Comedy and tragedy: How Christie and Booker played the blizzard of 2010
“I spent Christmas alone,” Mayor Cory Booker told me from his cell phone last week as he was out surveying the streets of Newark. His family had gone away to California to be with his uncle who was recovering from heart surgery. That family includes his mom, dad and brother. Booker has no wife and no kids.
What Booker has is Newark.
The narrative of Booker's mayoralty has been an extension of a story he has told many times, and which has become part of Booker's officially approved biographical boilerplate. In one of his first years in Newark, he and his father happened upon a shooting outside a housing complex. Booker cradled the wounded young man in his arms and tried to stop the bleeding. He pleaded with God to spare him. God would not.
And ever since, Booker has tried to stretch his arms around his city, as if to catch every last resident as he falls, be it to a bullet, to unemployment, to the needle.
2010 was full of ups and downs for the mayor. He began it by celebrating 2009’s drop in gun violence—the third in a row in which that happened. March was magnificent, the first murder-free calendar month since 1966. And in September, Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg broke into philanthropy by dropping $100 million into the Newark school system.
2010 was also the year Booker was reelected to a second term, but lost his 5-4 majority on the city council to a 4-5 minority. This shift in power killed his original plan to manage the city’s budget problems. Early last year, Booker delivered a stirring speech to the police academy’s 2010 graduates. By year’s end, most of them had been let go.
The layoff of 164 cops is most of the reason why Booker spent his Christmas by himself.
“This year came in waves,” he said. “Whenever you have waves, it creates a very bad perception.”
He compared March with June, July and August, and their 35 murders. He reminded me that November was excellent, with only three killings—the best November in ten years. But December?
Well, first there were the layoffs. Then the escalation in shootings. And in car-jackings. Not to mention the rumors, including one that a New Jersey Transit bus had been stuck up, Wild West style, with all its passengers robbed.
Booker was incredulous. “Like stage coaches where everybody sticks their hands up?” Come on. But the specter of Nightmare Newark, the one in which he caught that dying boy in his arms … it was coming back.
And so, before the blizzard, before CNN and Vanity Fair and a dozen other national news outlets were posting highlights of snow-shoveling heroics from his Twitter feed, Mayor Booker was stretching himself across his city’s streets, ready to catch the fallen.
That was his Christmas.
The next morning, I was in the small town of Freehold, looking out the window of a coffee shop. Heavy equipment was clearing mounds of snow in an intersection on Main Street. A mini-bulldozer was busily clearing the walkways. A sheriff’s officer and a state trooper directed traffic. You wouldn’t have known by looking at it that the last snowflake fell five days earlier.
This was the site of Governor Chris Christie’s first post-Disney World press conference. The governor had refused to put off his family vacation to Florida in light of the storm, and was panned by the media, and by his beaten-down liberal opponents.
For Christie, the criticism was a non-starter. In fact, he said, he's proud of what a good father and husband he is. (“My first responsibility,” he called it.) And now that you mention it, he even thinks he was a damn good governor during the week of the blizzard, too.
This is the Christie the press always gets when he steps behind the podium. The Christie who lords over Trenton by dressing down reporters and adversaries and then disseminates the footage over YouTube. Throughout 2010, the governor has refused to let anyone else—including the media—shape the conversation, have the last word. So why start now?
Christie insisted that he spent his five-day vacation on the phone—with the acting governor, with his staff, even with members of the media—being consulted “on what seemed like it was an every-other-hour situation.” He read off numbers of motorists rescued and claimed that 95 percent of state roads had been cleared by midafternoon Tuesday, the day after the snow stopped falling.
Overall: “A for effort—B+ for results.”
And with that, Christie declared victory over the storm. As for the critics? He had several explanations, but mostly he attributed their uncharitable words to partisanship. Video footage doesn’t accurately capture the way the governor said the names of the Democratic legislators who criticized him and his lieutenant governor for being out of state. He jutted his chin out like he had an underbite, and spat them out as if they were a bad taste.
