Category Archives: Columns

Opinion: Next Up on the Bridgegate Hearings Agenda – Finding an Exit Strategy

Opinion: Next Up on the Bridgegate Hearings Agenda – Finding an Exit Strategy

Carl Golden | June 13, 2014

Wisniewski & Co. have been fair-minded and diligent, now’s the time for closing arguments

carl golden

Carl Golden

For the select committee investigating last September’s access-lane closings at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, the Legislature’s budget break comes at an opportune moment. It affords the committee and its staff several weeks to review what it has learned in the past six months, assess the value of the information gleaned from subpoenaed documents and under oath in personal testimony and, most importantly, devise an exit strategy.

While Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the committee’s cochair, indicated it would reconvene sometime in mid-July to hear additional testimony from as-yet unnamed individuals, the six-week delay will further sap the investigation’s momentum.

There have already been signs of an increasing weariness with the investigation and its cost, and it will be a difficult task to regenerate interest in it in mid-summer when attention is focused on long planned family vacations rather than following a political drama that has lost much of its drama.

Wisniewski has led the committee admirably, maintaining its focus and demonstrating his skill as an interrogator. In the face of concerted attempts by committee Republicans to force a suspension of the panel’s work and defer to the United States Attorney, Wisniewski’s calm demeanor kept the investigation from deteriorating into a partisan political brawl.

The hard reality, however, is that after months of hearings and scrutinizing tens of thousands of pages of memos, emails, and phone logs provided by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the governor’s office, there has not been a shred of credible evidence directly implicating Gov. Chris Christie or his top staff in the madcap plot to close the access lanes.

Each of the administration witnesses has related the same story: They knew nothing in advance about the scheme prior to its implementation, were not involved in any way in its planning or execution, and were shocked by the disclosures. Despite differences in specific dates or timelines, the core of their testimony emerged unshaken.

In point of fact, their testimony cemented the administration’s case that the closures were the brainchild of former Port Authority staffer David Wildstein, that former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly was aware of it, and that former Christie confidant and campaign manager Bill Stepien had some level of involvement.

The administration has stuck steadfastly to its account and, for the most part, it has held up — considerable cynicism, skepticism, and outright disbelief notwithstanding.

They all accepted the initial representation by Wildstein and former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni that closing the lanes — or “realigning” them as the two preferred to characterize it — was part of a traffic study that had gone awry due to a failure to inform local officials and law enforcement.

Their story unraveled quickly when Authority engineers claimed the study was altogether bogus and was slapped together by Wildstein without any of the normal planning and preparation that precedes such studies.

Despite warnings and early evidence that the lane closures were a cover story to disguise an attempt at political retribution and that governor’s office personnel had knowledge of it, the top staff failed to pursue the issue beyond a perfunctory “we’re looking into it,” and asking other staff members whether they knew about it.

It was largely dismissed as a Port Authority issue, rather than an administration matter, and could be ignored.

Wisniewski and his Democratic colleagues on the committee voiced their incredulity that, in spite of the intense media attention and speculation, no one in the administration undertook to determine what had occurred.

The committee, as one member expressed it, was “curious about the lack of curiosity.”

While that conclusion is understandable, the more likely explanation is that the administration’s strategy was to keep the issue at arm’s length, confine it to the Port Authority and out of the governor’s office, and play for time in the belief that it would be overtaken and swept aside quickly in the crush of other more pressing matters.

That strategy collapsed, producing a major political uproar and career-threatening scandal with the revelation of the “time for traffic troubles in Fort Lee” email from Kelly to Wildstein.

    In developing an exit strategy, Wisnewski is in an excellent position to recite what the committee’s activities have revealed:
  • An administration that chose to disregard growing evidence of possible misconduct and abuse of government power in its ranks.
  • An administration obsessed with securing political advantage to an extreme point at which a part of the governor’s office became a partner in his reelection campaign, pushing relentlessly against and arguably exceeding the boundaries separating official duties from political involvement.
  • An administration in which an ugly mindset had taken root, one which not only encouraged beatdowns of political opponents, but celebrated them.
  • An administration in which the number of “I don’t recall” or similar responses suggested that amnesia had become a communicable disease.

