Dennis Culloton, President & CEO
It’s no secret I spent almost four years defending a governor under fire as George Ryan’s press secretary. In some ways I feel like I am watching a re-run as Gov. Chris Christie tries to endure and prevail over a widening political scandal in New Jersey.
As you’ve read, key advisors shut down lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge for several days last year, allegedly in an ill-conceived plan to exact political retribution on a local mayor. In addition to being a dumb idea, the law of unintended consequences is playing out with claims of medical services being denied to people in need and businesses suffering from the four-hour traffic delays.
Gov. Christie’s initial instinct was correct. He held a lengthy press conference, squarely taking responsibility and rolling the heads of those he said were responsible.
But of course it is not over.
The governor must govern in the face of a federal investigation, a state legislative inquiry and civil litigation. As is often the case, the big winners are the lawyers.
There is a way forward for Gov. Christie. Gov. Ryan, a man of similar persona, a bull-in-the-china-shop who could also charm legislators and the media when he put his mind to it, turned to the things that made him run for governor in the first place. He loved passing legislation; he passed the biggest capital bill in the last 30 years. He loved solving difficult legislative problems; he passed post-9/11 budgets and ran to the sound of the gunfire on a host of third rail issues from abortion bills to gay rights.
No issue defined him though, like the death penalty in Illinois. After Chicago Tribune reporters documented 13 cases of death row inmates who went on to have their convictions overturned from either actual innocence or serious flaws in their arrest and conviction, he took the issue head on and declared a moratorium on executions. After he tried and failed to reform the system based on the recommendations of his panel of experts, he commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in a historic move. It cleared the way for Gov. Quinn, nearly 10 years later, to sign a death penalty abolition bill into law.
Ryan’s legal outcome is well-documented, but he followed the advice from his crisis management team I led and ended any pillorying of the “whistle-blowers” and witnesses, and instead focused on what he could control, his legislative and administrative agenda. While a cloud of a federal probe hung over his head, he was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Gov. Christie should follow more level-headed advice and repair his reputation by getting things done rather than attacking witnesses who will ultimately have their final say to investigators and perhaps judges and juries.