In New Hampshire, Christie Plays Down His Brash Side

Feb 6, 2016

In New Jersey Chris Christie is known for his brash style of speaking and governing. His campaign in the so-called "establishment track" has often surprised some of those who have followed Christie in his home state. 

One of those who knows Christie best is Matt Katz. He's covered the governor for years, first at the Philadelphia Inquirer and now for WNYC in New York. His new book is American Governor: Chris Christie's Bridge to RedemptionHe joined Weekend Edition to talk about the book and its subject.

How does the Chris Christie we see in New Hampshire compare to the Chris Christie people in New Jersey know and that you've covered all these years?

I would say he's been slightly more mellow and less bombastic. In New Jersey, at his town hall meetings, he bursts through a curtain and he announces that there are four rules the audience must abide by. Here, he comes in; maybe there's a little introduction and then when he takes his questions he says there's just one rule, and that's not to interrupt him. 

And even when he's gotten some aggressive questions, in New Jersey he's been known to use words like "idiot" or tell people to sit down and shut up. For the most part he's really kept his cool up in New Hampshire and been a little more New Englandy than New Jersey. 

He does have, as he often says, more than one club in the bag. He can really adjust himself and his tone and his rhetoric depending upon the audience, and I think he was aware that some of the attitude that he became known for via YouTube and some of the clips of him dealing with constituents back in New Jersey wasn't necessarily going to play as well in the early presidential contest states like New Hampshire and Iowa. 

Some of Governor Christie's opponents have charged him with adjusting some of his positions as he prepared to run for president, for example on abortion or on gun laws. Fair to say?

It's fair on gun laws for sure. He, as recently as 2013, supported New Jersey's tough gun laws. He's since moved to loosen New Jersey gun laws; he's vetoed gun bills in the wake of some lobbying from Second Amendment groups. This started as he was gearing up to run for president and it's really taken effect as he's been a presidential candidate, where he's actually done things in New Jersey to loosen gun laws.

On abortion, he changed his position about two decades ago. He is pro-life; he used to be pro-choice. What he has altered himself on in regards to abortion is that he vetoed Planned Parenthood funding in New Jersey every single year of his governorship. He'd be asked about that in New Jersey and people would be upset about it - it's a pretty Democratic, pro-choice state - and he said I'm not doing this because I'm pro-life, I'm only doing this because of fiscal reasons and this is redundant funds. Now he says he vetoed the money when he talks to audiences in New Hampshire and other states where there are conservatives - he says he did it because he didn't want the state funding the murder of children in the womb.

The speculation was that Christie was going to present himself to New Hampshire voters as the tough-talking, no-nonsense governor rather than the national security hawk or the policy wonk. What do you think the rise of Donald Trump has done to Christie's campaign?

I think it's done great damage to him and his campaign and the lane that he's in politically. Here, all of a sudden, you have another loudmouth Northeasterner who seems to say outrageous things. That used to be the Chris Christie thing, that he would say things politicians didn't normally say. Trump does that to a much greater extent, and it's been a big problem for him. 

There were entrance polls taken at the Iowa caucus. Those who said they wanted a candidate who tells it like it is? Those voters chose Donald Trump. The problem for Chris Christie is his campaign slogan is "Telling It Like It Is."

Another one of the themes Christie has talked a lot about on the New Hampshire campaign trail has been drugs, the opioid crisis and drug treatment. What does his record on those issues look like?

There's been criticism in New Jersey that he hasn't followed through with enough funding for drug treatment facilities, that there's still major issues with drug overdoses and that he hasn't been listening enough to the treatment community. On the other hand, he has done things like expand drug courts, so non-violent drug offenders are steered toward treatment instead of prison. He has introduced the use of a drug that can [prevent] overdose victims from dying; there have been lives saved because of this antidote. It's something of a mixed record. I would say Christie's greatest success in terms of this issue in New Jersey is highlighting it and talking about it and bringing it to the fore. 

He's talked about it in quite passionate terms. One of his moments talking about it up in New Hampshire became a viral video sensation; it was passed around millions of times. He says that if he were president, that would be part of what he would do, highlight it from behind the podium and that's one way to address this crisis.

Critics have pointed out that last year Chris Christie was out of New Jersey more than he was in the state. If he wins the nomination and the White House, he can say, well, it was worth it. If he doesn't win, though, how does this experience of running for president and spending a great deal of time here change his place and change the dynamics in New Jersey?

It's tremendously damaging. The presidential run has hurt his standing both with legislators in New Jersey - with Republicans who say he's abandoned the state - and with New Jersey voters. His approval ratings are down in the low 30s. This is a guy who won with 60-plus percent of the vote just a couple years ago. 

The presidential run has been an experience that New Jerseyans, by and large, have not enjoyed. Christie was out of state for about 70 percent of 2015. There [are] a lot of issues in the state that people feel have gone unaddressed, like a funding crisis with the transportation trust fund, which pays for roads and bridge repairs; there's public employee pension problems; there [are] a ton of appointments that haven't been made. There's a Supreme Court seat that has not been filled; Christie hasn't even nominated anybody. This is going to be a lot of work when Christie comes back, if he does come back, in order to rebuild trust with both politicos in New Jersey and also the people of New Jersey.