Wisniewski deserves much credit for standing firm in the face of mounting political pressures. Had it not been for his perseverance, none of the foregoing would have been become widely known, nor — and perhaps most importantly — would the United States Attorney have begun an investigation.

Leading a legislative committee investigation into actions of the executive branch controlled by the opposition party is a task that requires sober judgment, a clear-eyed sense of balance and proportion, a recognition that an end has been reached and a conclusion necessary.

Wisniewski has demonstrated those qualities. Now is the time to take advantage of the Legislature’s preoccupation with the state budget and secure his committee’s place as having carried out its duties in a responsible and fair-minded fashion.

U. S. attorney Paul Fishman is waiting in the wings.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.





| MAY 29, 2014

The governor’s reliance on wishful thinking when it comes to the budget finally comes up against reality.

Being governor is all about having options, settling on a course of action, marshaling legislative and public support, and then implementing it smoothly and effectively.

From time to time, though, issues arise for which none of the available options is particularly appealing or without considerable risk. The choice is narrowed to selecting the one that is the least distasteful.

This is where Gov. Chris Christie is at the moment.

The state budget is more than $800 million in the red; he faces a legislative revolt and two court challenges to his plan to dramatically reduce contributions to the public pension system; the state’s credit rating has been cut six times, and the outlook for 2015 is equally gloomy.

Moreover, he’s deferred the homestead rebate program until next year, the equivalent of a $375 million property tax increase on the seniors and disabled eligible for the credit. The rebate program has been skipped in three of the five years Christie’s held office.

The shortfalls are the product of successive budgets built upon wishful thinking rather than hard fact. The administration based its proposed spending on revenue growth of between five percent and seven percent, despite repeated warnings that the state’s economy — while recovering — remained too weak to sustain such optimistic forecasts.

As the gaps between income and spending developed toward the conclusion of each fiscal year, they were bridged by fund transfers, shifting money from dedicated programs, or delaying expenditures until the following fiscal year.

The effect of these last-minute manipulations was to create a rolling structural deficit from one year to the next, putting off an eventual day of reckoning when the shortfall reached a level too great to be overcome by bookkeeping sleight of hand.

The Legislature is hardly an entirely innocent bystander in this drama. Despite hearing the same warnings Christie heard — including from its own budget research office — the Legislature accepted the governor’s glowing revenue estimates and the spending that went along with them.

The Democrats recent indignation over the governor’s inclusion of some $32 million in tax and fee increases was short of genuine as well, since both they and the media were told of the plan in a treasurer’s budget briefing in February.

The sheer size of the impending deficit left Christie with no option but to reduce by $2.27 billion the state’s contribution to the public pension system this year and next. His opposition to any sort of broad-based tax increase and his promise to veto one should the Legislature approve it left the pension payment as the only source of readily available funds sufficient to cover the shortfall.

The reaction of the Democratic legislative leadership was predictable — outrage, accusations that the governor was in violation of the law, and warnings that the state’s credit rating would be downgraded yet again.

Senate President Steve Sweeney who earlier this year threatened to refuse to act on the budget and shut down state government if the pension payment was not made in full didn’t repeat it, but said instead he would pursue reinstatement of a surcharge on incomes above $500,000 – the so-called millionaire’s tax — something Christie has vetoed twice.

It’s not likely that Sweeney will follow through on a government shutdown. Democrats are leery of being blamed for denying essential state services to taxpayers to prove their point that shoring up the pension plan for public employees is more important.

In the ensuing public relations war, Christie would seize the high ground, insisting his plan addressed the budget shortfall and protected against a tax increase while Democrats, on the other hand, were willing to punish taxpayers in the interest of appeasing its public employee union base. He would argue, with validity, that the shutdown was initiated by the Democrats in a brazen move to gain political advantage.

The more likely Democratic strategy would be enacting the tax surcharge on wealthy earners, include the revenue in the pending budget, restore the cut in the pension payment, and send it to Christie’s desk.

