Deconstructing Gov. Chris Christie's 'Bridge To Redemption'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Just three years ago, New Jersey's tough- talking Governor Chris Christie was one of the nation's most admired Republicans, a likely frontrunner for the next presidential nomination. Then reporters asked whether he was involved in a mysterious, five-day traffic jam that seemed to have been deliberately caused on the Fort Lee, N.J., approach to the George Washington Bridge.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRIS CHRISTIE: I worked the cones, actually, on that. Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and a hat so I wasn't - but I actually was the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question?
DAVIES: It emerged that the lane closings was an act of political retribution carried out by his staff. Christie's sarcastic answer that day was aimed at our guest, Matt Katz, who's covered Christie for five years - through his tenure as governor, through the political scandal known as Bridgegate and now into his struggling presidential campaign. Katz's new book explores Christie's rise to national prominence through viral YouTube videos of his contentious exchanges with critics and the political skills and liabilities that have shaped his sometimes stormy term as the Republican governor of a democratic state.
Matt Katz did reporting in Afghanistan before covering New Jersey for The Philadelphia Inquirer and WNYC in New York. Katz and his WNYC team won a Peabody award for their coverage of Christie and the Bridgegate scandal. His new book is, "American Governor."
Matt Katz, welcome to FRESH AIR. You covered the State House in Trenton, you followed Christie for years. Just give us a little bit of a sense of what it was like covering him day to day, what his relations with the media was like, how busy he was?
MATT KATZ: It was unexpected. There'd be a slow Friday and then all of a sudden, it's 4:45 p.m. and he issues a press release that he's issuing an executive order to change some major aspect of state government. It'd be exciting. There was a major storm that hit the coast, and he - his team would pluck out certain reporters each day to go in a helicopter to go to the Jersey Shore and watch him meet with victims of the storm. And I always felt like I was sort of hanging on his coattails as he was flying into the stratosphere of American political politics. He kept becoming a larger and larger phenomenon, and as he did, all - those of us were following him found ourselves on a more important story, and we in turn became more prominent. It was exciting.
DAVIES: And what was he like with the press corps, with you in particular?
KATZ: He talks smack. So that means it's antagonistic. That means it's often funny. He'll be in New Hampshire, and we'll be at a diner. And there was one time I was sitting at a table with a group of women. I was waiting for him to go around and do the standard shake hands and take selfies, and he sat down across from me at this table and he turned to the women I was sitting with and he said, do you generally have good taste? And these women are like, yes. And he said, then what are you sitting with this guy for? And it's constantly like that.
DAVIES: Is it playful or with an edge?
KATZ: It's with an edge, very much so, and it can be intimidating at times. And sometimes it's more edgy than playful. Sometimes he just wants the back and forth. Sometimes he's talking smack because he doesn't want me to ask a follow-up question and he's talking over me and then trying to - using it as a way to pivot to another person. It's his way of communicating, and it's reflective of how he deals with all kinds of situations, not just with reporters.
DAVIES: If you got on his bad side, you would be in the penalty box.
KATZ: That's right.
DAVIES: What does that mean?
KATZ: It means that you don't really get phone calls returned from Christie people for some time. But you never know officially that you're in the penalty box. The first rule of the penalty box, as I learned and as my fellow reporters learned, is that you don't know necessarily why - what story you might have done, article you may have written that angered him so much. You just know that all of a sudden, you're shut out. I know it's called the penalty box because I've heard him use it in reference to people within his circle who do something that bothers him and then they get shut out for some time. And I also was - knew once I was in the penalty box because I texted one of his sources after a tough story about another story and the source said, not allowed to talk to you right now. And I said, why? And I got no response.
DAVIES: He was elected in 2009, a Republican governor in a very democratic state, and really became nationally famous in part because of these town meetings and YouTube videos that would appear of him often berating people. And I'm going to play one of the more well-known one. This is an elementary school teacher named Marie Corfield, I think, right?
