Chris Christie’s Last Fight

This wasn’t how he figured it would end. A year after being steamrolled by Donald Trump, is hobbling out of office as the most unpopular governor in the history of New Jersey—a casualty of scandal and hubris, and a guy freed up to quietly pursue the toughest job of his life.

You’d think that by now, Chris Christie would be impervious to insults—that today, as his eight roller-coaster years as New Jersey’s governor come to a humbling close, he might be able to let certain things slide. But before I’d even set one foot into his office on a recent afternoon, there was a bone he wanted to pick. Sitting at a long table, Christie waved his iPhone, on which he’d pulled up a 2015 article from GQ’s website, a profile of sorts that probed his famed peevishness. He read the headline to me: “‘What a Dick: The Chris Christie Story.’” Then, the story’s subject fixed me in his gaze. “So you can see why I kind of thought that maybe this”—he gestured toward the empty chair waiting for me—“may not be the best thing for me.”

Christie nonetheless motioned for me to sit. It was the end of a long week, at the end of a long summer, which had come on the heels of a long couple of years, and he was in an unusually reflective mood. There were things he wanted to say—about all that he’d been through, all the ways he’d been misunderstood, and all that he hoped still to accomplish—and his wariness soon gave way to candor. Even on the subject of his most recent political wound.

No doubt, you remember the viral pictures from July: Christie lounging on the Jersey Shore, plopped shamelessly on a beach otherwise emptied by a government shutdown. The photos—snapped from a rented airplane—prompted a brutal national roasting. Here was Christie, closing New Jersey’s beaches to wage political war, yet basking in the surf himself.

But what if I told you that his decision to spend the Fourth of July weekend on the sands of Island Beach State Park was made with goodness in his heart? Could you be convinced that the whole kerfuffle came about because Christie was trying to ease the suffering of opioid addicts?

“He was a force of nature,” Christie says of Donald Trump. “[He] ran the race in terms of the outspoken, tell-it-like-it-is guy. That was my lane.”

Yeah, it’s a bit of a stretch. Christie had decided long before the shutdown that he wasn’t altering his planned trip to the beach—and he’s not about to apologize for it now. “If there was a 25-year-old blonde in that beach chair next to me, then you got a story,” Christie said. “But my wife of 31 years and all my kids?! I never thought it was that big a deal.”

But what people overlooked, he went on, is that his decision to engage in the political brinkmanship that led to the closing of the state government—the thing that made his presence on the beach that day so objectionable—was downright noble. “The shutdown,” as he recounted for me, “was about opioids.”

For much of his governorship, Christie had been admirably proactive in (and progressive about) addressing the drug scourge—bucking his fellow Republicans to expand Medicaid, which made drug treatment more available to poor people in New Jersey; pushing for more drug courts, which steer nonviolent offenders toward treatment instead of prison; even signing a “Good Samaritan” law that provides immunity from arrest for people who call 911 if they’re with someone who overdoses. But now, in his final year in office, Christie had made the opioid problem an even greater priority—his top one, in fact.

The centerpiece of the effort was to be $300 million in new funding for addiction treatment, the financing of which led to a showdown with state legislators and the resulting mid-summer shutdown. In classic bare-knuckled Christie fashion, he had hoped to use the shutdown to embarrass his rival, Vinnie Prieto, the Democratic Speaker of the General Assembly, by hanging 500 posters on shuttered government offices across the state that featured Prieto’s picture and read: “This facility is closed because of this man.” But whatever leverage Christie thought he had went out the window when his own photos, those of his beach vacation, emerged. Three days into the shutdown, Christie agreed to a budget deal that, crucially, did not include his $300 million for opioids.

Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped him from spinning the budget deal as a victory—boasting to me about how he’d brought to heel the state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, from which he’d hoped to extract his cash. “We wound up getting a bunch of reforms,” he said. I reminded him that he didn’t get the money for opioids. “I’ll get what I want, don’t worry,” he told me. “I know I will.”

 

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