As anticipated, the governor would veto the surcharge legislation, use his line-item veto to strike the revenue from the budget, and proceed with the reduced pension payment.

Democrats are short of the required votes to override a veto, but will settle for a “lose the battle, win the war” outcome, one which they believe will support their argument that the governor is more sensitive to the desires of the wealthy than the middle class.

They’ll point out that a modest increase in the tax rate for upper-income earners has consistently enjoyed overwhelming public support and that Christie, by his steadfast opposition, has turned his back on the majority of taxpayers while clinging to the discredited notion that the wealthy will flee the state in great numbers if faced with a tax increase.

Christie’s resolute opposition to any tax increase, including raising the gasoline tax to replenish the soon-to be-bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, guarantees that in the end he’ll prevail. His line-item veto and the Democrats’ inability to override it ensures he’ll succeed.

The New Jersey Education Association and the Communications Workers of America have challenged Christie’s pension reduction in court, alleging that his action violates a 2010 law that locked the state into a specific payment timetable. How and how long the litigation will take to play out is anyone’s guess.

Of the options at his disposal, Christie chose the one he felt posed the lowest political risk. For instance, should he decide to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he can do so as someone who refused to raise taxes while reining in the burgeoning cost of public employee benefits — conservative credentials all.

His candidacy would still confront questions about his fiscal stewardship, the lagging pace of job creation and economic growth, and the state’s creditworthiness being near the bottom in national standings. Like all his predecessors, Christie enjoys a wide array of options to address problems. Nowhere in the oath of office, though, does it mention they’ll all be good ones.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.


Money and politics lead to scandal


Recently, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, effectively overruled limits on aggregate campaign contributions. Before the ruling, individuals were restricted to giving no more than $123,000 to candidates and party committees per election cycle.

The decision by the court allows even more money in a political system awash in dollars and influence peddling.

For some perspective, the 2012 median household income in the United States was $51,371; and, in New Jersey it was $69,667. These figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey.

Not only does this ruling demonstrate how out of sync Washington is with the rest of the country, it also points to the degree to which Washington is not in tune with regular Americans.

Clearly, an individual making about $50,000 in the United States, or even $70,000 in New Jersey, is in no position to contribute $123,000 or more during the course of an election cycle. Citizens in this income area are lucky if they can afford to make a $5 or $10 contribution to a favored candidate for office

This ruling rewards the interest groups and individuals who already dominate Washington, advocating agendas that push apart the American electorate and tempting candidates and elected officials.

United State Sen. John McCain, Republican from Arizona, has already predicted, “There will be major scandals in campaign finance contributions that will cause reform.

“There will be scandal,” McCain repeated. “There’s too much money washing around.”

Money scandals in national politics and in New Jersey politics serve as warning signs of too much money concentrated in too few hands. The film “American Hustle” is a fictional account of the Abscam scandal of the 1970s. More than 30 political figures were included in the bribery investigation. Eventually six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a U.S. senator, a New Jersey state senator and the mayor of Camden were convicted of crimes.

In 2007, the then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie warned mayors and other local officials at the New Jersey League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City: “If over the next couple of days someone approaches you with an envelope of cash looking to seek a favor from you, unless it is your mommy, turn and run for the ocean.  It’s probably us.”

Despite the warning, two years later the U.S. Attorney’s Office conducted a sting involving bribes that ensnared local elected officials, real estate developers, a former punk rocker, an illegal body parts broker, five Orthodox rabbis and a retired exotic dancer.

Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin co-authored “The Jersey Sting,” which chronicled the true story of a three-year corruption investigation that ended up so comical and sensational that it found its way into late-night talk show monologues.

But it is not really funny because, as McCain said, “there will be scandal.”

Daniel J. Douglas is the director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.


