Christie in Newark, Emerging from an Unsuccessful Campaign, Slowly

By David Cruz

The governor’s first public appearance since his budget address last week was at the ribbon cutting for the new Elliott Street School in Newark, struck by lightning and severely damaged in a fire 10 years ago. Hardly the center of attention at an event in a city where, frankly, he’s not that popular, the governor at times seemed to be elsewhere, or wishing he was elsewhere. When he was running for president, he shook every hand in sight. Today, not so much.

“We’ll continue to do the things we need to do; you work hard and I think the whole thing will work very, very well, not just for you and your families, but for the people of this state,” he told an audience of kids and teachers.

As speeches go, not much of a barnburner, and certainly lacking the fire of his New Hampshire days. Christie said nothing about the state budget, his plans for education funding, or anything about the other pressing issues of the day, begging the question — unanswered — what was he even doing here? If there was something on his mind, the governor was not in a sharing mood, leading us on a rain-spattered chase down the street, and giving us the back of his SUV on the way out of town.

“The fact that he was here, I respect that, the fact that he showed,” acknowledged Assemblyman Ralph Caputo. “It’s an accomplishment of his administration and it’s a compliment to urban education in the state, not only in the city of Newark.”

One of the governor’s most enduring friends is Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. He says Democrats would be wise to not underestimate the governor’s ability to make a comeback. The two shared some time together backstage before today’s event and DiVincenzo says his friend is no lame duck.

“When it comes to me and the things that I was interested in, he was involved very, very heavily,” he said. “There’s no question this man is going to be fully engaged. He’s going to want to make a difference in the next two years and he’s going to work very, very hard. Like I said, I predict soon he’s going to be going back to his town hall meetings. I believe he’s going to go out there.”

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who has maintained a cordial relationship with the governor, registered some irritation with the press for focusing on the governor’s presence, rather than on the ribbon cutting for a rebuilt school for Newark kids. Asked if she felt that the governor was more engaged nowadays, she said, “We were happy to have him here today for a great thing in the city of Newark.”

The governor’s people say he’s focused on New Jersey although lawmakers we talked to say he hasn’t been talking to their leadership much at all. Last week, Christie declared there were 630 days left until the next gubernatorial election, plenty of time to work together, he said. Eight days later, there’s little evidence that that process has begun.