GUEST: Bridgegate is so NOT over: Chris Christie and the Priorities of the Privileged

Back to New Hampshire
Back to New Hampshire

By Linda Stamato

In the wake of “Bridgegate,” press coverage shifted from near adulation of Chris Christie to embarrassed incredulity; the artful politician, poised to become a presidential contender, was reduced in a heartbeat to a tarnished pretender. The phrase, “He can’t lose,” morphed into “He can’t win.”

Well, we’re witnessing a shift back and for no apparent reason other than the limited attention span of the public and the press (not to mention the effective spin of state and national political machines.)  “’Bridgegate’ is SO over, let’s move on.” about sums up the message.

But, it’s never been just about the massive tie-up of the traffic at the GWB and the antics of Christie’s side-kicks in this particular political adventure.  What the scandal opened up, or gave folks comfort in scrutinizing, openly, is far more important than that caper, however significant and probably, for the acts of some, illegal that it was.

It is about these things too:

.   Corrupting the Port of New York and New Jersey Authority in a multitude of ways that have been recounted over and over in the press (and some of which are under investigation by the SEC and the Manhattan District Attorney in New York State and the US Attorney in New Jersey, not to mention the subject of continuing legislative hearings);

.   Mismanaging the public’s money in ways that advantage him and his supporters by, among other things, cutting payments to the pension funds; diverting earmarked funds from federal projects to state projects–to avoid having New Jersey responsible for essential infrastructure spending (requiring funds that he’d have to raise and, of course, taxes are anathema to aspiring Republican presidential candidates); questionable diversion of Hurricane Sandy funds to projects associated with political supporters barely touched by the storm, etc., etc., etc.; and disadvantaging those unlikely to provide support to him in future campaigns, including those from whom he removed the unearned income tax credit.  But, you know, if it costs you more in what you pay the state, you can call it anything you like but the impact is the same; you’re paying more with the ending of the unearned income tax credit than you were paying when it was in force.  The tax credit ended, thanks to Christie, in 2010, and every effort to restore it, he has vetoed, along with other programs that are deserving of crucial state support:  women’s health services; cancer research; legal services for the poor, and on and on.

.   Efforts to undermine affordable housing construction, to develop clean energy alternatives, and to replenish the transportation fund, for which some resources exist or did, have been and are being diverted to balance his budgets.  That’s governance, Christie-style, sort of like robbing Peter to pay Paul (where Peter represents public needs and Paul, well, private and political interests of course.)

.   The state’s economy has not recovered, not by a long shot while neighboring states are doing well, so, so much for Christie’s touting of the “Great NJ Comeback.” It has “come back” for some, though, those who already on the high end, accumulating wealth.

Things could have been worse, of course, as Christie sought to provide generous tax cuts to the wealthy.  The folks behind the economic thinking that tax cuts promote growth, Christie among them, cling to magical thinking despite being shown how excruciatingly wrong they are, over and over—a phenomenon that Nobel-prize winner Paul Krugman, in the latest evidence regarding the Kansas tax-cutting disaster, describes as “the enduring power of bad ideas.”

The New Jersey Legislature, fortunately, turned him down.  

No Tax Credits for the Poor but Ample Subsidies to the Wealthy

Chris Christie pressed on, however, to help a distinct subset of the wealthy anyway, the corporate elites that he relies on for political support. How?  Through the state’s Economic Development Authority and legislation that gave him his way. 

Let us dwell on that aspect a bit. 

Given the sum of money involved–$4 billion in tax subsidies during Christie’s years—and the lack of transparency with respect to how it’s determined who gets and who doesn’t and the indirect pay-to-play dimension, well, clearly, scrutiny is the order of the day.  It’s also yet another example of how those who already have, get more.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the lie–that subsidies secure jobs–keeps being told.  But, just last week, another major report from the Guardian confirms what we know:  the subsidy program doesn’t work.

Read it and weep.  It’s not the first assessment that questions the wisdom and efficacy of these hand-outs to elites. New Jersey Policy Perspective certainly has.  Its latest reportcovers the recent surge in state largesse; national economic reports confirm the obvious, and various bloggers, myself included, have raised questions about the propriety and efficacy as well.

Since they don’t work, why, fundamentally, do we provide these subsidies? For the answer, glance at the list of those who support the Republican Governors Association, directly, and, too, through their own corporate PACs, and you get a feel for the cozy relationship.  And, take a look at an earlier Guardian take on the public subsidy–$106 million–to a particular friend and financial backer of the governor.    You get the message.  One hand helping the other.  Big hands, though, on both sides of the equation.