Opinion: Gov. Christie’s Made Champagne Promises on a Beer Budget

Opinion: Gov. Christie’s Made Champagne Promises on a Beer Budget

Carl Golden | May 6, 2014

Recipe for a fiscal crisis — optimistic revenue projections, midcourse corrections, and a Legislature all-too-willing to sign on

carl golden

Stripped of the sloganeering — “Turn Trenton upside down . . .” “the Jersey comeback . . .” “the new normal . . . ” — the brutally bleak reality is that the state’s fiscal condition is the worst it’s been in decades.

In a scene reminiscent of the investment broker staring in disbelief at the stock ticker in October 1929, the Christie Administration confronts the following:

  • A shortfall of $807 million in the current budget that must be bridged in less than two months.
  • The fifth downgrade of the state’s credit-worthiness by rating agencies since 2010.
  • A Transportation Trust Fund with no money left.
  • The need for $620 million to continue the state’s capital construction transportation program in 2016.
  • An underfunding of the statutorily mandated aid to education formula by $1 billion, leading to property tax increases or cutbacks in personnel and programs at the local level.
  • Unemployment stubbornly lodged at over seven percent.
  • A job creation rate that has recovered little more than half of those lost five years ago.
  • A scheduled payment of $2.2 billion into the state’s public employee pension fund.
  • A home foreclosure level now the highest in the nation.

Not surprisingly, accusations are flying thick and fast over who bears the responsibility for the sorry state of fiscal affairs, but a good deal of the blame must fall on Gov. Chris Christie who, as a candidate in 2009, pledged that “change is on the way,” an implicit promise that the old ways of tax and spend would end and be replaced by prudent policies to restore sound financial footing.

It’s been the rating agencies, entities with no political axe to grind, that have consistently identified the underlying reason for the state’s ills — wildly optimistic predictions of anticipated revenues year after year, despite repeated warning signs that the economy remained so fragile the estimates would not be realized.

Those same agencies agreed also to the continuing use of one-time budget maneuverings — fund transfers, postponing scheduled spending from one fiscal year into the next, a reliance on borrowing — all served to undermine long-term stability and erode confidence in the state’s credit standing.

It is indisputable that the administration’s revenue projections have fallen considerably short year after year, requiring midcourse corrections to maintain a balanced budget.

Whether the estimates reflected wishful thinking or were based on a political decision to do whatever it took to get through the year and avoid tax or fee increases is up for argument.

David Rosen, budget director for the Office of Legislative Services, has for each of the past four years, warned that the administration’s revenue estimates were too generous and submitted his own figures which, in the end, proved more accurate.

Rosen was publicly castigated by the governor who accused him of partisanship and lacking the intellectual heft to be taken seriously. Rosen can take solace in the knowledge his projections turned out much closer to reality than the administration’s.

With its optimistic estimates, the administration constructed annual budgets that, in reality, contained structural deficits which it then addressed at the end of the fiscal year by rolling them over into the coming year, virtually guaranteeing an annual crisis to be solved by last-minute manipulations.

The Legislature shares some of the blame as well, for accepting the administration’s projections despite Rosen’s warnings they wouldn’t materialize. It could have scaled back the estimates, crafted a budget to comport with the more conservative numbers, and sent the budget to the governor’s desk.

While the exclusive authority to certify revenue estimates rests with the governor, it would have been politically difficult for him to reject the lower projections in favor of his more optimistic outlook and seek approval for the spending increases it would permit.

With less than 60 days remaining in the fiscal year and with 90 percent of the current budget appropriations already spent, Christie has few options to fill the $800 million gap.

Widespread speculation has it that the governor will settle on a reduction or a delay in meeting the $1.6 billion obligation due the pension fund. It is the largest single pot of money remaining and, despite the potential for a major political uproar in the Legislature, it appears Christie has little choice but to move toward skipping a part of the payment or putting it off into the next fiscal year.

It’s highly unlikely that cuts in those few areas in which the money hasn’t already been spent will be sufficient to cover the $800 million shortfall, pushing the Administration closer to the pension solution.

Equally disturbing is the certainty that the budget difficulties — most prominently devising a method to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund — will continue into next year and the year after. Christie has given no indication his unyielding opposition to a tax increase of any sort and for whatever purpose has softened, even though a pay-as-you-go program for capital construction doesn’t appear possible or probable.

