Q&A: Columnist Charles Stile on Chris Christie

"Now he's standing in the center of the political universe"

For a man who’s not running for president, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has gotten a whole lot of attention from the nation’s political press this week. It’s likely the will-he, won’t-he game will go on for at least a few days more. While we’ve come to expect this sort of frenzied speculation from the media, it’s surprising to see Christie, never one to be coy—or anything less than blunt—playing along. In an effort to figure out what the governor is up to—and how the national media is doing—we turned to Charles Stile, a columnist with the Bergen Record and one of the journalists who knows Christie best. Stile has been at the Record since 2000 and has covered the New Jersey statehouse since 1993, when he was a reporter with The Times of Trenton.

What is it like to cover Chris Christie?

I tell friends going from covering Jon Corzine to covering Chris Christie is kind of like going from a James Taylor concert to Ozzie Osborne. It’s high-powered, high energy, challenging, confrontational and it’s at a high speed. He puts something new on the plate almost everyday.

What is his relationship like with the media?

He has a rocky relationship with the media. I think he enjoys the give and take; he thrives on it. But there are times when he exudes a kind of contempt. He can browbeat young reporters.

On the other hand, he is one of the most accessible governors we’ve had. I started with Jim Florio at the end of his first term in 1993 and have covered half a dozen governors since, and Christie is by far the most accessible. He gives you lengthy, nuanced answers that are thorough and exhaustive. He makes a very good, very shrewd, very lawyerly case for his point, but it’s always steeped in smart politics. They are just really good political defense arguments. He’s definitely the most interesting and fascinating governor I’ve covered.

When is it that he gets upset at the press? Is it the way he is covered?

That’s part of it. But I think some of it is personal. He has a personal dislike for certain reporters. Some of it is just flat out impatience with the questions. Most politicians and other governors will be diplomatic and conceal their impatience with a question that is vague or that they suspect to be a thinly-veiled rehashing of the other side’s attack. A lot of them will swallow their impatience and bite their tongue, but Christie has a tough time doing that. A lot of times he just doesn’t restrain himself.

Does he hold grudges?

He hasn’t done that with me, and I’ve written some pretty critical columns. It’s the perception that he does hold grudges with politicians and that he uses his power for payback, but from my experience, he doesn’t with the press. There are columnists and reporters that he’s shown open dislike for—my colleauge Tom Moran at the Star-Ledger has even chronicled his rocky relationship with Christie. But in terms of grudges, I haven’t seen much evidence of that.

What do you make of his current media moment? What is he up to?

Please tell me. I wrote in a column that I think it’s for a number of reasons. He’s a good student of history and realizes these types of moments are rare and fleeting. History has been unkind to those who had similar opportunities and let them pass like Mario Cuomo, “the Hamlet on the Hudson” or even Hillary Clinton in 2004. So I think that’s weighing on him.

But I think a big thing is he’s really basking in the adulation right now. It’s a pretty heady thing to be this roly poly kid from Jersey who had a very limited career in politics—his future was bleak in the mid 90s, no one ever gave him a chance, no one ever took him seriously as a political figure—until he became this corruption-busting prosecutor. And now he’s standing in the center of the political universe, and he has people like Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger, and Tom Kean, Sr. all begging him to save America from Barack Obama and the Tea Party extremists. That’s a tough thing to let go, especially when the alternative is fundraising for legislature assembly candidates at a diner in Burlington County. Why not let this 15 minutes of fame stretch into a telethon?

It’s also good for fundraising. Since this boomlet began and the Christie for president drumbeat started getting louder at the end of last year, the collections of the Republican State Committee for New Jersey have taken off. A lot of that money—30 percent of it—is from out-of-state donors. If you compare that figure to the year previous, it’s more than double. So I think for all those things, he’s weighing the decision very carefully and using what little time is left on the clock.

What do you think he’ll do?

I still doubt he’ll get into the race. He’s been very insistent and clear about not having the desire at this stage in his life to run for president. He’s very close to his family, he’s deeply rooted here in North Jersey and he has young kids. He speaks quite eloquently that he doesn’t think it’s appropriate—that if he doesn’t have the fire in his belly to wake up in hotel rooms in Des Moines at 5:30 in the morning and spend 20-hour days hopscotching around the country, then he shouldn’t be asking voters to vote for him or for donors to give money to him. He’s been consistent about that, and I’m not sure he wants to do the hard work of becoming president—yet. But, I think it’s definitely in his plans.