Since we hear a lot about how the heart of New Jersey is its small businesses, one can’t help but ask how they fare in any this business of providing subsidies. Are incentives reaching smaller companies — the backbone of the state’s economy? Well, let’s put it this way, only about 1 percent of New Jersey’s businesses are reaping rewards from tax breaks.  They include Prudential; Panasonic; Goldman Sachs; JPMorgan Chase; Forbes; American Dream Meadowlands; RBC Capital; Honeywell; Celgene; Goya Foods.  The other 99 percent lose out.  Guess who they are? 

And, in some cases, these small businesses are being hurt by the expansions of the giants–a double whammy. Consider the case of Prudential.  Prudential Insurance obtained $250.8 million to move a few blocks to a new tower in Newark (creating vacant space in its existing location and generating a lawsuit).

The impact of its construction, noted by Barry Carter, in the Star Ledger, was closing off access to local businesses, producing plummeting sales, lost jobs, and mounting concerns that lively, successful small businesses would be forced to close-up shop. 

Carter’s column led me to question a program that could give public money to a business on the one hand and negatively impact the operations of another. Projects with substantial public tax abatements, that cause disruptions to local commerce and lead to direct economic losses (short-term or sustained) on small businesses, ought to be acknowledged, measured, and compensated. Given the large size of the awards in many cases, is it asking too much of an awardee, say Prudential, to cover such compensation? It may be a complex and difficult undertaking but it is also the right thing to do. Tax breaks extended to businesses increase the pressure on other taxpayers, after all, including those businesses that are interrupted by these projects. However much business they lose, they still pay their property taxes or their rent and they still have to stay open and operating.

Carter’s column ends with Linda Jumah, proprietor of Luxe Boutique on Halsey Street:

“Newark needs small businesses. They hire locally. They patronize each other and keep customers in the city…And on Halsey Street, they create a neighborhood vibe and culture that feels right.”

That counts for something, too, doesn’t it? How do we rebuild, revitalize, save our cities if we don’t care about the small businesses that are trying to make it?

And, when all is said and done, shouldn’t the right hand know what the left hand is doing? The state’s tax incentive programs, whether current or revised, are about creating and sustaining jobs. The big players, with public tax incentives, ought not to be driving out the small businesses that have none, or hurting those that remain. Public policy ought to reflect that view. Creating jobs and saving jobs, on a small or a large scale, is the objective is it not? And, for our cities, it’s really that simple!

In the end, these incentives fall too short of accomplishing their alleged objectives and are entirely too ripe for abuse. During a recession and fiscal crisis, when the public sector can barely afford to maintain essential services, shouldn’t we be questioning the wisdom of giving away tax revenues by the millions to individual companies — especially very large, wealthy corporations — instead of investing in public services and transportation infrastructure that would benefit all companies and citizens?  

And, remember, this is a state, as the governor has declared, that can’t afford to provide tax credits to the poor.

Consider, too, just what we are spending money on as a result of his “governing style:” Legal expenses relating to all the investigations, those he launched to show how politically out-of-touch he was—well beyond a million—and those the legislature has undertaken—yet to be documented for starters.

Understanding “Bridgegate”

And so, “Bridgegate” is not over.  But, we need to better understand what we mean when we talk about it. Our governor, seeking the presidency, has put the citizens of New Jersey, those in the middle and below, that is, the other-than-the one-percent, on the low rung.  He has all along, of course, but we were unable to summon up the will, in some cases, or find the way, in others, to challenge his governing, his priorities—in education, primary/secondary and higher education; in energy; in health care; in transportation, in housing.  His spin machine—his town meetings, his YoutTube clips, his love affair with the rude and crude, the put-downs that seem to thrill the ignorant and score political points—has worked wonders for him.

The same guy who just months ago was described as a winner, a political wizard capable of crossing the aisle, saving the shore and talking straight and tough to the people, well, because of “Bridegate,” we’re seeing him more clearly or we’re acknowledging what we know. Now, we see the bosses, the contracts for cronies, the efforts to manufacture an image, the questionable crowd trying to craft a viable presidential contender; we’re following where the money is really going.  

We need to stay the course, not to be put off by those who say ‘Bridgegate is over.’  Yes, we’re looking back.  And, to be sure, we should have looked a lot harder earlier. But for “Bridgegate,” though, we might not be looking at all.

If we don’t, if we won’t, then, there is another story here, I’d say, and it’s not about Christie, it’s about us.  Pogo could be right after all.