There is also the matter of increased payments into the pension fund, as well as the pressure to comply fully with the state’s aid to education formula.

There is no question that the administration’s wide-of-the-mark revenue estimates played a major role in creating the current crisis, as the credit rating agencies contend.

When the state could afford Budweiser, Christie budgeted for Dom Perignon ’55, a menu substitution the Legislature couldn’t resist, either.
It’s time for both to retreat from the taste.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Opinion: Is Gov. Christie Headed for a Political Comeback or Catastrophe?

Opinion: Is Gov. Christie Headed for a Political Comeback or Catastrophe?

Carl Golden | April 22, 2014

Presidents Nixon and Clinton offer some very useful examples on how to manage through a crisis — and how not to

carl golden

Most political scandals ultimately come down to a public relations war.  Bridgegate — the uproar over closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last September — is headed in the same direction.

A little history:

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton was caught in an Oval Office dalliance with a woman barely older than his daughter, he lied about it for months. His strategy was to convince the American people that his misbehavior was a personal matter between him and his wife and did not impact his ability to continue as president.  He adopted a tough-it-out approach, gambling that while people would find his conduct distasteful, they’d eventually agree that it was a family issue and not sufficiently egregious to drive him from office.

Clinton rode out the storm, finished his second term, embarked on a lucrative after-office lecture circuit, and rehabbed himself into a revered party figure in great demand as a fundraiser and campaigner.

Twenty-six years earlier, President Richard Nixon spent more than two years trying to ride out the storm of Watergate with a public relations offensive that insisted he knew nothing about what a gang of rogue operatives working in his re-election campaign had done.  His strategy ranged from the dismissive (Watergate was “a second rate burglary.”) to ridicule (He didn’t intend to “wallow in Watergate.”).  None of it worked. Slightly more than two years later he resigned from office and — like Clinton — took up writing books and giving speeches.

Clinton’s affair with an intern was remarkably stupid and publicly embarrassing, but it did not measure up to Watergate with its repeated lawbreaking and obstruction of justice.

The common thread was the effort to convince the American people to look past each president’s conduct and forgive him for it.  It worked for Clinton, whose party rallied to him; it didn’t for Nixon, whose most fervent supporters deserted him.

The Christie administration’s strategy for dealing with Bridgegate is similar: Ride out the storm, maintain political support, strive to bend the public debate toward other issues and areas of concern to taxpayers, discredit the legislative investigation as a politically drenched attempt to embarrass him, and — most crucial of all — continue to drive the narrative that he was unaware of the misconduct of his subordinates and that not a shred of evidence has been produced to disprove that.

The recent suggestion by Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick that the Republican members of the select investigating committee may resign en masse is the next logical step in furthering this strategy.

Bramnick claimed that he and his party colleagues were being ignored by the Democratic majority and that the committee’s work had deteriorated into a partisan campaign to besmirch Christie — and an expensive one at that.  Republicans, he said, agreed to the committee’s creation and to serve on it in good faith but after two months of testimony and examination of documents, little progress had been made and it was time to cede control of the investigation to the U. S. Attorney.

Had it not been for the original Assembly Transportation Committee hearings, though, the scandal and the intimate involvement of top Christie staffers would not have been uncovered.  Since then, the committee has been stymied, and even its strongest supporters will privately admit there’s been little of note revealed.

The committee’s effort to obtain emails from former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly and Christie confidant Bill Stepien — two central figures in the scandal — was unsuccessful when a Superior Court Judge ruled the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination covered the requested documents.   The committee’s failure to appeal the decision has produced speculation that the Democrats fear a higher court upholding the ruling would be devastating and encourage anyone else it wished to subpoena to assert the same Constitutional protection.

There has been a reluctance to offer immunity to prospective witnesses out of a concern that such a move could complicate and potentially undercut the inquiry underway by the U. S. Attorney’s office.