“Dick Codey. Ray Lesniak. Barbara Buono.”
In front of me, county freeholders and Republican staffers nodded and murmured in agreement, like birds perched in a cage. When Christie got heated, their squawking grew. His pet project in 2010 seemed to be making the party faithful more resilient, angrier, meaner.
At the same time, the governor was a comedian, chasing laughs around the room. At one point, he made a crack that I laughed at. He looked at me as if to say, And wait’il ya hear the next one.
Then it was onto the next reason his Disney World vacation was a fake controversy: the media. He was the victim of a “slow news week,” notwithstanding the blizzard’s historic magnitude and resulting damage—damage that he had just signed a letter requesting FEMA funds for.
One justifiably defensive-sounding journalist, relaying her conversations with local officials, said that town workers had to dig the state roads out before they could get to their streets. Christie called that “completely ridiculous,” and cited his 95-percent-since-Tuesday statistic.
Another reporter piped up that Route 71 had only been cleared that morning.
“I said 95 percent of the roads,” the governor responded, slyly. “Route 71 would be in the five percent.”
The reporters laughed. They were unconvinced, but what were they going to do about it? The consensus among what remains of the political press corps in New Jersey is that Christie simply will not accept information that is unfavorable to him. He mocks the more persistent among the reporters, bludgeoning them with self-interested optimism. It seems to be taking a toll, with the result that some of the governor's black-is-white statements are left uncontested.
“I’m happy to take responsibility for the good and the ill,” he said one moment. But then, to a reporter who asked a question the wrong way: “Someone snowed into their house, unless they live on a state highway, Ginger—it wasn’t our responsibility.”
Christie knows how good he has it. How else would someone who just got back from Epcot that morning have the audacity to blast local mayors for shirking their snow-removal duties?
“Stand up and take it,” the governor said of the crybabies. “You’re the mayor. You ran for the big job. You sit in the big chair.”
These words reminded me of the restraint Booker exercised in talking about his sometime-ally Christie the night before, when I asked for his thoughts about the governor being out of state.
“There are a lot of important symbols,” Booker said. “You want to know your commander is in the chair. But, you know, can an elected official never take a vacation in the winter because it might snow?”
Governor Christie, at his press conferece, was considerably less diplomatic, with a barb clearly aimed at Booker: “You can decide to be a showboat, hop on the back of a plow. That’s not me. I’m not going to do that.”
When he finished his answer and the room filled with shouts of “Governor!” I yelled over the din, “Governor—who’s being a showboat?”
Christie heard me. The reporter he called on even looked at me and said, “Sorry,” before starting her question, changing the subject. There was no doubt about who the showboat was.
The most striking disparity between Booker's account of the blizzard and Christie's came when the governor boasted that there had been “no loss of life, traveling on roadways ... No reports. None of that stuff was happening in our state.”
While Christie was doing an end-zone dance, Booker was getting down on himself. Before getting on the phone with me, he said, he had just heard from a resident that her father couldn’t make a dialysis appointment because the road conditions weren’t good enough. The mayor said he viewed this in terms of a personal failure.
Christie said over and over in his press conference that he doesn’t “have E.S.P.”—that he can’t intuitively know what citizens’ problems are. Contrast that with Booker, who encourages his residents to register their feelings with him via Twitter. Christie is active in the medium himself, but it’s usually to publicize a press release, talk sports, or argue with critics. And he clearly doesn’t patrol the streets the way Booker does. At least not on foot.
I know this because during Christie's press conference—the one where we could hear the rumbling and beeping of snow-shoveling bulldozers in the background—Christie stepped away from the podium. He was wearing burgundy penny loafers. Shiny. Spotless.
In a blizzard.
The shoes were so clean, you had to wonder whether Christie had been carried into the building, like a bride across the threshold.
It was all the reminder necessary to know that the difference between Booker and Christie is the difference between the missionary and the Pope. There is heart, and then there is power.