At the debut event of an institute he created to promote civility in politics, former Republican Gov. Chris Christie sat with his cross-Hudson counterpart, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, for a discussion about their shared history and the country’s polarized politics.
“This is a smart idea, it’s an idea whose time has come,” Cuomo said Thursday evening at Seton Hall Law School, which is serving as the home for the Christie Institute for Public Policy. “I’ve been in and around politics a long time. I’ve never seen it this bad and this dysfunctional.”
Christie recalled their first meeting at a restaurant in New York, when the two men hit it off.
“It turned into a four-hour dinner that we had, our first discovery being that we both were raised by Sicilian mothers,” Christie said. “After that, really nothing else mattered.”
“My instinct said this is someone I can actually get things done with,” Cuomo said.
Christie asked Cuomo for suggestions on restoring bi-partisanship.
“The first thing we have to do is take down the heat,” Cuomo said. “Just take down the aggravating factors and take down the temperature. Right now, we have a lot of pot-stirring in Washington, and they are, I believe, purposefully fanning the flames of opposition because it works.”
The conversation turned to the big issue of the day — President Trump, Ukraine and the call by Democrats for impeachment inquiries into a whistleblower’s report raising questions about the president’s dealings with that country’s new leader.
“I think the Ukrainian issue raises a lot of questions, and I think it is for an investigatory committee,” Cuomo said, while lamenting how those inquiries will dominate over other issues before Congress. “It is fodder that they can spend months [on] — one witness after another, one witness after another, on all sorts of different tracks.”
Nothing will get done, Cuomo said.
Christie took aim at the rhetoric employed by politicians.
“Your comment before about all the wood and the gasoline and the other combustibles that are being thrown on every day by the language that both sides use, that the president uses on his Twitter account,” Christie said.
Referencing a House hearing on the Ukraine issue earlier in the day, Christie said, “And some of the stuff I heard today in that hearing just meant to inflame, is just, you’re right, going to make matters worse.”
“Look, you can disagree. This is politics,” Cuomo said, adding with a laugh: “I disagree with Chris on many issues. He’s wrong a lot of the time.”
People, some of whom paid as much as $500 to attend the event, crammed into the auditorium at Seton Hall Law School in Newark. Plans call for more lectures each quarter.
During their seven years of serving as chief executives in neighboring states, Christie and Cuomo worked together on issues like the Port Authority and the recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
They also talked Thursday about their frustration at the Trump administration’s failure to date to provide federal funding for the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River, which will be used by both NJ Transit and Amtrak trains.
Cuomo recalled a meeting at the White House, where Trump told both men he’d help fund the project, but then never did. That prompted Cuomo to document the severity of the deteriorating condition of the tubes of the existing tunnels.
“Where I went through the tunnel at night with a video crew, taking pictures of the water leaking into the tunnel and the pumps, pumping out the tunnels as the water leaks in. I sent it to Trump. And he watched it, and he called me and he said, ‘That’s a great video!’”
The conversation turned to what both men said was really important when you’re a high public official.
“When it’s over and you look back and you say, ‘what did I accomplish,’” Cuomo said. “And the blur of all the day-to-day goes away, the 9000 press releases goes away and the 800 rubber-chicken dinners go away. What did you do to make the place better?”
During a follow-up press conference, Christie’s well-known combative nature was on display.
He spoke about the Ukraine issue, echoing White House talking points.
“I suspect that this is not the first time that an American President has used American foreign aid in an attempt to get a foreign country to do something that the American government wanted them to do,” he said. “I think that probably has happened frequently over the time in history.”
“The President says that the reason he did it was because he was concerned about the level of corruption going on in Ukraine, and he did not want to send more American tax dollars to a place that was corrupt unless he had assurances from the new president that he was going to effectively and aggressively deal with that corruption,” he said. “I think that’s a laudable public policy goal.”
He lit into Governor Murphy when a reporter asked if the state tax incentives program had been abused during his tenure, as Murphy has suggested.
“No, and I think this is nothing more than a political charade by a governor who hasn’t had any real accomplishments,” he said. “And it’s being done purely — in my view, my opinion — for political vengeance and done because someone’s trying to pick a fight with somebody else.”
Christie also said of his successor, “I think this is going to lead to nothing, as I said months and months ago. It’s political theater by a guy who understands theater and who needs a show.”
Gov. Murphy’s office responded in a statement: “It’s not surprising to see Governor Christie defend yet another failed pillar of his legacy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. New Jersey residents long ago caught onto the economic failures marked by Governor Christie’s administration. He’s not fooling anyone anymore.”
Christie also mixed it up with the press corps Thursday, as he frequently did during his time as governor.
“Excuse me, you ask the questions, I answer,” he said at one point. “You’re out of practice with me because I’ve been gone for a little while.”