Did you see this coming? When was the first time you remember Christie being associated with a run for national office?

The first time that I mentioned it was when he cancelled the plans to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River last October. To me, that signaled he was a guy that had his eyes on the national stage because that made him a hero to fiscal conservatives and it gave him standing as a guy who not only cut government spending but who defied the big government conventional wisdom about public works projects. I wrote in my column at the time that it seemed he was signaling that he had his eye on bigger things.

What does the national media get wrong or fail to report about Christie?

They take a lot of broad stroke soundbites about his record. It drives me crazy in some of the television appearances. He goes on the cable networks, and they just take fresh-from-the-Christie-press-office talking points and traffic them as fact. I haven’t seen a lot of reporting that breaks it down or aggressively questions it.

For example, he has taken on the unions, but he did that with the help of Democratic Party leaders in the legislature. The Democrats control the legislature. Also, that he closed an $11 billion deficit in a $33 billion budget is just not totally accurate. He had no choice: by the state constitution, he has to pass a balanced budget. So, it’s not like he came in here, soaked up all this red ink and passed for the first two years in a row balanced budgets in New Jersey. Every governor has passed a balanced budget in New Jersey going back to Woodrow Wilson.

To be fair, the national media has also focused on the big picture optics and they should—the taking on the teachers union, his fight with public employees and his successful ability to win back rollbacks in health and pension benefits. They also focus a lot on his combative style, which is carefully marketed on YouTube.

Who in the national media covers him well?

I’ve seen some good profiles and some good stuff. Matt Bai’s profile in The New York Times Magazine, for example, was superb. I don’t want to make a broad stoke indictment of the national press, but there is a fair amount of stuff that makes me want to gag.

Have you observed any differences in the way Christie represents his persona and policies on a national levels versus in New Jersey?

No. He’s been consistent.

How are the people of New Jersey reacting to the speculation?

His job approval ratings have climbed to over 50%. A lot of that is attributed to his well-received handling of Hurricane Irene, which he did deserve a lot of credit for. But some of the hype might also be reflected in the rebound of his poll numbers.

Has the speculation caused any complications with his ability to govern or in relationships with other legislators or interest groups?

I don’t think so. This spring he was able to negotiate the health pension benefit rollback and that was concluded in June. He simultaneously passed his second budget, and the hype was in the air back then. The legislature, which is part time, has been out of session for the summer and won’t really come back until after the election. So it hasn’t really interfered.

Any sense how Christie’s campaign skills would translate to the national stage?

I don’t know. He’s a very nimble, powerful speaker in settings like town halls, but they are packed with mostly Republicans and admirers that applaud and hang on his every word. He doesn’t face that many audiences that dislike him.

He’s a really colorful guy, and he puts on the whole jersey schtick—the “I’m going to get in your grill if you get in my grill,” Jersey-shore kind of attitude. It really connects with people. He also portrays himself as someone who tells it straight. And it is straight. To the conventional political wisdom and logic, he’ll just say, “that’s crap,” or “that just doesn’t make sense,” and come up with arguments to demonstrate how ludicrous the case is. A lot of it is self-serving, but he’s tremendous at it.

He’s also gotten into these well-publicized confrontations with teachers and union people, and he has given them the verbal back of his hand. This has made him kind of a rock star with conservative activists around the country: “Yeah, you give ’em hell, don’t take their crap, Chris!” That plays well with a certain audience, but when you get into middle America, in Iowa and Wisconsin, and with average Americans, I’m not so sure the Jersey smash mouth approach will translate so well.

What have been his biggest successes and failures as governor?

The pension and health benefits were clearly one of his biggest successes—you can’t take that away from him. He’s also been very successful in demonstrating to the political class that he’s in charge; that he has the levers of power and he intends to use them aggressively. In Trenton, everything flows from him. He’s been very successful at that.

In terms of failures, the state lost out on the ability to win $400 million in Race to the Top funds because of a bureaucratic error in the application and that led to the firing of his education commissioner. That was a big failure. There was an opportunity for the state to really shine in that process and they dropped the ball on that.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.