POLITICS: PennAve

With nod to scandal, Chris Christie looks toward 2016 in Chicago

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Politics,Chicago,2014 Elections,2016 Elections,Campaigns,Chris Christie,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Bridge Scandal

CHICAGO -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's first travel slate as chairman of the Republican Governors Association was designed as a nationwide victory lap after his re-election as governor.

It didn’t work out that way.

Instead, still facing blowback from a political retribution scheme carried out by members of his administration, Christie arrived in Chicago with plenty of political baggage -- including an unwanted entourage of Democrats, led this time by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.

“Not even the winds of Chicago can blow away the storm clouds hanging over the head of Gov. Chris Christie,” Strickland said during a news conference down the street from where Christie would speak later.

But, to a crowd of business executives at the Economic Club of Chicago, Christie stayed more focused on the literal weather, not the figurative kind. “As a governor, there’s nothing worse than weather,” Christie said, as the moderator noted the city’s characteristic cold, “because you have no control over it, but you bear complete responsibility for it."

Christie has put that theory to the test in recent weeks as he has faced the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal, the weight of which has threatened to drown his percolating ambitions to run for president in 2016. Two investigations into the incident, one by the New Jersey legislature and another by the U.S. attorney, are ongoing.

The scandal has followed Christie beyond New Jersey's borders, including in recent weeks to Florida and Texas, where he traveled on behalf of the RGA -- only to be snubbed by the Republican gubernatorial candidates for whom he was there to raise money, who would not appear with him publicly.

In Chicago, three of four Republican candidates for governor opted not to attend Christie’s sole public event, at the Economic Club. There, Christie fielded one question about the scandal during his hour-long conversation, and in his response he acknowledged “significant mistakes in judgment” made by his aides.

“Large organizations are dynamic and incredibly creative because they’re inhabited by human beings,” Christie said in explanation. “They’re also inherently flawed because they’re inhabited by human beings.”

But Christie, who has spent the past few weeks explaining and defending his role in the lane closures, of which he says he had no advance knowledge, appeared in his remarks Tuesday to begin to look ahead -- notably, to 2016.

“As you look forward to 2016, our party’s priority should be on winning,” Christie said. “Not winning the argument. Winning the election.”

"Parties tend to become pragmatic when they're powerless,” Christie noted later. “It's time for us to get pragmatic."

Christie invoked former President George W. Bush as an example of a Republican candidate who, although not universally popular, was able to win. Perhaps not coincidentally, Christie's re-election campaign, which sought support from a commanding share of voters across demographics, mimicked Bush's gubernatorial re-election campaign before he ran for president.

"He was grossly under-appreciated by the country and his own party," Christie said of Bush.

Meanwhile, Christie's rhetoric was noticeably nationalized, and he gamely addressed foreign policy issues, income inequality and immigration reform.

The latter topic afforded an opportunity to criticize President Obama and Washington, D.C., in general — a box to check for any Republican turning toward national ambitions.

“The president came in saying it was one of his most important priorities in 2009, and controlled both houses of Congress and did nothing. That's a missed opportunity. …That sent a signal that it was not a priority issue to him.”

Christie’s wife, Mary Pat, was in the audience, and even as Christie looked beyond the scandal facing him now and for the foreseeable future, he also reflected on the toll it has taken on him and his family, conceding that the past few weeks have been trying. But, he added, “No one’s asking for sympathy cards to be sent.”

“Every job where there’s great responsibility and opportunity brings with it enormous challenges and sometimes some pain,” Christie said more generally of his work as governor. “But I don’t think any of us who have had this opportunity would substitute it or give it away.”

Christie will cap off his trip to Chicago in meetings with donors and, later Tuesday, a private fundraising dinner to benefit the RGA. A spokesperson announced Tuesday that the RGA raised $6 million in January, a record for that month, and that Christie brought in $1.5 million during his trip to Texas.

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