Created on Wednesday, 15 January 2014 Written by ANGELA DELLI SANTI, Associated Press STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — His critics call him a bully, but New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie is offering hugs and more apologies to help protect his second-term priorities as a traffic scandal threatens to derail his political future.
He has little choice.
The often-outspoken governor offered new proposals on taxes, education and crime in a State of the State address on Tuesday that asked a state and national audience to look beyond his administration's mistakes. But the success of his plans depends upon cooperation from the Democratic-led state legislature — some of the same people investigating the Christie administration's role in an apparent political retribution plot that caused a massive traffic jam to punish a Democratic mayor.
The investigation, along with Christie's second-term priorities, could have far-reaching implications on the next presidential contest. As he weighs a White House bid, Christie has carefully crafted a national reputation as a straight-talking leader who values policy accomplishments more than playing politics. On Tuesday, he outlined 2014 goals that would strengthen his resume ahead of a prospective presidential campaign.
Christie offered a conciliatory tone in a 46-minute afternoon address that emphasized bipartisanship. He used the word "we" more than 100 times. And he left the podium briefly in the middle of his remarks to hug a reformed drug addict featured in his speech.
Christie only briefly mentioned the political retribution scandal that could to undermine his plans.
Conceding that "mistakes were clearly made," he promised that his administration would cooperate with "all appropriate inquiries to ensure that this breach of trust does not happen again."
"We let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better," he said and later added, "This administration and this legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people's lives in New Jersey to be delayed for any reason."
The first year of Christie's second term is considered an important step in his political future.
After his November re-election, his advisers suggested he had a one-year window to stack up accomplishments before his lame-duck status — and a prospective White House campaign — start to interfere. The recent revelations may have slammed that window shut.
Immediately after the speech, Democrats who control both chambers of the state legislature signaled an unwillingness to support a Republican weakened by scandal.
"It's just different sound bytes that to me don't mean much," said incoming speaker of the state Assembly, Vincent Prieto, a Democrat.
Christie's political challenges exploded last week with the release of documents showing that senior aides and appointees orchestrated lane closings that caused massive gridlock on the George Washington Bridge, delayed emergency vehicles and school buses for hours and infuriated commuters. Democrats believe the scheme was retaliation against a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse him.
The governor has denied any knowledge of the incident and first apologized for it last week. He fired a close aide and cut ties with his former campaign manager, while others have resigned.
The Democratic National Committee weighed in on Tuesday, releasing a web video that mocked Christie's repeated references to bipartisanship. The video's title: "Bipartisan — as long as you do what he says."
Christie's team is hopeful that his second term priorities are not lost.
He offered general plans on a key education initiative that would extend the school day and cut short summer vacation. He also promised to present choices to overhaul the state's tax system and called on lawmakers to allow state judges to deny bail to some criminals.
Each of the issues could translate to the national stage and help fill Christie's resume ahead of the 2016 presidential contest. He also spoke at length on Tuesday about his past accomplishments, which include reforms on public employee pensions, teacher tenure and property taxes.
As Christie left the chamber after his speech, he tersely shook the hand of the Democrat leading one of several investigations into the scandal, a reminder that his political challenges in New Jersey are far from over.
Democrats plan to vote Thursday on continuing their traffic investigation.
"Public safety and abuse of power are the No. 1 issues," Prieto said. "We have to get to the bottom to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Christie intends to maintain a relatively low profile on Wednesday. Unlike previous years, he has no live radio or television appearances scheduled for the day after the annual address.