Once upon a time, before there was the Daily Kos, the Internet, MSNBC, or intrepid journalists like Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki: I was very involved in politics in New Jersey. I grew up there. I lived in very Democratic Teaneck, and got my taste for electoral politics from my Dad, who was the District 6 Democratic Committeeman for a number of years. I knew our local town council and our mayor. When I say I was young - I was really, really young. Like I was at a McGovern for President rally in Hackensack when I was 8 years old. I was an intern for my Congressman when I was 13. And, my political career culminated the year I graduated from college - in 1986 - as a full time, paid press aide on a Bergen County campaign.
When I say I was involved, I mean that I never, ever missed a campaign. I always found a candidate to back and support.
I want to give you some background, just to give you a flavor of what has changed, and what has not. And, perhaps, some insight into what makes this state (and some of these players tick), even today. So, enjoy below the squiggle.
First, let me say that politics in New Jersey is tough. Both parties were like this. An important key to this is the power that the county governments have in the framework of governance within the state. I have lived in New England for the past 23 years, and there are counties here, and - perhaps - they are like the counties in your state. There is a sheriff and a police force, and a few other government responsibilities. Not in New Jersey. In New Jersey, counties are serious government entities. They have sheriffs and courts, yes, but they have intense and well-funded governments. There are county roads, county welfare distribution areas, county parks and even county schools. I lived in Bergen County - the most populated of all 21 of them. Bergen is the county where the GW Bridge is, and was considered a swing county (although when I was there county elections swung Republican).
Bergen was suburban, and there were really 5 legislative districts that made up the county. District 36 (where Giants Stadium is) was very blue collar and democratic. District 37 was where I lived and was solidly democratic - but more because of the mix of African-American, Jewish and other ethnic voters that made up the district. District 38 was the swing district, and the 2 state assemblymen and 1 state senator (all districts have this) would move back and forth. District 39 and 40 were in the northern part of the county, and were centered around very wealthy and republican towns like Upper Saddle River (where Richard Nixon lived in the final decade or so of his life).
Familiar names that are popping now in this scandal? Well, State Senator Loretta Weinberg, back then, was one of Teaneck's Democratic committee people (along with my Dad and the parents of several of my school friends). She was a friend of my parents, and my friends parents (her kids were a bit older so I didn't know them as well). She was as she is today: measured, persistent, and incredibly honest. Tough, too, though. I loved being with her and the other Teaneck committee people. They were passionate about their politics, and their belief in activist government. Teaneck was ground-zero for liberal politics in Bergen County.
Loretta was very supportive of my desire to be involved. In 1986, she invited me to attend Democratic committee meetings and wanted me to consider becoming the new committeeman for my district (my father was no longer involved, and the guy who was doing it was moving to DC to work with our Congressman at the time - Bob Torricelli). At any rate, some other people didn't trust the Teaneck town committee (long story that goes back to the Vietnam war split among democrats in the late 60's), and somebody in the campaign from Paramus demanded that I go and essentially spy on Loretta and all of my parents' friends (never mind that Matty was also from Teaneck) - and report back to her. I said no, and ratted her out to Loretta. When this other woman retaliated, Loretta got my back. Honesty prevailed.
Our state senator back then was a man named Matty Feldman. Matty was amazing. He had been our mayor, was already state senator for years before I ever got involved, and he knew people. Countless people. He took pressing the flesh to an art form. In fact, on my last campaign, he was the Democratic candidate for a new office of County Executive. And polling in the Bergen Record (you've seen that paper on the news a lot lately) consistently showed that 15% or so of the people who were asked about him said they new him personally. After campaign event hours, Matty would typically ask me to come with him (and sometimes his wife Muriel, as well) and we would press the flesh some more at a local diner. He was incredible to watch. The 2 assemblymen in the district were Byron Baer and Alan Burstein. Byron would eventually become the state senator when Matty retired (he lost that election in 1986) and then Loretta would take the seat when Byron passed away.
Our county "Freeholders" (the legislators) before that election in 1986 were mostly Republican. Usually by a majority of 4 - 3 or 5 - 2. Two of them stand out. One was a ditzy, but really lovely, older woman named Barbara Chadwick from Rutherford. We used to call her "Bubbles." The name totally fit her. The other was also the mayor of Bogota (next door to Teaneck), and - at some point - a legislator for district 38 - Pat Schuber. That's the same Pat Schuber who is another GOP'er on the Port Authority (even now), and who Senator Weinberg has been trying Schase down on the lane closing issue. I gather Pat Schuber beat Loretta in a later contest for Bergen County Executive, but that was after my time. Most of the Republicans were pretty moderate. One wasn't. He was the State Senator from either District 39 or 40. His name was Gerry Cardinale, and he was a dentist turned politician. He was insane. My father used to refer to him as the Barry Goldwater of Bergen County. Except, as Senator Goldwater aged, he got better. Cardinale didn't.
In 1986, in the middle of Matty Feldman's campaign for County Executive against the county sheriff (yes, even counties as big and bureaucratic have a sheriff) William McDowell, Matty's grandson died in a bus accident while at summer camp. He was a kid. It was horribly tragic. The entire campaign was suspended for 2 weeks. Sheriff McDowell attended the funeral. The Republican candidates for the new county legislature, including Pat Schuber and Bubbles Chadwick attended. The Republican Governor at the time - Tom Kean - was there, along with most of the state senate. But, not Gerry Cardinale. What a jerk.
