoming our next president, one that he actually has put himself on the line about, then let’s talk about the disbursement (or lack thereof) of Hurricane Sandy funds.

You all remember Christie, standing heroically in his well-fitting sweatshirt, promising to do whatever it takes to help the people affected by the horrendous superstorm that smashed the Jersey Shore last October. He was even willing to put aside petty political differences and work with President Obama, much to the chagrin of national Republicans and Mitt Romney.

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But fast forward to today and focus the lens a bit, and you’ll see the situation of thousands of New Jerseyans waiting for promised help hasn’t changed much. And the transparency Christie promised is a distant memory, replaced by the administration’s ever-increasing efforts to manage the Governor’s image as he steps up his efforts to run for president.

If you recall, in response to criticism it was keeping the public in the dark about Sandy relief funds, the administration had promised to release “hundreds of potentially responsive documents” to the Asbury Park Press back in October, following the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request. All the paper got was static and stonewalling, and is still waiting for the bulk of information it requested, mainly centered around the administration’s decision to award a contract for the ‘Stronger than the Storm’ ad campaign to a politically-connected group who put Christie in the commercials during his re-election campaign.

It took a lawsuit from the Fair Share Housing Center to shake loose the first detailed information about Sandy recovery programs (information that wasn’t even provided to newspapers), and what they’ve uncovered with just the trickle of information they’ve received hasn’t been pretty.

As backlogs of residents waiting in line for the help continued to grow (you know, the ones Christie promised wouldn’t have to wait of help), the Fair Share Housing Center uncovered a script being used by the housing assistance line. For those frustrated individuals calling up inquiring about their relief money, employees were advised to tell them: “I wish I had more time to talk with you, but I have a lot of your neighbors on hold waiting to speak to me.”

There’s also an added wrinkle those receiving funds – race. According to the Fair Share Housing Center’s analysis of the data they were presented, blacks and Latinos in the Garden State have been turned down for Sandy relief aid at much higher rates than whites.The head of the state NAACP, Richard Smith, believes an investigation is in order, while Christie, as he often does, dismissed the criticism out of hands, calling the numbers “statistical anomalies.”

“Just so it’s general notice to all of you, don’t ask me any questions about Fair Share Housing,” said Mr. Christie. It(‘s) not worth “my time or my breath.”

If we knew more information about who was eligible for Sandy relief funds, and where the money was going, maybe we wouldn’t jump to conclusions. But don’t forget, back in April Christie vetoed a bill that was unanimously approved by the state legislature that required oversight and quarterly revenue reports on the billions of dollars in federal aid for Hurricane Sandy, as well as more detailed public information. 

What was Christie’s reasoning behind the veto? That it would “produce unnecessary redundancies and waste government resources.” As Dr. Evil would say, “Riiiiiiiiiight.”

Whether it’s the politically-motivated closing of bridge lanes or the stonewalling of requests for Sandy relief information, it should come as no surprise that Christie is controlling his image. His first term exposed us to a well-crafted caricature, a man who has the reputation for saying and doing whatever is on his mind, but whose actions reveal a carefully-calculated arithmetic intended to move him up the political ladder.

The so-called “Jersey Comeback,” guy vetoed efforts for more transparency of transportation finances, pushed back at answers about political patronage in the Port Authority, blocked attempts at more information about toll hikes – despite Christie’s battle against the public’s right to know, he remains more popular than ever.

“Given the governor’s personal popularity, the only thing that will get the public to reconsider their view of him is a smoking gun,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “And since this administration is airtight, there is no smoke.”


Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe

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