DAVIES: And what's happened is, she has asked a long question challenging some of his policies towards teachers. He starts to answer. She kind of rolls her eyes or whatever, and then we hear this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRISTIE: Well, listen, let's start with this. I sat here - stood here and very respectfully listened to you. If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well, then I have no interest in answering your question. So if you'd like to...
CHRISTIE: So if you'd like to - if you'd like to conduct a respectful conversation, I'm happy to do it. If you don't, please go and sit down and I'll answer the next question. What's your choice?
DAVIES: And there were other occasions where he was even tougher - sit down and shut up, call people idiots. How big was this, and how did it get so big?
KATZ: This was a big deal because it was - and this was not the only teacher he had such an exchange with. But it was so unusual to hear a politician go after a public school teacher like that. But this was 2010, it was his first year in office, there was a Tea Party wave in this country. He was going after teacher pensions and teacher benefits that many conservatives in this country thought were totally out of whack with the private sector and that their taxes were gravely affected by it. And this was what this woman was talking about. She was saying, why are you cutting our benefits? You're disrespecting us. And he didn't put up with any pretense. And the reason why this moment and many others - one of the reasons why it became such a sensation in conservative circles is because his people were running a very sophisticated communications operation out of the governor's office. There were video teams. They hired a taxpayer-funded video unit that would go to every town hall meeting. They'd sit in the back with cameras and laptops, and they would cut snippets of tape from his exchanges and many times, confrontations. It wasn't like they were just cutting, like, you know, the good stuff. I mean, they were cutting when he was going after people because that's what led to the virality of it. It took us some time to find out how they distributed it. Actually, my public radio station, WNYC, had to sue to get this list. But we found out that they were emailing out these clips to about 2,500 people around the country. And these weren't just reporters covering the New Jersey Statehouse. Most of them were national people. There were 80-some odd producers from Fox News. There were conservative outlets from Washington, D.C. out to the heartland. There were political operatives on there as well.
DAVIES: So the stuff that looked like it was spreading virally was getting some help from a taxpayer-funded operation out of the governor's office.
KATZ: That's correct. This wasn't just about building his national persona. This was also about succeeding in New Jersey - succeeding for reelection but also succeeding politically and being able to, you know, lambast Democrats at town hall meetings, get a ton of media coverage from it, send out videos of him lambasting Democrats and seeing people cheering around him.
DAVIES: And there was this bit of theatrics involving the jacket.
KATZ: Yes. There - well, first he would come out. He comes out every time - he has - one of his advance guys had a really great, booming voice, and he would be like, ladies and gentlemen, the governor of New Jersey. And he comes out from behind a curtain and he goes, all right, all right. And usually there's music playing - maybe Bon Jovi - New Jersey's own Bon Jovi. He comes out, and he does a spiel for 15, 20 minutes. It's whatever policy he's selling, whatever Democrat he's targeting, and then he says, now it's time for the fun part. And he would take off his - literally, take off his suit jacket and toss it, like, 15, 20 feet to an aide. And the aide would grab it, and then he'd take questions. That's how you knew it was question-and-answer time. I mean, I went to dozens and dozens of these. And certainly, there's some canned lines, he tells the same stories. But they were always, like, exciting. I mean, you didn't know what people were going to ask. Even though it was a generally friendly crowd and most of his confrontations were congenial, you were - and everybody was - sort of waiting for that moment. When was the first person to talk over him or to challenge him? Was he going to call him an idiot? Or was he going to, like, wrestle him down in another way? It was always fun to watch.
