Doug Cabana has known Chris Christie for a long time. We’re standing in a ballroom at the welcome party for the New Jersey delegation, and Cabana is explaining to me how he was elected to the county board in Morris County two years after Christie had won a seat. “I’ve known him for 16 years,” Cabana says. “We were both freeholders,” as board members are called. “Now I’m still a freeholder and he’s”—Cabana gestures across the room at Christie, who’s mobbed by cameras, reporters, and Jerseyites—“well, he’s here.” Cabana flashes a smile that’s neither wistful nor bittersweet. It’s full of pride.
Short and compact, with short blond hair and a tough-guy face, Cabana could pass for a state trooper. (Which is close—in his day job, he’s a prosecutor.) Sixteen years is a lot of time, but Cabana thinks Christie is basically unchanged. “The Chris now is the Chris then,” he says. “Exactly the same. The strong persona was there. He always spoke his mind, even then. You always knew where Chris was coming from.”
Christie was on a reform mission from the beginning. He waged his first campaign on the idea of reform and put in place ethics guidelines in Morris County that are still on the books. A young man in a hurry, Christie tried unseating an incumbent Republican in the state assembly a few years later and lost. To drive home the message that the party did not appreciate his vigor, county Republicans then recruited a candidate to run against Christie for his freeholder seat. Christie lost, and his political career looked for a moment like it might be finished.
Cabana explains Christie’s appeal like this: “I deal with a lot of cops. And at the beginning they were for him, but now, of course, they’re not.” Because he’s gone after public-sector unions. “Every day I get a cop complaining about Christie this, or Christie that,” Cabana says. “But even though they complain, they respect him. Because they know where he stands.” As he relates this, Cabana beams even more. A few minutes later, Christie comes over and bear-hugs Cabana with such force that for a moment it looks like the smaller man might be subsumed.
Which is basically what Christie has done to the New Jersey Republican party. Since 1954 the Garden State had had only two successful Republican governors. Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman were both impressive politicians, yet they were technocrats. They made the state government function by maneuvering within the existing political culture.
Christie is different; he’s remade New Jersey’s political landscape. “The political culture has changed,” says state senator Joe Kyrillos. “People aren’t afraid to talk about things that were once taboo.” Public-sector unions, deficits, spending—subjects that used to lurk in the shadowy mists of abstract policy discussion—are now the meat and potatoes of New Jersey politics. And that’s all because of Christie, who possesses the political version of Steve Jobs’s legendary reality-distortion field. “Through the sheer force of his personality he has reshaped the political culture of the state,” Kyrillos says. And Kyrillos isn’t just saying that. He’s testing the hypothesis by running against incumbent Democratic senator Bob Menendez.
As it happens, Christie reshaped Kyrillos’s life, too. They met in 1992 when Kyrillos was running for state senate and Christie was working for the Bush-Quayle reelection effort. There was a woman in the campaign office, Susan Doctorian, who Christie thought would be a perfect match for Kyrillos. He persuaded Kyrillos to ask her out—saying no to Christie was difficult even then. Joe and Susan Kyrillos have now been married for almost 17 years and have two children, Max and Georgia.
Not everyone in the delegation goes way back with Christie. Jim McCracken didn’t meet him until Christie was running for governor. But now he works for him. McCracken is the ombudsman for the state agency that keeps tabs on the care of the institutionalized elderly. Before he took the post, he ran the House of the Good Shepherd, a retirement community in Hackettstown. “Everything with Christie is so above board,” he says with a small sense of wonder. “I couldn’t really even imagine working in government—in New Jersey—for anyone else.”
Bill Palatucci met Christie more than 20 years ago when Christie brought him into his law firm. “We practiced law together for 10 years,” Palatucci says. “And I always have a story I tell about him. Often in the lunch room at the firm, the lawyers would sit and have lunch with the lawyers, and the support staff—the paralegals and secretaries—would sit and have lunch with the other paralegals and secretaries. Christie could be at either table any day. He was just genuinely interested and concerned.”
State Senator Diane Allen first ran into Chris Christie in 1999 when he was working as a lawyer and a lobbyist. The two went to meet George W. Bush together as the Texas governor was assembling support for his presidential run. She liked Christie instantly. “He’s always been very comfortable with himself,” she says. “And he’s one of those people who, after you meet them for five minutes, you feel like you’ve known them your whole life.”
Over the years the two became close—so much so that in 2009 Christie nearly chose her to run as his lieutenant governor. Instead, he picked Monmouth County sheriff Kim Guadagno.
While Allen was discussing the possibility of the job with Christie, she noticed a tickle in her throat. Because Christie picked Guadagno and Allen didn’t have to hit the campaign trail, she had time to go see a doctor. It turned out she had oral cancer. Even though she caught it early, her fight against it was a close-run thing. Had she been Christie’s running mate? “He saved my life,” Allen says matter-of-factly.
And just as matter-of-factly, she says, “I think he’ll be president one day.”
Ask members of the New Jersey delegation what they think about Chris Christie and the phrase that nearly always comes up is “rock star.” And the overwhelming sentiment they express is pride.
Every group is proud of its champion, of course. That’s part of the team sport of politics. But what’s going on in New Jersey right now is different. For one thing, New Jersey is not a state given naturally to civic pride. It’s the home of Camden and The Sopranos and “Which exit?” And it’s particularly unnatural for New Jerseyans to be proud of their governor. Jon Corzine was an egomaniacal plutocrat who treated the state only slightly more honorably than he did MF Global. Then there was the rest-stop cruising, gay-American governor Jim McGreevey. And Jim Florio was so breathtakingly unpopular that in New Jersey today you still see the occasional bumper sticker celebrating his defeat 19 years ago: “Florio-Free in ’93.”
“It really is overwhelming to us,” Christie told the delegation on Sunday night, “that three years ago at this time, we were in the midst of the worst month of the [gubernatorial] campaign in 2009. A really difficult time for us as a family. Getting through all of the negative attacks and the difficulties. And to think that three years later here we are with all of our friends and supporters. . . . You make me incredibly proud. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to make sure that between 10:30 and 11:00 Tuesday night I make all of you proud, too.”
He already has.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.