Chris Christie has stumbled into a political trap: He’s doing stuff that only the wealthy and connected can do.
And to add to the anguish, the luxury skybox football tickets and plane ride that the New Jersey governor received from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones are raising ethical questions.
Even if ethical, as the Jones largesse appears to be under New Jersey rules, Christie now joins potential 2016 presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton in grappling with the appearance of being too cozy with the super rich.
Clinton gets six figures for speeches and flies by private jet. Bush is finding his first challenge as a potential candidate is his ties to the wealthy elite, moving last week to sever his ties to corporate boards.
The image of the pampered, wealthy elite has plagued a long roster of others: Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Al Gore and more. While Americans can be persuaded to vote for upper-crust candidates, they first want them to show some feel for the plight of ordinary citizens.
President George W. Bush’s aw-shucks personal style helped counter his pedigree as the son of a president and grandson of a U.S. senator. President John F. Kennedy and his family played touch football.
Now comes Christie, long a Cowboys fan. “The governor has been Mr. Jones’ guest at three games this season, only one of which involved travel expenses of any variety,” said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts.
Sunday, after the Cowboys won a come-from-behind playoff game against the Detroit Lions, Christie was on national television hugging Jones. That scene alone could rankle football fans, who pay hundreds of dollars for tickets, parking and food in icy stadiums – if they can get in at all.
The Christie connection, though, raises other questions. On March 19, 2013, Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the selection of Legends Hospitality LLC to “develop and operate the observation deck at the top of One World Trade Center” in New York City. The company is owned by the Cowboys, the New York Yankees and the Checketts Partners Investment Fund. The next day, the Port Authority Board of Commissioners, appointed by the two governors, voted to approve the choice, and the company received a 15-year lease.
Roberts, Christie’s spokesman, cited comments from Randy Levine, a Legends board member, to the Wall Street Journal. Levine said Jones was not involved in the dealings with the Port Authority.
Christie’s office saw no ethical problem. Roberts cited the “Code of Conduct for the Governor.” It says a New Jersey governor “may accept gifts, favors, services, gratuities, meals, lodging or travel expenses from relatives or personal friends that are paid for with personal funds.”
Jones praised Christie in an interview with Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan.
“He’s part of our mojo,” Jones said. “I want him there all the way. I’ll tell you, if he’s got enough mojo to pull this thing out, he ought to be looked at as president of the United States.”
But does being Jones’ pal become a liability in a presidential race? Probably in a general election, especially for Republicans, said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.
Republicans have an image of being close to the privileged, he said, and Christie’s appearance in Jones’ box gives Democrats fresh ammunition.
The image can be overcome. “When you get to the level of governor, it’s hardly unusual to get invitations like that. Usually people are discreet enough to turn them down,” said David Woodard, a South Carolina Republican consultant and author of a forthcoming book on George W. Bush.
The Bush family understood the optics of privilege. Jeb Bush, who is considering a 2016 presidential bid, last week resigned from corporate boards, as well as his own consulting firm and business advisory group.
The lessons of appearing privileged have wounded candidates in recent elections. Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, never overcame his image as an out-of-touch rich guy. The son of an auto executive and a former governor, he co-founded the Bain Capital investment firm and in 2012 was reportedly worth an estimated $250 million.
Kerry was lampooned during his 2004 Democratic presidential bid as being “French,” a comment on his elite tastes. Four years earlier, Gore, the son of a U.S. senator, had trouble relating to ordinary people.
Among this year’s potential candidates, Clinton has been under fire. Her family was “dead broke” after leaving the White House in 2001, she told ABC News in June. To critics, her comments were evidence she was badly out of touch with struggling Americans. Clinton later said her comments were “inartful.”
Being part of the upper crust doesn’t automatically mean a candidate is doomed, but they have to quickly figure out a way to escape that image. Christie has a chance Sunday.
The Cowboys play the Green Bay Packers. Iowa, site of the nation’s first presidential caucus, is teeming with Packers fans.
If Christie shows up, “it could give a lot of people in Iowa something to give him a hard time about,” said Hagle of the University of Iowa.