DAVIES: I want to play a moment from one of these town halls. This is in fact one of the meetings at which he sharply rebuked a Navy SEAL who was in law school - called him an idiot because the SEAL had been challenging him. But this is a different moment where he's sort of explaining to the crowd why he does these town halls.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRISTIE: And, you know, part of the reason that I do this - and I've now done about 70 of these since I've been governor - and - because when you're governor, you tend to become isolated. And here's why. I travel with the troopers all the time. I'm in those black suburbans. I never come in the front door of any place anymore. They're always bringing me in some weird entrance, you know? And it's dark, and they've got to use flashlights to show you the stairs. And then I go through more kitchens than anybody in America, and every time I go someplace for some reason, I'm walking through the kitchen. And it's great because I get to meet the help. But other than that, you know, it's - I'm walking through - you don't want me walking through kitchens, OK? It's not good. It's not good for me. So I'm walking through kitchens, and you get isolated. You know, you don't get to see real people as much as you'd like to. And so I do these meetings because I want to hear from you - because in these kinds of forums, as you saw, anything can come up.
DAVIES: Chris Christie speaking to people at a town hall meeting. The guy's pretty good.
KATZ: Yeah, it's got everything in there - it's self-deprecating. He knows the cadence, he adjusts the tone of voice as he - you know, after the joke he starts talking more softly. He often tells a story at town hall meetings about his mother on her deathbed. And there's laugh lines and tear lines in that story, and literally every time I've heard it - and it's been dozens of times - I look around the room and somebody is going into their handbag, looking for a tissue.
DAVIES: Matt Katz's book about Chris Christie is called "American Governor." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Matt Katz. He has spent years covering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He has a new book about him called "American Governor: Chris Christie's Bridge To Redemption." You know, it's fascinating that Christie is elected in 2009. He's a Republican elected in New Jersey, a very democratic state. He had been a crusading federal prosecutor, put a lot of politicians in jail, Republicans and Democrats - so came in on this wave of let's clean things up, promised an era of accountability and transparency. Did he deliver on that particular promise?
KATZ: This has not been a transparent administration. There have been lawsuits after lawsuits by media organizations looking for what is thought to be public information, things that have been public information, like budgetary documents that used to be posted on state websites are now not available. There have been various rules that his administration enacted, like no longer can we find out how much state police earn in overtime. We don't know how much it costs taxpayers to fund his security - his state troopers that travel around the country does his campaigning, and it's often difficult to get information when you call a spokesperson. I had more phone calls and emails ignored than I did answered. And I, you know, covered the guy as much as anybody. He fired the contractor that was doing the biggest work for Superstorm Sandy relief. The contractor was fired. Nobody was told. His cabinet member who had - was in charge of Sandy relief spoke to the legislature - testified in front of the legislature after the firing, was talking about that very program, didn't mention the fact that hey, by the way, this contractor in charge of distributing hundreds of millions of dollars is no longer working for the state of New Jersey.
DAVIES: Because it had been badly done.
KATZ: It had been badly done. They didn't want to talk about it. Anything that could be construed as shedding a negative light on the administration has seemed to have been hidden consistently.
DAVIES: You know, we often evaluate presidential candidates on the basis of ideology. I'm always very interested in what they've actually done if they've had a chance to govern. And Christie was a Republican in a Democratic state, gets elected in 2009. Was he able to build coalitions that enabled them to get things done?
KATZ: What Christie was able to do was identify the powerbrokers in the state. The - they call them the Democratic bosses, often unelected, the people who make everything work in the state, the people who have legislators under their sway. And he was able to make deals with them and give them - and listen to what they wanted and maybe give them some things they wanted. And in exchange, he could get votes for policies that he wanted through. Christie had great policy success in his first term with a Democratic legislature because he was able to bring Republican legislators who were already naturally going to be with him and enough Democratic legislators. And one of - and some of these things that these Democratic legislatures did are - were contrary to what is thought Democrats should do. Like, they voted against the interest of public employee unions in rolling back pensions and health benefits for public workers like teachers and firefighters and cops and state workers.
DAVIES: Let's talk about what he did in the legislature. A lot of governors have wanted to roll back public employee benefits because pension funds are under financial distress. What did Christie get done?
KATZ: He was able to force public workers to pay more for their health benefits. He was able to temporarily suspend collective bargaining for certain elements of this just temporarily. He was able to force public workers to pay more for their pensions. And in exchange, he promised to put more government money into the pension system. For years, governors had raided the pension system in order to balance their budgets. And he promised that in exchange, that was the deal he made. And it seemed to work for a year or two.
DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, that seems like exactly the kind of thing that would have national appeal. Unlike the gridlock in Washington, he comes. There's a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem in which everybody gives a bit. The public employees take some hits to their benefits, the government promises to pay up to make the pension system work. Did it work?
KATZ: It was a real compromise, and he was praised for it by good government types and even, like, liberal-leaning editorial boards in New Jersey. But it didn't really work, and that's because the governor didn't really keep his side of the bargain. He - and that's because you could argue that he wanted to run for president as a Republican. And because he wanted to run for president as a Republican, he didn't want to raise taxes because he knew that raising taxes is against conservative orthodoxy. But without raising taxes, the state didn't have enough money to make these pension payments that he promised to make. The economic recovery of the state after the recession was worse than in other states. And there was just not enough revenue coming in, so he ended up reducing the amount he gave into the pension system. And the result is a pension fund that is still in crisis. And with the governor off campaigning for president, with Democrats now, you know, looking towards the next gubernatorial election and having no interest in dealing with him, there is no end in sight to the crisis in the state regarding its pensions for public employees.
DAVIES: So public employees took the hit, made some concessions. And then when the government didn't live up to its promises to fund the fund, you had the same kind of fiscal crisis within the pension funds. But that was years ahead, right? Initially, it looked as if he'd done a remarkable thing here, right?
DAVIES: So you had this Republican governor that comes in, and national Republicans love him because he talks tough and he succeeded in bringing public employee unions to heel and seems to have had a policy victory, where he kind of solved a financial problem. How big was Chris Christie as the 2012 presidential campaign approached? He'd only been in office, what, about a year and a half and people were talking about him as president.
KATZ: People were talking about him as president. He was getting aggressive wooing to throw his hat in the ring. There were a bunch of Iowa Republican millionaires who flew to New Jersey, had dinner with him at the governor's mansion in 2011 to try to convince him to run. There was a meeting in New York City attended by hedge fund billionaires and Henry Kissinger in which these men got up and one by one explained to Christie and his wife why America needed him at this moment in time. Christie for a few months toyed with it. He went to the Reagan Library and gave this speech that was covered live on the cable networks, just as there was a lot of anticipation about whether he was going to run. This was in the fall 2011. And a woman got up in the balcony and she begged him to run for president in this very, like, moving set of remarks that she made. He ended up deciding not to run, obviously. He threw his support behind Mitt Romney. And he ended up - there was talk of him maybe being VP. Instead, he ended up doing the big speech at the Republican Convention, the keynote speech. So he skipped the 2012 and then decided to bet his chances on 2016. You know, it's remarkable how history turned out because a few days before that 2012 election in which he would've been the nominee, the biggest natural disaster to hit New Jersey in its history happened. And he would have been in the thick of a fight running for president. Instead, he was managing this disaster. And he's - I might be skipping ahead here, but he's recently talked about how somewhat ironic that is.
DAVIES: Matt Katz's book about Chris Christie is "American Governor." After a break, he'll tell us about Christie's response to Superstorm Sandy, and his praise from President Obama, which boosted his popularity but angered Republicans. And we'll get to that Bridgegate scandal. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with reporter Matt Katz who's covered New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for five years. He and a team of reporters from public radio station WNYC won a Peabody award for their coverage of Christie and the Bridgegate scandal. Katz's new book about Christie is, "American Governor."
Let's talk about Hurricane Sandy, this huge storm that did enormous damage to many New Jersey communities, which is interesting in a number of ways. What was Chris Christie like when he went and viewed that damage? What did you see?