Linda Stamato is co-director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University.

6 comments

  1. DeeplyConcerned

    Beautifully stated. Unfortunately, a significant portion of “the other-than-the-one-percent” you mention have been bedazzled by the weight of Christie’s personality (and his relentless propaganda machine) into believing that he’s fighting for them and truly has their best interests at heart, notwithstanding all the facts to the contrary. He’s a reality TV star with power in a country where entertainment trumps news, and somewhere in that deeply disturbed (and incredibly narcissistic) mind of his, I suspect he’d like to be King of the World. God help us all.

    The good news, however, is that Bridgegate and its progeny aren’t over. Not by a long shot. Although Christie continues to ensure that all state investigations of his administration are buried before they get started, he can’t steamroller the U.S. Attorney, the SEC and the Manhattan D.A., all of whom are quietly gathering evidence. The real story is what’s going on behind the scenes, and the fact that it’s not front-page news on a daily basis won’t save him and others in his administration once the indictments are handed down. But the damage will have been done by then, and it’s unlikely that NJ will ever fully recover.

  2. Tony

    I’m sorry but this guy is headed for the presidency!!!! Yeah I don’t agree with his policies but he is a magician when it comes to absolving himself from crisis and has been able to push forth his agenda from day one without much pushback from anybody. The media loves this guy and there is a push for him! We have no one to blame but ourselves. How does this guy even beat Corzine or the other candidate (Buono) which was not supported by anybody in a “liberal” state.

    But the pain in New Jersey is not over. While people argue about christie for president, working people are being assaulted by his policies! Just this week the paterson union was forced to sign a contract that agrees to raises that do not cover cost of living increases, authorizes the closing of schools, and reduces pension benefits. Yet this blatant attack on the middle class is overlooked! The problem is not Christie as much as the people and the Democratic Party that refuses to help the working class. Don’t believe me, just ask yourself why Christie was in paterson swearing in the city’s major as hundreds of teachers protested a contract which was viewed as a fair deal by the mayor, union reps, democrats, and the media which is now an extension of the elite and Christie!

    BridgeGate is over!!!! This guy can get away with anything!!!!! At this point the goal should be to vote out all politicians that attack teachers, police officers, government workers, the poor, and new jerseys students. We have lost the battle and the war on Christie!!! Lets hope the country has more sense that New Jersey, but I don’t believe that this is the case!!!

    • Truthglow

      You’re NUTS! This guy will not get the presidency. He may have fooled a lot of people over the years (those with low IQ’s and those who get their news from FOX TV), but the majority of people have realized there’s something very wrong with Christie, & they will NOT vote for him for president. They won’t even get that chance, however, because as ignorant as the Republican Party is, they’re not ignorant enough to nominate someone like Chris Christie. This guy is already finished. Only those so out of touch and/or stupid as someone like you, could believe such a thing. There are 5 ACTIVE INVESTIGATIONS of Christie going on now in 2 states. He will be indicted, tried, and convicted. I can’t wait until they get this corrupt POS. He is no better than the average criminal. Soon, he will be locked up in federal prison. He will NEVER GET AWAY WITH ALL OF WHAT HE HAS DONE TO THIS STATE! MARK MY WORDS!!!!

  3. TK

    “Bridgegate is so NOT over.”

    And lest we think Ms. Stamato is in any way overstating her case about the need to be vigilant with the likes of Chris Christie, consider this:

    Ronald Reagan didn’t die, he only grew stronger. His genius torments us still, and it means to put a final end to the separation of church and state, equal rights, the right to make a decent living for a hard day’s work; you name it. Apart from the massive swelling it produces in the balance sheets of certain advocates for planetary rape culture—in the name of those with ”purest intentions”— I cannot tell you what the appeal might be to a fully functional human being.

    But if you have the courage to look, read more deeply, and please seek out reliable reporting on this impossibly complex web of extremely focused intent:

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/State_Policy_Network

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/SPN_Agenda

    The deliberate destruction of the Garden State is no accident. This Governor should never have been allowed into New Jersey government, but he had some very special help. With what he has wrought, he should not be allowed to escape. Imagine what he would accomplish on a global scale if he avails himself of the Presidency of the United States.

    His dream; the nightmare from which many of us will never awake.

    Along the way we get to take the standard exam, Can You Spot The True Neoliberal? A deadly serious game of “Where’s Waldo?” Corporate-owned media style.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism

    Not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to have your head spin around a few times, but don’t take your eyes off Governor Christie and his team.

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