Counties are a big deal in New Jersey. And this impacts the Port Authority in a major way. In fact, it's safe to say that I recall from some of the Gubernatorial campaigns I worked on way back when (in particular John Degnan, Jim Florio, and Peter Shapiro), the Port Authority was a big deal. It was important to have somebody from Bergen County on the board there (hence Pat Schuber today), but it was equally important to make sure the other two big counties that send commuters into NYC were also given a voice at the Port Authority. Those two counties are Essex County (where Newark is and where NJ's newest Senator - Cory Booker - hails from), and Hudson County, where Hoboken and its mayor - Dawn Zimmer - come from. Essex County - because of the size of Newark (New Jersey's largest city) was incredibly poor. Hudson County was known as the core of corruption in the state.
Essex County is also where you'll find Livingston, a wealthy, suburb that is home to Tom Kean (former Governor), Chris Christie (bully-at-large) and David Wildstein.
Hudson County brings us to another familiar, if peripheral name, in the Christie saga: Bret Schundler. You will recall that Schundler was serving as the education secretary for Christie and was forced to resign his post. During that hubbub, Christie accused Schundler of being a liar. And then Schundler publically released emails that showed that Christie, was in fact, the liar.
Remember Schuber and Schundler. I am convinced that we will hear lots more from both of them before this saga finds its conclusion.
Schundler was the only Republican mayor of Jersey City in its history, back in the early 1990's. To say Jersey City was corrupt is an extreme understatement. The guy was an ordained minister, and he won the seat as an anti-corruption candidate. Definitely not likely to be in the corruption circle.
In 1981, I was in High School, and working as a volunteer on the Florio for Governor campaign. Gerald McCann was the Democratic Mayor of Jersey City - but he backed Tom Kean. Jersey City is legendary for letting the dead vote. Former Governor Brendan Byrne is said to have joked that when he died he wanted to be buried in Jersey City so he could remain a part of the political process.
The election between Jim Florio and Tom Kean turned out to be one of the closest in New Jersey's history. And - who knows - perhaps the dead under McCann may have helped to put Tom Kean into office.
As I said, county politics in New Jersey was very important and powerful. You can see that in the burbling story now about the Christie administration intervening in a county prosecution in Hunterdon County (very Republican county), and firing the prosecutor. Back during my time in politics in New Jersey, Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties were the country. There were fewer people, and far fewer Democrats than there even are there today. Statewide democratic candidates I volunteered for like Jim Florio, Peter Shapiro, Andy Maguire, Frank Lautenberg or Bob Torricelli didn't spend much time or resources there are all. They basically wrote them off. But primaries in New Jersey are often multiple candidate affairs. There were times when a Gubernatorial or Senatorial primary would feature over 10 candidates - for each party! For the Democratics, the big suburban counties - Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Passaic in the north, and Camden County (outside Philadelphia) in the south mattered. But for the Republicans, Essex, Morris (famously home to Millicent Fenwick who lost to Frank Lautenberg back in 1982) Ocean and Hunterdon mattered. Counties were like fiefdoms - you just needed to get support from your county and a few strategic others, and you won the nomination.
That's how we won the nomination for Peter Shapiro to run against Tom Kean in 1985. He was the Essex County executive (so there's one county for you), and we were able to marshall over 50% of the Bergen county Democratic vote (no Bergen County candidate was running) - and that did it. It beat the Hudson County guy, the Passaic County guy and the Monmouth/Middlesex county (Central Jersey) guy. Peter got his clock cleaned that November, but in a NJ primary, counties create strategies and it got him the nomination.
I know this is a long diary, but one more thought: The modern culture of politics and government in New Jersey has very strong overtones of corruption and patronage - for both parties. The Democrats have held more power over more time, so there are more specific incidents for them (think about Harrison Williams, Jim McGreevey, Sharpe James, or even the Democratic state legislator from Hudson County who faked is own death when he was indicted for racketeering, but then turned up on some far flung island and then was extradited back to the US). There's lot's of individual drama, but this all pales in comparison to the size and breadth and - frankly - "ballsiness" of the multiple examples of obvious corruption in the Christie administration.
It's not like they are the first Republican administration to serve in the past several decades. You had the more liberal Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman, both of whom served two terms - but still Republicans. Same need for patronage appointments, and same need for specific county alliances. And there was even some scandal "noise" around them.
And, honestly, it's hard to understand how a Pat Schuber or a David Sampson would go so "all in" with such obvious wrongdoing.
Unless you consider this: Chris Christie is the first statewide NJ official from either party to be seriously considered Presidential material - and to actually send the signals that he was building a campaign since - probably - Woodrow Wilson in 1912. That's a very long time. Perhaps all of these players sensed the momentous opportunity, and they decided to ride it for all it was worth, even if that included the crime and the cover up.
Clearly, whatever the outcome of these multiple accusations and investigations, the national wave has dissipated. It will be interesting to see which of all of these cronies decides to tell the truth.