KATZ: I've never seen a more remarkable display of leadership up close. I had always sort of pooh-poohed the idea of, I feel your pain, you know, the idea of politicians going to the scene of a disaster and saying, you know, I understand, and hugging people. This guy, though, I mean we would walk around these destroyed towns on the Jersey Shore and people would - tears in their eyes - come up to him, thank him wholeheartedly for coming there and helping them. And he would, like, grab them close and, like, look in their eyes and their foreheads were almost touching, and then he just would envelope them in his, you know, considerable arms. He would tear up, and they would cry and he'd go from person to person. He went into people's houses. He heard these stories. And then he would go back to the state's center of operations, the state police headquarters, where he was spending day and night, and he would give these, like, off-the-cuff, moving descriptions of what he had just seen and the challenges that lie ahead. And, you know, you just kind of felt like Dad was in charge and he was going to take care of it.
DAVIES: And at this time - this was, what, October of 2012 - Chris Christie had at that point been a very active surrogate for Mitt Romney, hammering away at President Obama in the campaign. Talk about the relationship he developed with Obama in responding to the natural disaster.
KATZ: Obama called him immediately after the storm and said, whatever you need, let me know, and they started talking multiple times a day. They spoke sometimes late at night. Obama asked if he could visit. Christie said yes. Obama had helped with a number of issues that Christie needed, like getting fuel to gas stations that didn't have fuel. And so Christie said yes, come to the Jersey Shore. And they arrived and did this tour of the Jersey Shore together. Christie was the most significant surrogate for Mitt Romney other than his running mate, Paul Ryan, and we are now five or six days before the presidential election and here Christie and Obama are walking together through shelters, they're flying Marine One over the Jersey Shore. Christie's wearing a fleece that, you know, says Governor Chris Christie, that would later become somewhat famous and be spoofed on "SNL." And he's then asked about how he could be doing this on Fox News. Fox News says, is Mitt Romney going to come to visit the Shore? Is this the right thing to do given the election? And he looked haggard, and he looked tired, and he looked shocked by the question and he said, if you think I give a damn about electoral politics right now then you don't know me. And, I mean, it was incredible to say that on the, you know, the leading - the network that's the leading conservative voice basically a few hours before people were going to the polls. And he said, the president's done a wonderful job and I appreciate his presence and the people of New Jersey need him here. And it was that moment that really cemented his re-election victory a year later because New Jersey decided even if they didn't agree with him - and, you know, there were various conservative policies that New Jersey wasn't into, including him being pro-life - they decided that he was going to do the right thing by the state. That's what they thought at the time, no matter the politics.
DAVIES: And so he was enormously popular and easily re-elected.
KATZ: He was - his approval ratings hit into the 70s and then he won 61 percent of the vote in a blue state. He won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote. And this was November 2013. They took a poll in December 2013 and he was, by virtue of the fact that he was so successful in New Jersey and seen as so electable, on the national stage he was the front-runner for the presidency for the next cycle, for 2016, in December 2013. And he looked like he could even beat - polls indicated that he could beat presumptive front-runner then Hillary Clinton for the Democrats.
DAVIES: So Christie is re-elected in 2013 at the height of his popularity. Things are going great, and then things went very wrong with the scandal people will remember as Bridgegate. What happened?
KATZ: There was a Democratic mayor in the town of Fort Lee - which is at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in the world - and the mayor didn't endorse Christie's re-election. The next thing he knew, there were lanes - suddenly, he woke up one Monday morning in September and there were lanes that go from his town to the George Washington Bridge that were closed. And the result was this massive, massive traffic jam in his town because all these cars from all over North Jersey use those lanes. Ambulance workers had to get out of their vehicles and run to the scene of an emergency. It was the first day of school so new kindergartners were sitting on their buses for hours. And he couldn't figure out why the Port Authority that runs the bridge that's controlled by Christie would have closed these lanes. So he starts making calls, doesn't get a call back. This traffic jam went on for five days including on September 11, the anniversary of September 11, which caused further distress because the bridge is a terrorist target. It went on for five mornings in a row before somebody from the New York side of the Port Authority - because this is a bi-state agency - discovered what had been going on and decided to reopen the lanes. And the explanation initially from Christie officials was that they were just doing a traffic study.