Even the documents demanded by the committee from Randy Mastro, head of the outside attorney group hired by the administration to determine what level of involvement existed in the executive office, turned out to be of little value.

Aside from some rather colorful email and personal exchanges among staffers, the documents, consisting of notes and memos rather than official interview transcripts, shed no light on the question of responsibility.  While the Mastro report exonerated the governor and his staff, it was almost universally panned as one in which conclusions were reached first followed by an investigation to support them.

Unable to compel the production of documents while holding cartons of essentially worthless papers and memos, along with the legal complications inherent in granting immunity, leaves the committee with little to continue to attract media and public interest.  Any witnesses it calls will most certainly follow the Kelly/Stepien precedent and refuse to testify.

In contrast, the Watergate scandal was kept alive for more than two years because many individuals — including a high-ranking official of the FBI — were willing to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk, leading to new and more sensational front page revelations on a regular basis.  It was precisely the opposite of what’s occurring with respect to Bridgegate.

Also troubling for the committee was the comment by Senate President Steve Sweeney that, having lost its court challenge to Kelly and Stepien, the committee should consider disbanding in favor of the federal probe.  While Sweeney quickly retreated publicly, there is no reason to believe he’s changed his mind or that, in private, he’s not urging his view on others in his party caucus.

The committee cochairs have said more subpoenas will be issued in a few weeks, possibly ones drawn more narrowly as the court suggested to avoid a “fishing expedition” defense.  Documents may or may not be revealing, but in-person testimony under oath and without immunity is out of the question.

In the meantime, the governor is bounding around the state, conducting town hall meetings where he plays to packed houses and the media, cutting ribbons, delivering speeches, raising money, and doing what he clearly relishes — berating Democrats for repeatedly failing to act on property tax relief.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, in an unfathomable public relations blunder, refused to move on legislation to continue a two percent cap on salary arbitration awards to police and firefighters, allowing the law to expire, and handing Christie a club to bludgeon legislative Democrats while surrounded by a few hundred cheerleading local officials.

The governor’s standing in various polls has crept slowly upward, although remaining in negative territory in several categories, and the investigation by the U. S. Attorney is still ongoing.   Both are matters of concern for him.

The legislative committee is seemingly stymied at the moment and in need of a jumpstart of some kind to pique interest.  Investigations like this need fresh developments and new revelations the way the rest of us need oxygen.

Moreover, if the Republican members make good on their threat to remove themselves and if a handful of Democrats accept Sweeney’s reasoning, the committee’s future is dim, indeed.

The administration has not been immune from its own public relations blunders, most notably the gratuitous insults and personal invective poured on Kelly in the Mastro report. The missteps portrayed an administration confused and uncoordinated, fanning the controversy rather than dousing it. It’s managed, though, to largely move past them and, at this point, is approaching a standoff with the committee.

The tough it out strategy has made inroads.  Christie and his allies hope it turns out like it did for the 42nd president, not the 37th.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Lamenting the fate of newspapers: Opinion

                    The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper, said Thursday it is cutting 170 jobs, including 25 percent of the newsroom staff.                                             (Frances Micklow/The Star-Ledger)

By Carl Golden

First jobs — like first loves — are the ones most often and fondly remembered. Showing up in an office or a factory floor or behind a sales counter — nervous, a little scared — is recalled years later with affection and more than a little sentimentality.

It was a seminal moment of life, the passage from adolescence into the adult world. It was the start of accepting responsibility, answering for your own actions, and a fuller understanding that you controlled your future.

Mine was the newspaper business. When I walked into the newsroom of the Easton (Pa.) Express — a 17-year-old kid who’d graduated high school five days before — I knew this was where I belonged.

It was a cacophony of ringing telephones, shouted questions and orders, the clacking keys of dozens of typewriters, the hammering of teletype machines. Clouds of cigarette smoke clung to a ceiling permanently stained a sickly yellow by absorbing years of fumes. Empty coffee cartons and newspapers littered the floor. Beat-up wooden desks were shoved into a more or less orderly setup.

