This is Chris Christie with nothing left to lose: Lounging on a deserted beach closed to the public due to his political gamesmanship, and mocking his detractors as his poll numbers sink toward single digits.
While Christie has always enjoyed the perks of office and tweaking his critics, the New Jersey governor has been especially brash in his showdown with Democratic lawmakers, leading to a state government shutdown right before the July 4th holiday.
The central question now is whether his tactics will get him what he wants, as even Kim Guadagno, his lieutenant governor, deserts him.
With six months left in office and his state government in turmoil — all non-essential services have been shuttered for only the second time in history — the Republican governor is doing what he always does when his outlandish ways are put to public scrutiny: Dig in deeper and spin, spin, spin.
Even before New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, published a photo of Christie and his family enjoying the run of Island Beach State Park, as others were being turned away at the gate, the governor was convinced of his decision to stay. It was his right, he said — it’s where one of two houses New Jersey maintains for its governor is located.
"That’s the way it goes,” Christie said over the weekend. “Run for governor, and you can have the residence."
But now he’s trending globally on Twitter, the subject of countless memes, and seems to have crossed a barrier into territory where no one wants to join him. The governor’s allies were hard to reach on Monday as his vacation became national news.
"It’s beyond words,” Guadagno, the Republican nominee to replace Christie, said in a statement. “If I were governor, I sure wouldn’t be sitting on the beach if taxpayers didn’t have access to state beaches. We need to end the shutdown now.”
The controversy comes as Christie is locked in a bitter stalemate with Democratic leaders in the state Legislature. It’s arguably the biggest political fight he has waged in his home state, leading to the furlough of more than 30,000 public employees and ruining the holiday weekend vacations of countless residents.
At its root is something that has nothing to do with the $34.7 billion proposed budget. Christie is demanding lawmakers send him a bill that would restructure Horizon, the state’s largest health insurance company, and let the state skim its “excess” reserve funds for public use. Without it, Christie says, he’ll line-item veto $325 million in Democratic spending proposals.
Vincent Prieto, the speaker of the General Assembly, refuses to move the Horizon bill and just wants to send the budget to Christie, regardless of what the governor cuts from it. Stephen Sweeney, the Senate president, won’t move the budget without the Horizon bill.
There was a flurry of closed-door meetings at the Statehouse on Monday, as the two Democrats tried to come to terms with Horizon’s CEO. They said a new bill was in the works, but gave no indication of whether it was a compromise.
Christie has embraced all that nuance as a way to wash his hands of the whole shutdown. He says he’s ready to sign a budget, with or without the insurance proposal. But the images that emerged on Sunday seemed to galvanize many into pointing blame toward a certain beach-front cottage on the Jersey Shore.
In Trenton, some opponents of the governor said his use of the shuttered park channeled the budget debate itself — and everything else Christie does.
“Basically, the governor is saying to the Legislature, exercise your constitutional authority to my whim and I’ll sign a budget,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who ran a failed bid for governor this year, said as the backroom talks continued. “It’s a one-sided equation with him every single time. He closes state beaches, except for himself.”
Others on social media compared Christie’s use of the state-owned beach to his aides’ use of the George Washington Bridge for a political revenge scheme.
“It’s symbolic of the kind of lack of interest in public resources managed for the benefit of the public,” said Debbie Mans, a former Corzine administration official who is now executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, one of the groups fighting the Christie administration over beach access.
In a series of television interviews on Monday and in press conferences in recent days, the governor defended his use of the park. It’s his right as governor, he said over and over, to use the residence. He had family and friends planning to go there and said he wasn’t going to cancel their plans because government is shut down.
“He is being himself, just as he always has,” Mike DuHaime, the governor’s long-time political strategist, said Monday. “And Christie being himself has been overly-psychoanalyzed for eight years. Most residents care much more about the substance of the budget resolution than they do about where the governor spent his non-state house time this weekend.”
Christie has pushed back in similar ways before.
Early in his first term, New Jersey was hammered by a winter storm that paralyzed much of the state, closing long sections of major highways for days. Guadagno was in Mexico and Christie was at Walt Disney World with his family. That’s where he stayed, and he never apologized.
He’s ignored the criticism many other times people said he went too far with his use of state resources or in taking gifts from others. Free flights to Texas to watch his beloved Dallas Cowboys play. Five-star hotel stays. Celebrity hob-nodding in the Middle East, paid for by the King of Jordan.
“He believes in his bones that these perks are what he is entitled to and he refuses to apologize and back down about it,” said Matt Katz, author of “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption.”
The governor, Katz said, can usually explain his way through other controversies, like his use of a state helicopter to go watch his son’s baseball game and then fly to a fundraiser. Christie said at the time he had a busy schedule and wanted to maximize the time he gets with his children. That connected with some voters, and he shook “copter-gate” to become one of the state’s most popular governors.
A bridge scandal and a failed presidential bid later, he’s got an approval rating at 15 percent and a new scandal to beat — if he can.
“In the past, he’s been able to spin his way out of it,” Katz said. “I don’t know how you spin out of this one.”
Matt Friedman and Katie Jennings contributed to this report.