It took Governor Christie a little more than a minute Monday to go on the public relations offensive over his latest nomination to the Supreme Court.
“I want to talk to the people of this state about what this signifies,” Christie said as he introduced Walter F. Timpone, 65, a veteran Democratic Party lawyer and political insider, at a State House news conference. “We’re getting our jobs done.”
This was Christie putting a positive face on what was tantamount to a surrender in his six-year battle with Senate President Stephen Sweeney to stock the Supreme Court with conservatives.
This was Christie mopping up after a self-inflicted controversy that marred his Trenton career and undermined his claims to be the bipartisan deal maker, the image he tried to market with little success on the 2016 campaign trail. Now, Christie has settled with Sweeney, a move that could buy something more valuable — relevancy.
Every day brings Christie closer to lame-duck status, when the political class begins looking to the post-Christie future and no longer shudders in their boots at his latest press conference harangue.
Republican lawmakers who once marched in lockstep with Christie are starting to defy him in public. Christie is no longer able to dominate the State House agenda. The Christie-Sweeney tandem that once easily challenged the Democratic-controlled Assembly is now being blocked by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Secaucus, who is demanding a seat in their backroom discussions.
All of Christie’s fuming and name-calling — he labeled Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian a “liar” last week — has not gotten him any closer to getting approval for a five-year takeover of Atlantic City government. Christie was noticeably measured in his remarks Monday about Guardian.
Now Christie, who worked to sell presidential voters on his bipartisan accomplishments, is pushing to New Jersey the image that he is governing — repackaging, as he did Monday, a defeat into a positive accomplishment.
Christie ignited the nomination furor six years ago when he refused — without explanation — to grant tenure to Associate Justice John Wallace, the court’s second African-American jurist. It was an unprecedented move in the modern Supreme Court’s 70-year history, and one that sparked an outcry among the legal and political community. Yet it helped put Christie on the map as a cut-against-the-grain Republican who wasn’t afraid to rattle the nerves of the liberal Northeast establishment.
While that might have made Christie a hot topic on the national GOP fundraising circuit, it led to gridlock on the home front.
Sweeney, a personal friend of Wallace’s, refused to give several Christie nominees a hearing, and rejected two Christie nominees on the same day. Christie later lashed out at Democrats who grilled the two as “animals.”
Sweeney vowed not to hold hearings on any Christie nominee until he first nominated a Democrat to preserve a bipartisan balance on the court.
Christie refused and said he wouldn’t nominate a Democrat until a Republican was picked. He argued that the sitting governor got to rebalance the court with a 4-3 tilt in favor of his party. Meanwhile, no agreement was reached on Wallace’s replacement; appellate court judges filled in.
But by picking Timpone, the court will remain at three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent. It’s also a court that will be led by a Democratic chief justice, Stuart Rabner, for the next 13 years — a point on which angry right-wing judicial watchdogs chided Christie last year as he launched his presidential campaign.
Timpone, however, represents a consolation prize — a Democrat whom Christie trusts and one who will probably win fast-track approval despite the controversies that clouded his résumé. After Christie was named U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 2001, Timpone’s name surfaced as his likely first assistant. It seemed like a perfect match — Christie, then just a securities lawyer with no background in criminal law, would rely on a former federal prosecutor who had notched 25 political corruption convictions.
But Justice Department officials objected when it was learned that Timpone had visited U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, an Englewood Democrat who was the target of a federal corruption probe.
At the time, Timpone was also representing Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, whom federal authorities had been trying to recruit as a witness against Torricelli. The visit raised concerns that Timpone might have tipped off Torricelli about the investigation, reports said at the time. Christie traveled to Washington in support of Timpone. But Timpone withdrew his name from consideration.
“I think that the Justice Department was wrong,” said Christie. “I’m not concerned about that, and I don’t think anybody else will be.”
Other questions are likely to surface. Timpone, a Christie-named member of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, recused himself from a high-profile complaint in 2013 against Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, a Democrat and longtime Christie ally who was accused of using campaign funds to cover a range of personal expenses. But because of Timpone’s recusal, an administrative law judge threw out the case, saying the ELEC panel lacked the bipartisan quorum when it voted to charge DiVincenzo.
Sweeney, however, downplayed the past controversies involving Timpone, who has been a longtime Democratic Party donor.
“I would expect my committee would have a very thorough vetting. It’s not going to be a coronation,” Sweeney said.
It was worth noting that while Christie touted his ability to forge an agreement with Sweeney on the Timpone nomination, he did not scold the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate for refusing to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, President Obama’s latest nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That’s the kind of rhetorical jab that a presidential candidate who is eager to draw a sharp contrast with the Washington gridlock might be expected to make. Christie may very well harbor hopes of running for president again in 2020 or maybe 2024, but he needs to leave the State House with a positive legacy first. And he’ll do whatever he can to build that record — even if it occasionally means surrender.