When the editorial board of The Star-Ledger of New Jersey gathered last October to consider an endorsement for governor, it was clear their support for Gov. Chris Christie was lukewarm at best. Even the board vote was an unusual split decision, 3-1, in favor of Christie, according to Editorial Page Editor Tom Moran.
Four months later the board has done an about-face, unanimously agreeing that they now regret the endorsement and, in the words of Moran, admitting they "blew this one."
"Yes, we knew Christie was a bully," Moran wrote in the February 9 column. "But we didn't know his crew was crazy enough to put people's lives at risk in Fort Lee as a means to pressure the mayor. We didn't know he would use Hurricane Sandy aid as a political slush fund. And we certainly didn't know that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was sitting on a credible charge of extortion by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno."
The endorsement U-turn follows growing evidence tying Gov. Christie's administration to the so-called Bridgegate scandal, in which Christie aides shut down several approach lanes of the busy George Washington Bridge for four days in September, deliberately sparking traffic tie-ups in the town of Fort Lee as a means of political retribution.
Christie fired the aides in question when their role became public, and the issue has sparked demands for more information on what the governor knew and triggered legislative and criminal investigations into the incident.
"We had a severe case of buyer's remorse after endorsing him," Moran said Monday, a day after publishing an unusual column announcing the board's change of heart. "Since his re-election, we have learned some new things about him. We learned that his senior staff was willing to put people's lives at risk to make a political point on the bridge, we've learned that the Hoboken mayor has credible charges of criminal activity by the Lt. Governor and a couple of cabinet members, and we see more and more evidence that he is misusing [Hurricane] Sandy funds for political purposes."
The Star-Ledger's editorial board began questioning potential ties to the bridge lane closing in December when Christie's top appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, resigned. Bill Baroni, the agency's deputy executive director, stepped down as questions arose over who ordered the lanes closed.
But Moran said he began to regret the endorsement once the scandal really broke open on January 8 after emails tied to a Christie deputy were released that showed top people in his administration were linked to the shutdown.
Christie held a lengthy press conference on January 9th after the emails were released, in which he claimed he had not learned of the political motivation behind the bridge lane closures until the previous day.
Moran said he called a meeting of the editorial board during the last week of January to discuss how the editorial page should handle its endorsement given the recent revelations.
"There was no dissent then. We all agreed we regretted it," he said during a phone interview this morning. "My column usually is my personal opinion, not the board's opinion. But in this case since it was reflecting on the board's work, I called a meeting and we discussed it and we all agreed we regretted it."
He later added, "The path we are walking is a crowded road in New Jersey. There are lots of people who supported him six months ago and don't like him now, count us among them."
Moran's Sunday column announcing the regret was originally slated to run a week earlier, on February 2, but breaking news allegations related to Christie pushed it back a week.
"We were going to run it a week earlier, but then the story broke about [former Port Authority official] David Wildstein saying that evidence exists that Christie knew about it," Moran said. "So we changed our focus for that latest allegation. This week we had a little bit of a breather so we could step back and reflect more broadly on what it means, and what it means for us is that we regret the endorsement."
Signs of uncertainty occurred early on in the editorial board's initial endorsement process. The dissenting vote in the original endorsement meeting came from board member Julie O'Connor. In addition to Moran, the affirmative votes were from board members Jim Miller and Jim Namiotka.
"It is very unusual, we usually talk until we agree, but this one we couldn't find it," Moran recalled Monday. "We almost always agree."
And the initial endorsement expressed numerous reservations about Christie's accomplishments and tone, indicating at least some reluctance to back the governor. It said, in part, "The governor's claim to have fixed the state's budget is fraudulent." It later declared, "his ego is entertaining, but it's done damage as well," "He is hostile to low-income families" and "a catastrophe on the environment."
Still the paper endorsed Christie, calling him, "the most remarkable political talent America has seen since Bill Clinton."
But even before the Bridgegate scandal broke the endorsement drew mixed reactions.
CNN offered surprise in a piece that said it was "hardly a glowing endorsement," while Business Insider's Josh Barro wrote: "Christie got the Star-Ledger's endorsement even though they think he's 'a catastrophe on the environment,' even though he's refused to meet with their editorial board at any time since he was elected (a fact the Star-Ledger editors groused about in their editorial), and even though Christie mocked Star-Ledger editorial page editor Tom Moran as 'the thinnest-skinned guy in America' to uproarious laughter at a 2010 press conference."
But MSNBC's Rachel Maddow may have offered the most critical attention to the endorsement in an October 21 segment in which she declared, "It's one thing to damn him with faint praise. This is praising with robust damnation. This is the weirdest newspaper endorsement I have ever seen. What a truly bizarre decision."
In his column expressing the editorial board's regrets, Moran responded to the critique by writing, "An endorsement is not a love embrace. It is a choice between two flawed human beings. And the winner is often the less bad option." Moran added that while the board, which Christie had boycotted meeting with for years, had "had a front-row view of what a creep he can be," they "swallowed our hesitations and endorsed Christie, complete with our long list of deep reservations."
Asked why the regret should be published in a column months after the endorsement and election, Moran said, "I just thought that many people are going through the same process and they would be interested in hearing our thinking. I have never had as many comments on a piece that I've written in my career."
Moran also stressed that he still believes the board made the right call at the time, stressing, "Obviously, this isn't actually withdrawing the endorsement, it's saying we regret giving it. It is too late, the endorsement season is over, we are just expressing our regret."
But then he said, "given the information we had at the time, I still think we made a good call on the endorsement, but obviously it hasn't worked out well."
Moran also said the paper would not be reluctant to call for Christie's resignation if it is found he lied about his involvement.
"If it's shown that he knew about the closing of the access lanes to the bridge then we do believe he should resign," Moran said. "In other words, if he lied to people during that epic two-hour press conference then I think he will be not only potentially be participating in what amounts to a crime, but his credibility will be too shot to govern."
Meanwhile, Christie's office has been mum in its response to the Star-Ledger regret, Moran said.
"Believe me, they don't talk to me," he said. "They've given up on that. They've been remarkably uncooperative with even basic communication with the editorial board. I guess their idea is they think they can pressure us into being more supportive and they can't, as I've told them over and over. We're not going to be bullied. So, at this point, they won't bother calling."