DAVIES: There was suspicion that this was political early on, and after some newspaper work and some legislative hearings, it emerged that there was an email from the deputy chief of staff to Christie that said, I think it was...
KATZ: Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.
DAVIES: And this was before the lanes were closed, and this was the smoking gun that made it clear this had been political retaliation. Christie gathered his people, fired some and then has a news conference at which he's quite contrite. Give us your sense of how forthcoming he was.
KATZ: This went on for nearly two hours, this press conference. It was incredible. I mean, he never raised his voice. He didn't get mad at a reporter. He seemed as contrite as you can imagine. But what he didn't really fully answer, to my mind, was what happened after the lanes reopened. Four months passed between the time the lanes reopened and outsiders were able to discover this time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee email. He's a former federal prosecutor. He has a lot of former federal persecutors who are working for him. And there was plenty of noise within the governor's office about who might have documents, who might have the emails that could shed light on what really happened here. And instead of investigating this fully, he didn't seem to take it seriously. When I - I was the first person to ask Christie about this before the email came out revealing what really happened, and he mocked me. He said it was ridiculous to even ask. And in reality, there are plenty of people high up in the Christie administration who were taking this seriously. They were - they knew this was a problem.
DAVIES: How big of a problem was this for Christie when it became known? I mean, this is not some complicated bank fraud case. This is the kind of thing everybody can relate to.
KATZ: What this mostly did was put him on his heels. He was no longer doing press conferences all the time and, you know, talking smack to Matt Katz and, you know, answering questions he wanted to answer and controlling the narrative and putting out YouTube videos that showed him at his best. He was no longer having town hall meetings because there were now protesters. He was no longer doing the kind of national TV interviews that he had been doing because, you know, he would've been asked about the bridge. He started doing some, like, safe, sports talk radio interviews. He was put on his heels, and the whole sort of image of I keep it - I tell it to you straight, I'm just like a regular guy, what you see is what you get, there was so much more there now that people saw, and they didn't like it.
DAVIES: There's been a criminal case. One person has pled guilty. The trial of two more are coming up. Christie likes to say there was an internal review which settled all the questions here. Tell us about that.
KATZ: The governor calls this an independent investigation. It was an internal review. He hired a law firm to go and interview 75 government officials to figure out what went on here and he released the results. What they concluded essentially was that this was a scheme just involving really two people - David Wildstein, who the report describes as sort of unhinged and he did this because he had all kinds of crazy ideas all the time so he wanted to conduct this nutty traffic study, and Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who would later be indicted. And they say her involvement was due to the fact that she was upset and unstable because she had just been dumped by Christie's campaign manager, Bill Stepien. They came to this conclusion about this relationship and this breakup after an interview with one person. Those two individuals were not interviewed. In fact, nobody even from the Port Authority which runs the bridge and where David Wildstein worked were interviewed. And added to that, the people running this inquiry were connected with the governor. There was a woman, a former federal prosecutor, Debra Wong Yang. She had vacationed with the governor in the past, it turned out. Her daughter had interned in the governor's office. And as recently as a couple of months ago, she held a $2,700-a-person fundraiser for Christie's presidential campaign. She's still, as far as we know, retained by the governor's office because this same law firm is still representing Christie and the matter as the federal investigation continues, and they've charged taxpayers about $8 million so far.
DAVIES: Eight million dollars for the investigation and representation of the governor in Bridgegate.
DAVIES: Matt Katz's book about Chris Christie is called, "American Governor." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Matt Katz. He has spent years covering New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He has a book about him. It's called "American Governor." The Christie presidential campaign stalled, and you see him at the periphery in the presidential debates because his poll numbers are small. But he's hung in there. It seems he's had a bit of a surge in New Hampshire. I mean, where does his campaign stand now?
