Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Chris Christie in Chicago: Exhausted, Subdued, and Kind of Likable

In an appearance at the Economic Club, the embattled New Jersey governor promoted his centrist bona fides and toned down his big personality.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

​The Economic Club audience, predominantly male and white and buttoned up in suits and ties, greeted beleaguered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 51, with light applause—I’d gauge it at 10 percent—several times during Tuesday’s almost hour-long conversation with moderator Greg Brown, 53, Chairman and CEO of Schaumburg’s Motorola Solutions, Inc.

​The Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers ballroom was full, with 1550 people finishing lunch as the spotlight shifted right from the podium to Christie and Brown seated in oversized leather cushioned chairs on either side of a table. Christie pretty much filled his, although he looked like his weight was down a bit.

Brown, who graduated from New Jersey’s Rutgers and noted that Christie had appointed him to the university’s Board of Governors, was the sole source of questions and most were friendly, although Brown did ask about the ever-expanding “Bridgegate” scandal—more subpoenas went out Monday for Christies’ helicopter travel records.

“I wish it would have ended yesterday,” Christie said. There was nothing new in his responses: “I was extraordinarily disappointed in people who worked for me…. The last six weeks were not the most enjoyable.”

Where this investigation is going and where it’ll end is anybody’s guess, but Christie’s dreams of being president could well be shattered, as could the possibility of his even finishing his term as governor. “Impeachment” is a word that hangs in the air in Trenton.

Had “Bridgegate” never happened, that audience of business and professional men and women would, I’d wager, have been on their feet roaring their approval of the Republicans best hope to take the White House in 2016. But an apparently deliberate attempt to snarl traffic on the New Jersey side of the George Washington bridge did happen, and this audience was not ready to fall in love with Christie.

Christie was in Chicago, officially, as newly minted chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, to raise money for Republican candidates for statehouses across the country. But he was likely here also to keep his name in the mix, to remind people that he was supposed to be in 2016 almost as inevitable as Hillary Clinton was in 2008, and that, most important, he was the outspoken tough guy who could beat Hillary. His stature remains such that CNN’s Dana Bash was there and, so was NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell. CBS and Fox sent crews. The New York Times sent a reporter and so did Politico.

But the Christie on display Tuesday was not the Christie who turned town halls into trademarked take-downs of teachers who disagreed with him; whose forceful/bullying behavior translated into YouTube sensations. Today he was toned down, almost gentle. The lines that elicited quiet applause were his claiming credit for balancing budgets; changing the criminal justice system so nonviolent drug offenders get help, not prison; reforming the tax code into something “simple and fair” so people aren’t working everyday to defeat it; building the oil pipeline so American becomes the energy capital.

Along the way he also denounced talk of “income equality” as opposed to “opportunity equality,” explaining that income equality “creates mediocrity. He urged the reform of public schools and of teacher tenure so the schools work for children: “We should worry about the success of children more than the comfort of adults.” He touted his success in lowering property taxes, reforming public pensions, balancing four budgets without raising taxes—having inherited an $11 billion deficit—creating 143,000 private sector jobs, and leading recovery from Hurricane Sandy, which severely damaged or destroyed 365,000 homes and left 7 million without power.

Still his heart didn’t seem completely in it. He has no need for a teleprompter, as he’s impressively articulate, but he seemed almost on autopilot.

His kind treatment of the Tea Party—he described it as advocating for “the best of Republican principles,” such as lower taxes, smaller government, and individual liberty—makes me believe that Christie sees himself as plowing through this mess and running for the ’16 Republican nomination. He’s buttering up the right-of-center Republicans who decide primaries.

He depicted President Obama as a failure as a leader because he does not work to seek agreement with the other party. He depicted himself as waking up every morning, “knowing I won’t get everything I want” from the Democrats who, he added, sometimes oppose him just to oppose him and other times actually believe in what they’re fighting for. He talked of the importance of “civilized society” in politics and mentioned that it’s missing in Washington.

He described his first meeting with a man who he claims as his mentor—although there has been some friction between them lately—former Republican New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean. At a meeting after Christie’s election, Kean asked Christie, “Who’s your best friend?” When Christie replied, “My wife,” Kean told him “not anymore,” that his best friend has to be the Democratic New Jersey senate president. Christie added that he has become close to Steve Sweeney, whose second job is as General Organizer for the International Association of Ironworkers. “We’re not two shy, retiring guys.”

If Christie was not quite shy and retiring, he was blandly likeable, and that’s not what attracted voters to the bellicose, bullying, opinionated, fearless governor. He sounded too much like just your average politician, like Christie Lite. When he observed that for people in high executive positions it’s more important to be respected than liked, it rang true for the old Christie, not the new one.

He spoke highly of George W. Bush, calling him “our [Republicans’] last successful politician” and “an outstanding political candidate, grossly under appreciated by his own party…. No one ever had to wonder where he stood. George Bush had points of view, expressed rather plainly.” He called Bush “a decent man” who “sacrificed eight years of his life” and praised him as “resolute” and “not afraid to act.” He also praised him for not seeking the spotlight and being a man who isn’t “starved for attention.” The references to Obama and Clinton were obvious but the audience seemed unimpressed.

By this time, he was losing some of that audience, as always happens when people leave their law firms and banks to attend a long lunch. Christie and Brown kept talking.

Christie became, at the end, more personal. He said he was “exhausted” and that what got him through this ordeal was his family. He mentioned with a slight edge in his voice that it’s not just the politician who is hurt by the swirling charges; it’s also his wife and children. He inventoried his four children and their accomplishments: a son who is a sophomore at Princeton and a baseball player; a daughter who is a senor in high school and about to become “a daughter of the Midwest” when she attends Notre Dame; a son in seventh grade who plays hockey; and a daughter in fifth grade who plays a mean game of basketball.

He connected with the many parents in the room when he observed that the more prestigious and expensive the school, the less time students spend in class, describing a text message from his Princeton son sent while eating breakfast at 10:15 that morning while watching his dad on television. (If I hadn’t been looking at Christie, I would have thought I was listening to New York Times columnist David Brooks.)

Even in his position as head of the RGA, Christie had nothing interesting to say about the roiling, ugly race for the republican nomination in Illinois; only some pabulum that the candidates must be “be true to [themselves]” and “let them get to know you.” (Of the four Republicans fighting for the nomination, Bill Brady was the only one in the audience. Bruce Rauner met privately with Christie yesterday and attended a big bucks dinner last night at the home of hedge-fund chief Ken Griffin and his wife Ann.) What Christie really thinks about Bruce Rauner and Dan Rutherford trying to destroy each other he didn’t share with the Economic Club audience. ​

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