TIME politics

Why Pols From New Jersey Aren’t Born to Run

Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pauses as he addresses the media during a news conference Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton. Mel Evans / AP

The Garden State's got a checkered history in national politics—going back to Aaron Burr

I’m beginning to feel sorry for increasingly embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. I’m not feeling Christie’s pain because he’s a Republican (I’m a small ‘l’ libertarian politically), but because I’m a proud native of New Jersey, the greatest state in this — or any other! — country. Whether you’re talking about arts and media (Philip Roth, Jon Stewart), industry (Johnson & Johnson), a history of invention (Edison’s Menlo Park, Bell Labs), hiking, beaches, scrub pine forests, the best goddamn tomatoes ever (seriously), or paying more in federal taxes than it gets back, New Jersey has always punched above its weight.

Indeed, over the past decade or so, New Jersey has started to earn belated props in the public imagination, with television shows such as The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and even Jersey Shore using the state as a backdrop for meditations on the American Dream. The recent and quick rise of Gov. Christie himself speaks to what might even be considered a New Jersey cultural bubble. He’s the first serious presidential contender to come out of New Jersey since Woodrow Wilson.

Yet the Garden State — insert a not-inaccurate joke about the entire place being a Superfund toxic waste dump here — has been a national punchline at least since Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton rowed across the Hudson River from New York to shoot it out in Weehawken. (Needless to say, Burr, a native of Newark who happened to be U.S. vice president at the time, won.)

To grow up in New Jersey is to battle an unending barrage of jokes about Jimmy Hoffa’s corpse being buried in the Meadowlands (not true!), post-apocalyptic wastelands such as Camden and Newark (all too true!), and what exit you’re from on the Turnpike (not funny!). It’s a cheap laugh that F-Troop’s slow-witted Cpl. Agarn was from Passaic and that Clint Eastwood’s title character in Bronco Billy is revealed to be a former shoe salesman from New Jersey. If the hypodermic needles on the beaches don’t get you, then the guidos and guidettes memorialized in Jersey Shore will.

The state bird isn’t the Goldfinch, it’s cancer. The state vegetable isn’t the tomato, it’s Karen Ann Quinlan. What does it say about the people who stay behind that New Jersey has the country’s biggest brain drain, as measured by the number of people who leave to attend college? What does it say that the state’s unofficial anthem is “Born to Run,” an epic Bruce Springsteen song that’s all about getting somewhere — anywhere — else?

Growing up in such an environment takes a toll on a person, forcing him or her not just to grow a thick skin but also to become a latter-day existentialist who recognizes that status, truth, and power are up for grabs, especially if you’re willing to reinvent yourself, take risks, play fast and loose with rules, and maybe even skirt the law on occasion (it’s no coincidence that Martha Stewart, who remade herself and homemaking en route to becoming the nation’s best-mannered felon, was born and raised in New Jersey).

Shows such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire only make sense in a place like New Jersey, where everyone has a chip on their shoulder, is hustling to make a buck, and is desperate for prestige (as South Park memorably summarized it in 2010, “It’s a Jersey thing”). That’s the reason, too, that Abscam, the FBI sting operation that informs the plot of the acclaimed new movie American Hustle, was centered around Atlantic City and took down mostly New Jersey politicians, too. Even more than the typical elected official, Garden State pols want money, power, and respect.

But as Tony Soprano (played so memorably by the late Jersey native James Gandolfini), could tell you, the same forces that spur ambition and success also carry within them their own demise. It quickly becomes difficult to know when serious lines are being crossed or the wrong messages are being sent to the people around you.

It’s telling that in his rise to national prominence, Gov. Christie captured headlines less for what he did than how he did it. Where other Republican governors have implemented major structural changes to collective bargaining (Wisconsin’s Scott Walker) or educational policy (Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal), Christie has essentially governed as a big-government conservative, spending more money each year he’s been in office and doling out conventional corporate welfare to favored constituents. The State of the State address he delivered yesterday didn’t change any of that.

What’s made him famous — or infamous, depending on your politics — was his willingness to shout down teachers, reporters, and even voters that he deemed idiots or worse. In short, it’s his Jersey attitude, not his policies, that have put him on top of potential Republican presidential candidates.

For sure, he has not been found culpable for “Bridgegate.” And he’s fired the aide who apparently was responsible for creating a traffic jam as payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, who refused to support the governor’s re-election campaign. Yet as the investigation continues, the question remains: Even if Christie didn’t issue a direct order, did he create a climate in which such stupid and destructive actions were conceivable? The audit of Hurricane Sandy relief funds may well prove tougher for Christie in the long run. He stands accused not just of using federal funds to pay above-market prices for a commercial touting state tourism after Sandy but of improperly inserting himself and his family in the spot during an election year.

Even if he’s ultimately fully exonerated in these and any other scandals, a question about his temperament will remain. Ironically, the same 100 percent Jersey temperament that got him noticed may disqualify him for life outside of Trenton. New Jersey exports tons of fruits, vegetables, pharmaceuticals, petroleum products, and above all, smart people. What it hasn’t done in a very long time — and probably for very good reason — is export a president.

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