It was an electric atmosphere, so viscerally compelling that the tingling I felt then returns today, more than 50 years later, when I recall it.

It is, then, sad to witness the steady decline of newspapers, shoved closer to oblivion by the satanic machine I’m sitting in front of at this moment.

Another hammer blow fell last week when The Star-Ledger announced a 25 percent reduction in its newsroom staff — 40 reporters, editors, photographers and other staffers — and a consolidation of its operations to serve its print outlets and online sites.

The Ledger was on track to lose $19 million this year and is by no means the only paper clinging to existence. Shutdowns, layoffs, scaled-back publication schedules and labor concessions have become common occurrences industry-wide.

Paid circulation continues a downward spiral as consumers of news turn increasingly to the array of internet outlets, blogs, commentaries and opinion pieces available at the touch of a button. Advertising dollars have followed readers to the computer screen.

I spent 11 years in the newspaper business, first at the Easton Express and later at the Newark News, a proud and influential paper driven out of business in 1972 by mismanagement, a labor dispute and subsequent sale to a media company that had no intention of rescuing it.

Print journalism has been victimized like so many other seemingly invincible businesses by a competitive force it failed to foresee and fully appreciate and which fell upon it so rapidly and with such impact that recovery is problematic.

Those critics who claim insight but lack it tie the downfall of newspapers to an ideological bias, one that favors liberalism and a partisan left-wing agenda.

It is an absurd argument, ignoring the long history of newspapers thriving, their financial success growing steadily, while their editorial pages reflected a decided political tilt, left or right. They’ve been driven to the financial brink by turbulent market forces, dramatically changing reader habits and advertising dollars fleeing to other outlets.

Purchasers of space in newspapers to sell cars, houses or women’s foundation garments cared not whether the paper endorsed one candidate or another or supported a political agenda. It was good business. Now, other forms have become better and their money more wisely invested.

When I put my reporter’s career behind me, I did so with great regret. It was an exciting, fascinating, exhilarating life. In my basement, there are cardboard boxes containing scrapbooks filled with clips of stories I’d written in my years at two papers. They’re yellowed and crumbled at the edges, but dumping them into a recycling bin is unthinkable.

The late Tim Russert, an extraordinary newspaper and television reporter, once remarked to a colleague about their shared profession: “It’s great, isn’t it? And, tomorrow we get to do it all over again.”

For those reporters at The Star-Ledger and their colleagues throughout the business, I hope they get to enjoy their tomorrows. Like I did.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Opinion: A culture of political retribution?

Opinion: A culture of political retribution?

April 4, 2014, 4:05 PM    Last updated: Friday, April 4, 2014, 4:05 PM
The Record
Governor Christie

Governor Christie

Carl Golden, a press aide to former Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

AS GOVERNOR Christie struggles to pull himself out from under the dark cloud of Bridgegate, attention has turned to one of the several tangential elements of the scandal: Did the administration create and nurture a culture in which political retribution was not only encouraged but celebrated?

The governor established his administration’s kick-’em-when-they’re-down-and-hit’em-when-they-try-to-get-up tone early on by laying into the leadership of the New Jersey Education Association, characterizing them as a greedy cadre of people whose only interest was in winning higher salaries and more favorable fringe benefits for their members at taxpayer expense.

He returned to the theme time and again and expanded it to include public employee unions, citing them as primarily responsible for high state and local taxes. He took on everybody and seemingly relished his public brawls with legislators, school administrators, bureaucrats, independent authorities, local officials and reporters.

He made frequent use of jokes and sarcasm to put down opponents and to dismiss pertinent and legitimate questions on policy matters.

Signature criticism

His liberal use of the term “idiot” to describe critics or those with whom he had lost patience quickly became his signature. He bluntly challenged those he felt asked impertinent questions, and who can forget the great ice-cream-cone confrontation on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, a situation which could have turned ugly, indeed, if not for the intercession of his staff and security detail.

He was brash and straightforward, and his what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality won national recognition for him. He referred repeatedly to his “Jersey attitude,” a mindset that warned opponents that if they pushed with one hand, he’d push back with both hands.

