Last week’s hung jury in the bribery trial of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) did not surprise Gov. Chris Christie, who said Monday he was inclined to re-try such cases when he served as U.S. Attorney.
“My view always has been…if you felt strongly about trying it once, you should probably feel strongly about trying it a second time,” Christie said at Central Park of Morris County in Morris Plains, at the groundbreaking for “Gov. Chris Christie Drive.”
A mistrial was declared on Thursday when a jury could not agree on any of the counts against New Jersey’s senior Senator or Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Melgen lavished Menendez with private flights, luxury hotel rooms, Dominican Republic vacations and campaign donations in exchange for help with government officials on business matters.
“There is almost no verdict that I would have been surprised by,” Christie said, in his first public comments on the case. But he added it’s difficult to ask a jury to “draw certain conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt from circumstantial evidence.”
Proving bribery is much easier, he told reporters, “if you have a narrator, someone who is involved in the transaction, someone who is testifying, which they did not have here. Or tape that allows you to show the transaction or hear the transaction going on, so there’s no question what everyone’s intent is.”
On a cold, blustery afternoon, Christie was welcomed back to Morris County, where he began his political career as a freeholder in 1995, by a host of Republican officials, including state Sen. Joe Pennacchio, Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco and Sheriff James Gannon.
Freeholder Director Doug Cabana said the freeholders named the future roadway–a one-third-mile lane meant to alleviate park traffic in Morris Plains neighborhoods–for Christie as thanks for his administration’s help with the project, and to mark his years of public service which, Christie noted, end in 57 days.
Christie will leave office with the lowest approval ratings of any New Jersey governor in modern times, and presidential hopes that were dogged by the Bridgegate scandal that saw two officials with ties to him sentenced to prison.
The ceremony, on the former grounds of Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital, was a short walk from where the massive Kirkbride Building stood from 1876 until 2015.
Activists from Preserve Greystone had urged the state to save the historic structure, where folk singer Woody Guthrie was treated in the 1950s, and they presented a half-dozen proposals from interested re-developers. But the state insisted that years of neglect left the building beyond repair, and a $35 million demolition proceeded.
“It’s obscene that he’s getting a road in his name,” said Preserve Greystone member Daryl Savage, one of two demonstrators at the event.
“We lost a very important historical resource in the county. And it could have been made into something really great for the whole state. It could have been a tourist attraction, it could have brought economic development. There was a lot of local history in that building,” Savage said.
“It’s a disgrace,” added Stacey Gregg of Rockaway, brandishing signs suggesting the roadway should be rechristened “Chris Christie Bully Way.”
Christie did not acknowledge the protesters or the Kirkbride saga. Thanking the freeholders for their gesture, he said the new lane should include his wife Mary Pat’s name, because of her support throughout his political career.
And while a street name is an “incredible honor,” the Governor joked that it also indicates “you’re getting old.” He recounted driving past Druetzler Drive, named for Morris Plains Mayor Frank Druetzler, who served with Christie as a freeholder.
Christie also aimed a good-natured poke at emcee Larry Ragonese, the county public information officer and his former state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, for a 1997 newspaper article declaring that Christie’s “once-promising political career is over.”
That finally may be true.
Regarding his future in politics, the Governor said “I think I’m pretty much done with that.” His immediate plans: Catching Bruce Springsteen on Broadway the day after he leaves office.
Asked how he’s feeling about Donald Trump these days, the former presidential candidate replied: “I’m generally pleased with the President.”
Christie, 55, declined to comment on the state minimum wage or other policies proposed by his Democratic successor, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, noting that they have met and he is committed to a smooth transition.
“I want him to be able to feel comfortable in asking me questions and not have to read about them in the newspaper or hear them on TV,” Christie said.
Ultimately, Murphy, like all governors, will be judged by “how many touchdowns you put in the end zone,” said the longtime Mendham Township resident, the first governor from Morris County since 1896.
Asked to list his touchdowns, Christie said he’s saving that discussion for his final State of the State address.
Murphy, he said, is about to embark on “the greatest public service job the people of the state can give you.”
Echoing the talk he gives to schoolchildren visiting Trenton, Christie explained:
“Every morning I wake up with an opportunity to do something great. I don’t do something great every day because I’m human. But I have an opportunity every day to do something great. And that’s an extraordinarily special job.”