LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Looking Back: What Happened This Year in New Jersey

By Brenda Flanagan
Correspondent

The captain of New Jersey’s Ship of State called all hands on deck to make an important announcement on June 30: Chris Christie declared he’d set a new, personal course, powered by political ambition and bound for the Oval Office.

“Today I am proud to announce my candidacy for the Republican nomination for President of the United States of America,” Christie said.

Critics claimed that New Jersey’s 55th governor had abandoned ship and sailed north to spend a significant chunk of 2015 trolling New Hampshire and Iowa for votes.

Stalwart supporters, meanwhile, insisted the governor remained firmly in control, albeit remote control. The governor himself steadfastly denied dereliction of duty.

“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Christie said.

However, Christie left turbulence in his political wake, particularly when he tacked hard right in pursuit of conservative voters. His absence in 2015 had impact, particularly for New Jersey’s transportation crises.

Case in point: the Gateway Tunnel. After months of grueling transit troubles and train delays, commuters feared plans to finally build the new, critically-needed train tunnels under the Hudson would be permanently stalled by politics.

“Hey, that’s something we need. That’s something we need. We need more transportation services,” rider Tony Moozhayil said.

Christie had already killed the ARC Tunnel, and neither he, nor New York Governor Cuomo, wanted to pay for a new one.

“We had a lot of major actors in this talking at each other, but not with each other,” U.S. Senator Cory Booker said.

Booker wrangled a terse meeting, and transportation officials finally got the $20 billion Gateway project moving after feds agreed to pay half of the construction costs. The brokered agreement between New Jersey and New York puts the Port Authority in the project’s driver’s seat.

Meanwhile, efforts to refuel the dwindling Transportation Trust Fund that repairs and upgrades infrastructure kicked off 2015 with an apparent bridge safety crisis in February. New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox closed several cracked and crumbling spans.

“If one critical member of the bridge fails, the bridge, or a section of it, could collapse,” Fox said. “After July 1 there is no money.”

But it was Fox’s TTF campaign that collapsed after Christie downplayed the issue.

“It’s not a crisis at the moment because we’re funded pretty well now,” Christie said on Ask The Governor.

Most New Jersey taxpayers didn’t support raising the gas tax to renew the fund, which made it politically unpalatable. Fox, drafted by the governor specifically to revive the TTF, finally quit and the fund remains unfunded.

More bridge-related problems popped up in 2015 with Bridgegate, and a new scandal.

The so-called “Chairman’s Flight” was allegedly launched by United as a favor to former Port Authority Chairman David Samson to ease his weekend commute from New Jersey to his South Carolina vacation home. This September, an internal investigation led United’s CEO to resign.

“Any time you say Bridgegate it hurts Chris Christie. It doesn’t matter what the context is. Even something as obscure as the Samson chairman’s flights,” said Seton Hall University Political Science professor Matt Hale.

Casino gaming grabbed headlines this year. On Atlantic City’s boardwalk, Stockton University rushed to sell Showboat at a loss after discovering deed restrictions that blocked the property’s development as anything but a casino. The shuttered Revel, now plugged into a reliable power source, will allegedly reopen next summer.

“The eight casinos that we have right now seems to be the right size. All eight are doing well in Atlantic City as we close 2015,” Mayor Don Guardian said.

But the mayor admits his town’s still reeling. Experts that Governor Christie appointed in February tried to restructure the city’s finances to restore fiscal solvency, but the legislative package designed to bail out Atlantic City crapped out.

Meanwhile, the push to authorize two new casinos in Northern New Jersey rolled snake eyes in 2015. Promoted by trades unions and developers like Hard Rock, the proposal required putting a referendum question on the 2016 ballot. With no one at the helm, and in an atmosphere thick with political intrigue, Democrats blew past the deadline, squabbling over how to divide the spoils.

Protests notwithstanding, New Jersey judges and commissions dealt environmental advocates major setbacks in 2015. The biggest being Exxon’s $225 million settlement to compensate residents for toxic damages at the Bayway and Bayonne refineries and other contaminated properties, even though the state originally sought $9 billion.

“This deal stinks as bad as the bank vaults in hell where Exxon Mobile keeps its money. You must say no to this deal,” Mike Ruscigno, Co-founder of Bayonne Nature Club, said.

