New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has led a largely charmed life since taking office in January. In the year since he defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, he has become the darling of conservatives who applaud his take-no-prisoners style in dealing with all comers and become a hit on YouTube with videos showing him taking on the press and the teachers unions. Last week he was afforded a star turn on 60 Minutes, where he was able to lambast his predecessors and highlight the fact that contracts with public sector workers are bankrupting his state. Despite being a magnet for confrontation and controversy, Christie has avoided mistakes. That is, he did up until this past weekend when he left the state Sunday morning for a trip with his family to Disney World — just as a massive snowstorm was about to bury the state — and decided to stay there instead of coming home to direct the recovery.
Apparently, Christie has never heard of Tom Meskill, the Republican governor of Connecticut who decided to stay in Vermont on a ski vacation in 1974 while his state was slammed by a blizzard. Meskill never recovered from the hit to his reputation. And there are many other examples of political careers being buried in snow. But the statement issued by Christie’s office about his absence seemed not to realize that the governor had blundered:
Snow in the Northeast happens often, which is why the response was handled expeditiously between the acting governor, secretary of transportation, state police and governor’s staff with all the appropriate and necessary coordination. And like every other day, the governor was and continues to be in regular contact with his staff and cabinet officers.
While it’s true that “snow happens,” people expect their elected leaders to be on the scene and stay there during emergencies, whether it’s a snowstorm or a terror attack. While Christie’s “so what” attitude may be consistent with his general demeanor in office, it’s not enough to be on the phone coordinating things. The symbolism of sharing the experiences of other citizens and being on hand to show concern is an important aspect of leadership. Telling off your critics and not being intimidated by powerful groups is one thing. Acting as if the normal rules of political life don’t apply to you is quite another. It might be unfair to ask anyone to abandon what was, no doubt, a planned family vacation, just to be around during a snow emergency. But that comes with the territory when you choose to be governor of a state.
Christie also needs to take responsibility for the fact that his lieutenant governor was out of the state at the same time he was in Florida. While this was obviously a scheduling snafu, it left the state in the hands of the president of the State Senate, a Democrat, who behaved appropriately while in charge. New Jersey didn’t used to have a lieutenant governor but residents of the state are probably wondering why they bothered creating the post if they aren’t going to be around in the governor’s absence.
Fortunately for Christie, nothing terribly bad happened during the storm so perhaps this incident will not alter his image as a rising star. For all of the plaudits that have rightly come his way during the past year, we need to remember that this is Christie’s first major elected office and that he is, for all of his natural talent, still something of a novice. Rather than just arrogantly tossing this off as not his problem, he needs to recognize that he made a rookie mistake and that the next time he puts his personal agenda above his official responsibilities, he might not be so lucky.