POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

The Year in Review- 2014

By David Cruz
Correspondent

In 2014, New Jersey was at the center of national news again. The Ebola scare hit home when Nancy Hickox, a nurse returning from Sierra Leone, was held in quarantine after officials say she showed an elevated body temperature. Hickox called her treatment and conditions “inhumane,” and touched off a war of words that involved Governor Chris Christie.

Former Rutgers star Ray Rice touched off a national debate about spousal abuse after he assaulted his wife in an elevator at the Revel in Atlantic City. He was suspended indefinitely by the league after the video of the attack surfaced and the NFL took criticism for its handling of the Rice case and others like it.

But the biggest national news coming out of New Jersey this year involved the governor, his staff, and the GWB. Even though the lane closures at the GWB happened in late 2013, the story exploded onto the national media landscape in January of 2014 when a seemingly stunned Christie was forced to acknowledge that his senior staff had been involved in a scheme to shut down access to the bridge as some kind of political payback.

Assemblyman Jon Wisniewski and Senator Loretta Weinberg, both Democrats, led a special joint committee on investigations that held hearings and called some of the governor’s closest associates to testify.

But the governor bounced back. He hired a politically-connected attorney to investigate the GWB scandal and issue a report. That report was met with howls of skepticism by critics, who said it never interviewed some of the key players and took great pains to make Bridget Kelly seems like a shrew and a scapegoat.

Meanwhile, the special committee issued its own report, earlier this month, which, ironically, said a lot of the same things the governor’s report did. The Democrat-heavy committee made some news by suggesting that the governor may have been hiding something by deleting several text messages with his chief of staff Regina Egea. In all, more than $10 million and counting has been spent investigating the GWB scandal.

The bridge scandal is in the hands of a grand jury and a decision on further action- with all its legal and political ramifications- will come early in 2015. But the scandal
gave voice to those calling for reform at the Port Authority.

A report issued just this week by another special panel partly appointed by the governor recommended sweeping changes at the agency, including a restructuring of its management and a re-focusing of its mission. This is another story we’ll be watching in 2015.

Christie, whose inevitable march to a White House run could be the biggest story of 2015, saw his every move judged through a prism of his aspirations. Still there were crisis in the state taht required his attention.

In Atlantic City, four casinos closed in 2014 in a dramatic market correction that sent economic shockwaves throughout the city and the region. The governor, who had set a five year plan in motion, saw it fall apart as unemployment skyrocketed and local taxes shot up more than 50 percent. Christie convened a task force to come up with ways to stop the bleeding.

But the road ahead for Atlantic City will not be smooth. Mayor Don Guardian, whose own term in office began in 2014, says the city will have to reinvent itself if it wants to reverse its fortunes.

It wasn’t all bad news for New Jersey’s urban centers. Camden saw dramatic reductions in crime. Homicides and other violent crime down 50 percent under a beefed up county-wide police force.

The improving conditions on the ground spurred unprecedented re-investment in the former “most dangerous city in America.” The 76’ers, Lockheed Martin, Subaru, and others announced major development plans.

But the state Economic Development Authority incentives that motivated these companies to relocate – over half a billion in Camden this year – is pricey, say some critics, and will create fewer new jobs than people think.

Through it all, the governor took to the road in his role as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, raising more than a hundred million dollars for Republican candidates and deflecting credit the day after election day on every single morning talk show.

Newly emboldened but still facing a sluggish state economy and a budget crisis, Christie reneged on his deal to pay into the state pension and healthcare fund.

The public employees unions sued but the governor won– the first round. A judge will still rule on the issue in 2015.

2014 was a bitter-sweet year for Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. In January, his father: poet, playwright and civil rights icon Amiri Baraka died, and in July Baraka was elected mayor of the city. It was a dream come true but there was little time for a victory lap. A crushing budget crisis and a hostile governor forced the city back into state fiscal oversight. And then, the Justice Department announced that the city’s police force would come be under supervision of a federal monitor after decades of systemic civil rights violations.

In Jersey City, rookie police officer Melvin Santiago was gunned down while responding to an armed robbery. His murder – in the heat of summer – sparked an outpouring of grief and condolences from cops and citizens across the country, but it also uncovered a building tension – not exclusive to New Jersey – between police and the residents of the communities they protect. It boiled over when grand juries in Ferguson Missouri and Long Island, New York failed to indict cops who killed unarmed black men.

Latinos saw action befitting their growing political relevance in 2014. The president’s unilateral decision on immigration, allowing millions to emerge from so-called illegal status, was met with joy in Latino communities. But his decisions on Cuba, re-establishing formal, diplomatic relations, was met with a more mixed response, especially from hard-line anti-Castro Cubans in New Jersey.

It was the year of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the search for the giant anaconda in Lake Hopatcong and Bigfoot in Sussex County. And while Oxford and Merriam Webster may say differently, the word of the year in New Jersey was obvious: Subpoenas.

What will it all mean to 2015? We’re about to find out.