But Judge Michael Hogan said, “Yes.” He called the deal fair, especially because Exxon refused to pay more and threatened to keep litigating. Meanwhile, South Jersey Gas will probably start construction next year on a brand-new, 22-mile natural gas pipeline through New Jersey’s pristine Pinelands, with blessings from the Pinelands Commission and Board of Public Utilities.

Public employee unions that sued to force Governor Christie to make full pension payments lost their battle.

“No more! That’s the message I hope the courts tell Chris Christie! No more!” said Lizette Delgado-Polanco, executive director of the SEIU NJ State Council.

Instead, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that the governor didn’t have to obey his own pension payment law if the state couldn’t afford it. It was a win for Christie, whose campaign was struggling by November when his polls numbers fell so low that it cost him a spot on the main GOP debate stage. However, after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the governor rebounded by talking up his resume as a federal prosecutor, and talking tough against Syrian refugees who sought asylum in New Jersey and the United States.

“I’m not going to let Syrian refugees, any Syrian refugees, into this country,” Christie said during a GOP debate on Dec. 16.

“I love America. America is my new home. I can’t go back to Syria. I’m done,” 26-year-old Syrian refugee Sandy Khabbazeh said.

However, Syrian refugees settled in New Jersey despite Christie’s disapproval. Meanwhile, recent New Jersey surveys gave Christie his lowest job approval ratings ever at a rock-bottom 33 percent.

Republicans fought hard, but felt the governor’s absence during November elections as they confronted Democrats super-powered by superPAC money in several districts. The GOP also suffered some self-inflicted wounds — particularly in Bergen’s District 38, where the party disavowed its own candidate, Anthony Coppola, who authored a book filled with racial and ethnic slurs. The GOP ultimately surrendered four seats in an Assembly election which featured New Jersey’s lowest-ever voter turnout.

“It’s a scary and sad thing that if you reel in multi-millions of dollars, that you can overwhelm the electorate. That you can overwhelm the truth,” Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon said

At the State House, Senate Democrats managed to override Christie’s veto of legislation that would expunge mental health records for people seeking to buy guns. However, the lame duck Assembly’s effort failed.

“I ask the speaker today to hold the override and call for a special session,” Assemblyman Jon Bramnick asked.

The failed veto override left Christie’s record of “no overrides” intact.

2015 contained good news and bad news for New Jersey’s economy. Gasoline prices dipped well below $2 a gallon, but homeowners still pay the highest property taxes. In Belmar, the last two families that were left homeless by Superstorm Sandy finally moved back home after their entire community rallied to donate supplies and support.

“It was amazing. I walked in and I said, ‘I’m home!'” said Shaun Keefe.

Other Sandy victims won victories over FEMA, which in March reopened aid applications after acknowledging improprieties. But the storm’s third anniversary found hundreds still homeless and victims of slow and often inept bureaucracy.

“How would you feel about your government failing you, the way they failed these people? They did a piss poor job, that’s all I can tell you,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said.

Senator Bob Menendez deserves credit for getting FEMA to walk back its problematic Sandy applications, but New Jersey’s senior senator got hit with his own personal storm, when the U.S. Attorney unsealed indictments that charged Menendez with political corruption. They were charges he denied.

“I am not going anywhere. I’m angry and ready to fight,” he said at a press conference.

In education news, a couple thousand high school students marched out of class in May to protest the state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan to revise and consolidate the city’s school system. Governor Christie summarily fired his hand-picked superintendent in June, and replaced her with another Christie soldier: Chris Cerf. The governor also dumped the Common Core curriculum in a sudden policy reversal. New Jersey has yet to reveal how many students statewide opted out of taking the widely-unpopular PARCC achievement tests.

September brought bad news to another state school, Rutgers University, and its beleaguered football team.

“I mean, it’s kind of like the wild west sometimes, you know. With not that much enforcement,” Greg Briskin said.

Rutgers’ football program took some hard, scandalous hits, starting with the criminal arrest of seven players. Coach Kyle Flood earned a three-game suspension for improperly contacting a professor about players’ grades. The team ended its season 4 and 8, and Rutgers sent Flood to the showers, while simultaneously firing Athletic Director Julie Hermann. The school hired Ohio’s Chris Ash, hoping that he can rework a demoralized and unfocused team.

But Jersey lofted a new star into the equine sports firmament in 2015. Homeboy American Pharoah swept racing’s Triple Crown, and won the Breeder’s Cup, retiring to stud and into legend.

Next year the race begins in earnest for presidential candidate Chris Christie, and for the crowded field of Jersey boys who want to succeed him in the governor’s office.