Has New Jersey Governor Chris Christie just driven his successful Administration off a bridge?
Not yet, but he’s nearing the edge.
By not taking the bull by the horns and doing the right thing about the mega-corrupt Delaware River Port Authority — press to have CEO John Matheussen immediately fired — his credibility has started to plummet.
Christie’s performance — or lack thereof — last week at the DRPA headquarters left many scratching their heads, wondering if insider back-room political deals finally got to him, or if he was operating in a seat-of-the-pants, rudderless manner.
Either way, Christie needs to right his ship quickly if he is to remain the national model for successful governors.
Last Thursday morning, Christie called a hastily arranged press conference to vent his frustration over the DRPA’s lack of reform. Within minutes, media outlets on both sides of the river were reporting that Christie was en route to Camden to fire Matheussen.
With the Port Authority’s incompetence and deceit on public display like never before, and with Matheussen fully immersed in the very conflicts that need reforming, ousting the CEO would be the only move Christie could make, right?
Instead, the Governor inexplicably stood with Matheussen, demanding reforms with more teeth and better accountability at the Authority.
The $64,000 question is how he could have done this with a straight face.
Why would the Governor drive all the way to Camden to say…the same exact thing he’s been saying for months? And how in the world could he renew his faith in Matheussen as the guy to clean up the DRPA cesspool?
One of two scenarios comes to mind:
1) Christie fell victim to political maneuvering, and is compromised in effectively dealing with the DRPA.
This possibility has merit, as the President of the State Senate, Democrat Steve Sweeney, whose labor-leader brother sits on the Port Authority Board, is a staunch defender of Matheussen.
The Jersey Board is stacked with union officials, so perhaps Christie has felt enough heat from his battles with organized labor that he is backing off replacing Matheussen, a union ally.
2) The Governor called the press conference to fire Matheussen but realized that, technically, he doesn’t have that power. The CEO serves at the pleasure of the DRPA board, and Christie can’t replace any News Jersey Board members until their terms expire.
So perhaps Christie switched to Plan B, and attempted to throw more fire under Matheussen’s feet.
Either way, it’s a failure on Christie’s part, with a two-fold result: his reputation as a law-and-order Governor who isn’t scared to take on the entrenched Business-As-Usual crowd takes a hit, and the cronies at the DRPA grow stronger each day they remain in power.
So what could Christie have done? The same thing he should do now, and as quickly as possible: use his office as a bully pulpit and demand that the Board remove Matheussen.
It’s simple, and, at least on this issue, easy.
Chris Christie is incredibly popular precisely because people think he’s fighting for them. He’s called for cuts across the board to reign in government spending, and, despite even his supporters feeling pain, he remains an iconic figure. Voters certainly don’t agree with him on all his positions, but they respect his leadership and his willingness to tackle the toughest issues —and politicians — head-on.
If tomorrow the Governor forcefully called on the Board to boot Matheussen, and implored his neighboring colleague, Ed Rendell, to do the same, it would be very tough to say no to him.
Every press outlet in both states would report his call-to-arms, as well as the laundry list of reasons why Matheussen must go.
And with so many reasons to dump Matheussen, who’s going to oppose Christie?
Gov. Rendell? He has admitted major mistakes were committed, and numerous conflicts allowed, under Matheussen’s tenure.
The Board? Doubtful, mainly because this is the same body that has been kept in the dark by Matheussen on so many issues, including:
* DRPA executives using pool cars while having huge car allowances, and Matheussen’s changing story about HIS pool car use;
* The existence (and use) of DRPA credit cards, a full accounting of which the Board, and the public, are still waiting;
* Conflicts involving DRPA Vice Chairman Jeff Nash, in which Matheussen himself signed three contracts to Live Nation — the company that employs Nash’s wife;
* The changing story of a DRPA bridge manager who took toll money in clear violation of the rules. Matheussen had the individual transferred to the DRPA cruise terminal office, still making six figures a year — despite there being no cruises. Board Commissioner John Dougherty stated that Matheussen lied to him from the start about the situation, with the CEO originally saying the story had "no basis in fact."
* The timeline and details surrounding a suspect arrangement of large-dollar commissions paid by the DRPA to insurance companies in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
* Removing John Lawless, a Board employee, from the DRPA building under armed guard in April, and not permitting him to return to work, despite no authority to fire him. So for nearly five months, the toll payers footed the salary for a Board employee who, by Matheussen’s own accord, wasn’t relieved for disciplinary reasons. Attempts for answers were met with silence.
Not only did Matheussen keep many of his decisions from the Board, but when they did come to light, he failed to provide adequate explanations for his actions.
Bottom line: John Matheussen’s legacy at the DRPA has been one of abject failure, as he presides over a nearly bankrupt agency that can’t even complete its most core mission — the maintenance and safety of just four bridges and a small train line.
Additionally, he has broken new ground in his rush to make the Authority the most generous piggybank possible for politicians and insiders, while forsaking the people who pay the bills.
Never before has there been an issue where virtually 100% of the public is in agreement. Taxpayers have reached their breaking point with the DRPA, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with non-corrupted politicians, citizen activists, and the media in calling for King John to be flushed away, wiping the slate clean for new leadership.
But each day Gov. Christie doesn’t pound this point home, his enemy becomes stronger. That chink in his armor will expand until it becomes a gaping hole, and the successful Christie agenda will be in jeopardy of failure.
The opportunity to ram a stake through the heart of Business As Usual comes but once in a lifetime. It’s having the courage to take that action which makes legendary leaders.
Governor Christie, that time is now.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com
Readers of his column, "Freindly Fire," hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller "Catastrophe."