KATZ: There've been moments where it seems like he's surging, and then polls that show he's not. The good news is this. He draws big crowds at town hall meetings - bigger than many of his opponents. People love him at town hall meetings. They walk out and say, he's our guy. They laugh, they cry - I mean, remember, this is the skill that he honed so well in New Jersey. And now he's bringing it to New Hampshire, and they're - they love it. But it hasn't necessarily caught fire. And there's downside. He's got more downside than some of the other candidates. And that - you know, he used to be pro-choice. He ran for office in the '90s - for local office - on an anti-gun platform. He is not seen in some circles as a real conservative because of that time he was with Obama after Hurricane Sandy. And then there's the bridge thing, which his opponents have sometimes mentioned here and there. The magic of his personality is what he's relying on. Political reporters who've been around a long time, who've covered all of these guys, say he is the most talented. They like to say he has the best raw political talent in the field. Whether that carries him through New Hampshire is the big question. What he needs, and what people should be watching if they want to know whether Chris Christie stays in this thing - he needs to beat all the governors in New Hampshire. That's the game plan. The game plan is to leave New Hampshire not having won - because maybe Donald Trump wins - maybe not even beating somebody like Senator Marco Rubio, but beating the governors - that's former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich. And if he can beat those guys, then he thinks he moves on and can live to fight another day. And he'd be - that'd be a four-man race, in his mind, with Cruz, Trump and Rubio.
DAVIES: And if at some point the party and voters decide they don't want Trump and don't want Cruz, then he has an opening.
KATZ: Somebody asked him the other day, why don't you go after Trump? He's like, because I don't need to yet. He is - remember, he decided not to run in 2012. There's a patience about him that is underappreciated. And I think that he's not punching Trump yet because Trump isn't in front of him online. He's dealing with the guys in front of him, and then he'll make - once it's a - he just needs to live to fight another day. And he believes that he has the talent to knock out whoever's remaining.
DAVIES: There's another little detail that I love that you discovered is that an old political operative that he's known and worked with for years he in effect sent to New Hampshire, like, a year-and-a-half ago as executive director of the state Republican Party to make contacts.
KATZ: The same person who had once sought the endorsements of the mayor of Fort Lee - this guy worked in the IGA office...
DAVIES: That's the office in the governor's office that kind of made political overtures.
KATZ: That's correct. And he was responsible for a certain number of mayors, and he was responsible for trying to get the mayor of Fort Lee's endorsement. And he wasn't able to do it.
DAVIES: His name is...
KATZ: His name is Matt Mowers. And immediately - almost immediately after Christie's reelection, which he also worked on after his time in the governor's office, he went to New Hampshire through his connections with Christie's allies - they had some connections in New Hampshire - and he was able to get a job running the New Hampshire state Republican Party. And that's essentially what he did until Christie started running for president, and now he's running Christie's New Hampshire campaign. And what to Matt Mowers did while he was running the state party of New Hampshire was doing the same sort of thing he did at the IGA, which is, you know, building relationships with local officials, getting to know the lay of the land, collecting political intelligence. Christie has done very well, by the way, in New Hampshire, with endorsements. And remember, that was the key to his reelection. And it's a tried-and-true game plan that they have dusted off for the presidential race.
DAVIES: You've covered this guy for five years. And he, you know, kind of uses you as a verbal punching bag sometimes. And you've had this long, kind of complicated relationship. Do you like him?
KATZ: I do like him. I don't think I could be covering somebody for five years, I don't think somebody could loom so dominantly in my life for that long, if I didn't like him. I don't know if we'd be friends in the real world, let's say, but I think that when I've had one- on-one interactions with him, if we've had moments when we're not necessarily talking politics, he is amusing. He's charming. He tells a great story. I am fascinated by his complexities. So I'm drawn to him also, you know, professionally as a journalist. I mean I think he is perhaps the most fascinating politician in America. He's got contradictions. He's got a complicated style. And he's got ambition, which is compelling to watch.
DAVIES: Matt Katz, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KATZ: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Matt Katz covers Chris Christie for public radio station WNYC. You can read and hear his work on the Christie Tracker blog. Katz's new book about Christie is called "American Governor." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the debut album of the indie rock band Hinds. This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.