The attention he attracted and the acclaim he drew as a refreshing politician unafraid of butting heads or throwing rhetorical haymakers was not lost on those who surrounded him.

The swagger, the supreme self-confidence, the willingness to defy accepted political protocol created a lasting impression. Some who accompanied him to Trenton following his 2009 election and others who joined later took their cue from the man they served.

A largely inexperienced, politically immature individual thrust into such a politically charged environment and given a position of considerable responsibility can easily assume a self- importance dangerously out of proportion to reality. It is a seductive and bedazzling atmosphere. It is being admitted to an inner circle shared by few others, creating the belief that the rules governing the behavior of others don’t apply here; it is behavior that is an expected part of an elevated status and immune from repercussion.

Kelly’s role

Bridget Anne Kelly, who stands accused of setting in motion the chain of events now known as Bridgegate, seems to fit that profile.

If the internal review carried out by the administration-retained attorneys is to be believed, she and she alone abused the power of her position as the governor’s deputy chief of staff to order the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, creating a massive traffic jam and eventually exploding into a major scandal that has inflicted severe damage on Christie’s reputation and standing, nationally as well as in New Jersey.

Given her steadfast refusal to talk publicly about her role and her assertion of her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, her motives and any doubts she may have had about her involvement in the lane closures remain unknown.

Did she, for instance, simply carry out orders from her superiors despite her misgivings or, as the investigative report contends, concoct the scheme on her own and conspire to carry it out with David Wildstein, a Christie-approved high-level staffer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

A willing participant

The email communications between Kelly and Wildstein certainly suggest she was a willing participant, but was her eagerness reflective of an intrinsic culture in which meting out punishment to perceived political enemies was routine and accepted?

Or was she a rogue underling embarking on an ego-driven power trip in an effort to prove her political sagacity and impress those around her? Her “time for some traffic troubles in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein, for instance, and her snarky observations about the plight of people stuck for hours in the bridge traffic smacks of the worst sort of self-absorbed arrogance.

There is no doubt any more that seeking political advantage was a constant concern in the Christie administration, particularly as he ramped up his reelection effort in 2013.

A historic victory was the goal, one which proved beyond question that Christie was a Republican who could appeal across party, ethnic and gender lines and achieve a resounding victory in a normally heavily Democratic state. It was designed as well to elevate him to the top tier of potential Republican presidential candidates in 2016.

Toward that end, the campaign undertook a major offensive to gather as many endorsements from Democratic leaders — local mayors, legislators, county officials — as possible. Establishing a good working relationship with the governor’s office could pay handsome dividends in the future for them and an endorsement statement was a relatively easy call, particularly since the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate was written off from the outset.

Conversely, a refusal to support the governor could result in some level of punishment and, with the many weapons at the governor’s disposal, retribution could take the form of withholding state aid, delaying action on urgent requests, or seeing to it that the paperwork approving an appointment to a job disappeared in the bureaucracy.

Sending a message to the mayor of Fort Lee that his refusal to join his party colleagues in endorsing the governor fits easily into a payback mindset.

While the credibility of the investigators’ report has been, and will continue to be, called into question, its finding that Kelly was singularly responsible for the traffic tie-up and that there was no evidence uncovered that Christie or others on his staff possessed pre-knowledge of the closure scheme, has been put to effective use by the governor as an objective exoneration of him and his administration.

The cost of the scandal

The scandal has cost Christie dearly, however. He has suffered steep declines in polls in virtually every category of job performance, trustworthiness, honesty and leadership. He’s no longer atop the list of potential Republican presidential candidates, having fallen into third or fourth place in preference polls.

Kelly has paid an even greater price, publicly vilified by Christie as a lying and stupid betrayer of his confidence, not to mention the humiliation she’s suffered by the exposure of her private life in embarrassing, unflattering terms in the investigative report.

It is a fearsome cost, indeed, if her actions were those of someone caught up in a culture not of her own making but one which captured her with its illusions of power and political immortality.

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