NEW: Cuccinelli: Christie should step down as chair of Republican Governors Association
Gala celebrating Gov. Chris Christie's second term canceled due to winter storm
Christie's office played politics with Sandy funds, Hoboken mayor says
Separate state legislature investigations merged into one
New Jersey’s Chris Christie faced new storms, literally and figuratively, on the first day of his second term as governor with scandal buffeting his administration and now a top conservative Republican in Virginia saying he should abandon a key GOP post.
All of it, punctuated by a major snowstorm that swept through the Garden State as Christie took the oath of office, put new pressure on him as he contemplates a run for president in 2016 and stands atop polls as the GOP’s leading hope.
Christie did not mention the unfolding scandals in his inauguration speech at the War Memorial in Trenton. Instead he praised how his state came together in his first four years to meet the challenges of the economic recession and Superstorm Sandy, as well as the landslide re-election victory voters gave him last November.
“This election has taught us that the ways we divide each other – by race, by class, by ethnicity, by wealth, and yes, by political party – is neither permanent nor necessary,” he said. “Our dreams are the same: a good job, a great education for our children, safe streets in our neighborhood and core values which give our lives real meaning.”
Christie’s carefully crafted strategy of success built upon reaching across the political aisle to Democrats is not necessarily a virtue shared by all Republicans, especially conservatives not yet sold on his credentials to uphold their causes in a national campaign.
One prominent conservative in Virginia, former state Attorney General and 2013 gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, said Christie should step down from his new role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, seen as a stepping stone to a White House run.
Cuccinelli, who lost his race for governor, said the current state legislative investigations into suggested political misconduct by top Christie administration appointees would hinder his ability to successfully campaign for GOP candidates.
“I think just from the perspective of setting aside this as an issue in other races, it makes sense for him to step aside in that role,” he said on CNN’s Crossfire on Tuesday.
Cuccinelli was unhappy with the RGA – which Christie did not lead at the time – for not steering more money to his effort.
Christie defenders speak out
However, two Republican governors said recently they still support Christie in the RGA post.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, mentioned often as a potential presidential candidate as well, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in Washington they had confidence in Christie’s leadership.
Christie has said the uproar in his state would not impact his work on behalf of other governors. He was in Florida this past weekend to help raise money for incumbent Rick Scott.
Christie’s administration has been rocked by suggestions of political dirty tricks and strong-armed politics that are being investigated by a state legislative committee and the U.S. attorney’s office.
The lead scandal, in which investigators want to know if top appointees orchestrated traffic gridlock near the George Washington Bridge last September to politically punish a local mayor, has already cost four top advisers their jobs and spawned numerous subpoenas by a special state Assembly committee looking for documents and other materials.
Christie has denied knowledge of the alleged bridge scheme.
A Republican governor in a state dominated by Democrats, Christie distinguished himself from the partisanship in Washington by promoting a bipartisan vision for the Garden State.
His inauguration remarks countered an image some opponents offer about an administration they say takes hardball politics to new levels in a state known for being rough-and-tumble politically.
Hours before Christie’s second inaugural, a top New Jersey Republican defended him.
“He’s a former federal prosecutor, indicted over a hundred politicians. He’s the last guy on earth who’s going to do an illegal activity. It’s repugnant to him,” said Jon Bramnick, the Republican leader in the New Jersey State Assembly, on CNN’s New Day.
With the next race for the White House on the horizon, and Christie said to be considering a bid, he hopes his inaugural message resonates with a national audience.
However, new national polling indicates his crossover appeal among independents and Democrats, a rare characteristic that elevates his national standing, has softened.
Hoboken mayor provides more evidence
Aside from the bridge scandal, Christie’s team faces questions about how the administration handled Superstorm Sandy relief money approved by the federal government.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer this week alleged that Christie’s administration hung – or “held hostage” – storm recovery funds for her town on her support for a redevelopment project proposed by a firm, The Rockefeller Group, with ties to the governor.
Zimmer said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno delivered the message in a parking lot last May, saying it came directly from Christie.
Guadango denies the allegation; Zimmer is standing firm, saying she’s already told her story to federal prosecutors. State legislative investigators also want to hear from Zimmer.
Also on Sandy, a federal watchdog is looking into how the state used relief money in promoting the state’s recovery from the October 2012 storm that devastated coastal areas.
The Housing and Urban Development inspector general’s office is specifically looking at spending on an ad produced for Jersey Shore marketing purposes that featured Christie and his family.
Christie’s office has said the Obama administration signed off on its marketing plan and vehemently denies any wrongdoing in the Zimmer matter.
CNN’s Chris Frates, Steve Kastenbaum, Erin McPike, Jake Tapper, Paul Steinhauser, Peter Hamby and Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.