POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

This is what happened in New Jersey politics in 2017

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

In January, Gov. Chris Christie delivered an unorthodox State of the State Address. It was all about one topic: opioid addiction. Christie would go on to make that his main concern for the entire year.

“Our state faces a crisis which is more urgent to New Jersey’s families than other issue we could confront. A crisis which is destroying families. One that is ripping the very fabric of our state apart. The crisis of drug addiction,” he said.

That same month, Kim Guadagno announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor after seven years as lieutenant governor. Her pitch? Lower taxes.

“Some of the candidates for governor have already promised to raise your taxes on the most taxed people in the country. We can do better,” said Guadagno.

In February, Christie delivered his Budget Address.

The news there was his call on Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield to donate a portion of its surplus to the state to help expand drug addiction treatment.

RELATED: Christie blasts Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey

“I am confident Horizon will embrace this opportunity and partner with us to establish this. Why wouldn’t they? You laugh, you’re cynical … and establish a permanent sustainable fund. I don’t believe they will turn their back on the people of New Jersey who pay their salaries and, as the people’s representatives, we should partner with them. We should make sure this happens for the underserved and addicted in our society, no later than June 30 of this year,” Christie said.

The focus on Horizon would persist for months and culminate in a government shutdown in July. The company is an underwriter of NJTV News.

March was a month of reckoning for some one-time Christie allies.

Former Port Authority Chairman David Samson was sentenced to one year of home confinement and three years probation for his role in the “Chairman’s Flight.”

Samson had pled guilty to pressuring United Airlines to restore a money-losing flight that would shorten his ride to his weekend home in South Carolina.

It was an act of mercy by the judge, but U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman was upset that Samson got away with an act of extortion.

“That’s a kind of corruption that is pretty staggering, ridiculous, as the judge put it. And, it’s something I think people should be aware of,” he said.

The second reckoning in March was the sentencing of Bridgegate defendants Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni. They had been convicted by a jury of carrying out the forced traffic jams on the world’s busiest bridge.

It was the biggest scandal of Christie’s eight years in office and cost him dearly, but it cost his aides even more.

“We respect the court’s decisions, however now, we look forward to the appeal. And obviously once the appeal process is heard, I feel very, very confident that we will be vindicated and that this verdict will be set aside,” said Bridget Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley.

“Today has been obviously a very difficult day for me and for my children, but I want to assure my kids and everyone else that this fight is far from over. I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case,” Kelly said.

“I think all of you who were in court or in the other room heard Bill’s heartfelt statement to the judge today. That what he did was a mistake in not returning calls or emails to Mayor Sokolich. He apologized to him, the citizens of Fort Lee and everyone else he let down in this episode in his life,” said Baroni’s attorney Carlos Ortiz.

Also in March, President Trump named Christie chairman of a national task force on opioid addiction, cementing that as Christie’s signature issue and re-inserting him into the national picture.

In April, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli started looking like a formidable challenger to Guadagno for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

On the other side, Phil Murphy held a steady and sizable lead over his rivals in the Democratic field — Ray Lesniak, John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson.

They debated in May in NJTV’s Newark studio. First up were the four Democrats. A week later, it was Guadagno and Ciatterelli’s turn.

The primary election was in June. Murphy walked away with the nomination, as expected.

“Today a lot of people had my back,” Murphy said. “New Jersey, here’s my simple promise to all nine million of you: I’ve got your back.”

Guadagno prevailed, as well, setting up the November clash.

“This campaign, our campaign, is about making New Jersey affordable for everyone,” Guadagno said.

Through it all, President Trump loomed large as a figure of intense media interest. He dominated the news coverage all year, which made it difficult for both gubernatorial candidates to break through.

Democrats spoke about the chaos. Republicans hoped for the best and braced for the ride. Every television guest used the phrase “sucks all the oxygen out of the room.”

In late June, Christie’s effort to tap Horizon’s surplus for drug treatment money ran into a recalcitrant legislature, especially in the Assembly.

A government shutdown would occur if lawmakers didn’t pass a budget by midnight on June 30, and the budget was being held hostage to the Horizon standoff.

“New Jersey State government, absent something happening in the next eight hours, is going to shut down,” Christie said.

For three days, the leaders sought a deal, unsuccessfully, while Horizon executives prowled the State House.

“I think the speaker and the Senate president understood my perspective and my point of view. I think you all realize that Horizon didn’t ask to be in the middle of this situation, but I do appreciate the opportunity to have met with them and expressed my concerns with the bill,” said Bob Marino, Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield CEO and president.

Included in the shutdown was the closing of state parks and beaches.

That led to an uproar when a Star-Ledger photographer got a shot from a helicopter hovering over the beach at the governor’s official residence in Island Beach State Park.

RELATED: New Monmouth Poll paints harsh picture of Christie

“Now if they had found that plane over the beach and I had been sitting with a 25-year-old blonde in the chair next to me, that’s a story! I wasn’t sitting next to a 25-year-old blonde, I was sitting next to my wife of 31 years, surrounded by my children and some of their best friends,” Christie said.

A deal was reached on July 4. Horizon got to keep its surplus intact in return for minor concessions.

Also that month, the gubernatorial candidates announced their running mates. It was former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver for Phil Murphy and Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo for Guadagno.

Also, the state’s star witness got off without having to go to prison. David Wildstein, the mastermind of the Bridgegate scandal, received his sentence: three years probation.

In August, the NJEA announced its list of endorsements for the fall election. Conspicuously absent, Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Also, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker started being mentioned more and more as a possible presidential candidate in 2020. His profile seemed to rise with each passing month.

September brought the start of the Menendez corruption trial. Sen. Menendez was accused of a bribery conspiracy involving his friend, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. Lavish gifts in return for official favors, read the charge.

“I have committed my entire adult life, since I was 19, to fight for the people of New Jersey. Never, not once, not once, have I dishonored my public office,” Menendez said.

In October, the debates were held. There were two gubernatorial debates, one at NJPAC and another at William Paterson University, and one lieutenant governor debate. The election looked to be Murphy’s, though Guadagno fought energetically.

The election was in November and Murphy defeated Guadagno 56 to 42 percent.

“Tonight, we declare the days of division are over. We will move forward together. This is exactly who we are, New Jersey. We have each other’s backs. To believe in each of us is to believe in all of us,” Murphy said.

“We left no stone unturned, and we would not have done anything differently,” Guadagno said in her concession speech.

Election night also brought two new state senators — Vin Gopal for the Democrats and Chris Brown for the Republicans.

And despite an onslaught of money from the NJEA, Sweeney won re-election to the Senate by 18 points in the most expensive legislative race ever.

Also in November, the Menendez case ended in a hung jury. Federal Judge William Walls declared a mistrial.

“This jury could not, would not, and did not return a verdict that validated any of the government’s charges,” said Menenedez’s lawyer Abbe Lowell.

An emotional Menendez delivered a ringing line.

“To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” Menendez said.

By December, talk turned to the 2018 elections.

Rep. Tom MacArthur was the only New Jersey Republican who supported federal tax reform, triggering speculation about his motives and viability.

Democrat Mikie Sherrill took aim at Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who was named House Appropriations Committee chairman in 2017.

Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo announced he’s stepping down, prompting Democratic state senator Jeff Van Drew to declare his candidacy for the seat.

And Governor-elect Phil Murphy started filling out his cabinet — six of his first seven appointments are women. What that conveys is unclear, except that Phil Murphy is capable of surprising us all.