In 2010, Gov. Chris Christie underestimated the first major storm of his administration by flying to Disney World hours before snow crippled New Jersey. A year later, he overplayed Tropical Storm Irene with the now-infamous order, “Get the hell off the beach.”
When Superstorm Sandy set its sights on his state, he had learned his lesson: be more hands on, more empathetic.
“I had a sense from the beginning that this one was going to be really bad,” Christie, 50, told The Associated Press in an interview last week that reflected on a first term that has now positioned him in the national spotlight and as a potential 2016 presidential contender.
“With Irene, I went back and forth because the forecasts were going back and forth. When the National Weather Service says it’s going to be a wipe out of the Shore then they start backing off of that, it’s very difficult to set the right tone and, candidly, make the right decisions,” he said. “I might have been firmer in Sandy if it hadn’t been for the experience of Irene when I got everybody off the beach and nothing really awful happened there.”
Christie, by his own admission, is “not a subtle personality” and he likes to take charge. Those two traits figured prominently in how the rising Republican handled Sandy.
From his frequent, televised updates to residents as the storm’s winds whipped the state’s beaches to his criticism last week of fellow Republican John Boehner‘s decision to delay a U.S. House vote on federal storm aid, his handling of his native state’s worst natural disaster may one day be considered the defining moment in the political career of a budding presidential contender.
The timing of the storm — days before a presidential election — ultimately helped define his role in it as well.
Christie has been viewed as a nonpartisan advocate for federal aid since the storm hit Oct. 29. He embraced President Barack Obama’s visit to the Jersey Shore six days before the election, inciting catcalls from conservatives.
And last week he smacked down Boehner for delaying a vote on the $60.4 billion storm aid package. Christie said he tried to call Boehner four times Tuesday, but none of the calls was returned. Christie’s office received 800 emails in the hours following the governor’s Boehner news conference, mostly positive.
Christie said he was just doing his job.
“It never struck me that what I should do is calibrate my language in order to be more political. My view was the (president) was helping us and I wanted to tell people. He deserved that credit,” he said. “With Boehner, I would have reacted differently if the speaker had picked up my phone calls Tuesday night and explained what he was doing. The fact that 66 days had already gone by with no assistance, all that stuff conspired to create the reaction that I gave.”
Christie has received almost universal praise for his handling of the superstorm. A late November Quinnipiac University poll showed 95 percent of those surveyed thought he did an “excellent” or “good” job managing the storm. The poll also found he’d won over a majority of women and minority voters, two constituencies that had not supported him previously.
People think of Christie as a guy who calls it like he sees it, said political strategist Tom Wilson, former chairman of New Jersey’s Republican State Committee.
“He’s a Jersey guy,” Wilson said. “It’s the quality that will carry him through the rest of his political career.”
The governor’s popularity surge couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. It probably helped convince Newark Mayor Cory Booker not to enter next year’s governor’s race. So far only one major Democratic candidate, state Sen. Barbara Buono, has stepped up to take on Christie in November.
Even Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the state’s most powerful elected Democrat, finds himself agreeing with the governor more often than not.
After Christie tongue-lashed Boehner over Sandy aid, all Sweeney could do was nod.
“I want to thank the governor for listening when I asked him to step up and call on his party’s congressional members to get their act together,” Sweeney said. “I am glad that the governor has joined me in heaping scorn on those Republican members of Congress who have left New Jersey in dire straits.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press