New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, still dogged by the uproar over a politically motivated traffic jam ordered by his office last year, said at an event in Chicago on Tuesday that he was disappointed by the “bad judgments” made by people on his staff.
The so-called Bridgegate scandal had threatened to overshadow Christie’s visit – Mayor Rahm Emanuel joked Tuesday morning that he welcomed Christie “to the public transportation system and the roads here in the city of Chicago.”
But it didn’t scare off at least two of the four Republican candidates for Illinois governor. State Sen. Bill Brady attended Christie’s only public event of the day, and businessman Bruce Rauner met with Christie later in the afternoon.
Christie was in town to raise money for the Republican Governors Association, which he has chaired since November, and which could be a crucial funding source for the eventual Illinois nominee.
Seated on a stage in a packed ballroom at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, the embattled governor fielded questions from moderator Greg Brown, CEO of Motorola Solutions, during a luncheon hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago.
Brown asked about the bridge scandal about 10 minutes into the discussion.
“I'm shocked you brought that up,” Christie quipped, drawing laughter from the friendly crowd.
“Large organizations are dynamic and incredibly creative because they’re inhabited by human beings,” Christie said. “They're also inherently flawed because they’re inhabited by human beings.”
He went on: “People who work for me made some significant mistakes in judgment. And when you’re the leader of that organization and you’re confronted with that, the first thing that happens to you — what happened to me — was extraordinary disappointment. Extraordinary disappointment that people that I had trusted had made such bad judgments and had not told the truth.”
The scandal erupted last month when it was revealed that a top aide to Christie sent an email to a Christie insider at the Port Authority, calling for “traffic problems in Fort Lee,” a town where the Democratic mayor had declined to back Christie’s November re-election bid.
Christie has denied ordering or knowing about his office’s involvement in the subsequent gridlock on traffic approaches to busy George Washington Bridge last September.
Christie said Tuesday that once the scandal broke, he had only a few minutes to “wallow” in his disappointment, then took “decisive action” by firing people and “talking to the public about it.”
He said he would release the findings of an internal review, “and if there’s more action that needs to be taken, I’ll take it.”
But Democrats are not satisfied with Christie’s response to the bridge revelations, which could threaten his chances at a presidential bid in 2016. Intent on keeping the scandal in the national spotlight, they blasted Christie at a news conference in Chicago before the luncheon.
Christie is either “lying, or he’s the most inept, incompetent chief executive imaginable,” said former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who was joined by John Cullerton, president of the Illinois Senate.
“I was the governor of a large state,” Strickland said. “I was surrounded by top staff. In my judgment, it is impossible for these kinds of things to have happened in Chris Christie’s office without his knowledge or his consent.”
Since the scandal, many Republicans have kept their distance from Christie while he’s toured the country raising money for the RGA.
But the winner of the Illinois Republican governor primary is expected to try to tap into the millions being raised by the RGA, which played a major funding role for Brady in his loss to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn four years ago.
Christie hinted that the Republican nominee could expect RGA support this year, too.
“We have a number of targeted states that we think are in play,” Christie said. “I’m sitting in one now.”
Asked by moderator Brown what advice he would give to Republicans running for governor in a largely Democratic Illinois, Christie shrugged.
“Well, listen, have faith, baby,” he said. “I won twice in New Jersey. That’s what I’d say to them. It can happen.”
Tribune reporter Rick Pearson contributed.