Under almost any other circumstances, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would have been strutting their stuff at the National Governors Association midterm conference in Washington this weekend – basking in the speculation about their possible bids for the 2016 GOP presidential nominations.
Christie, the blustery former prosecutor and hard-edged pragmatist, and Walker, the Republican reformer and union challenger, were standouts in a large field of GOP presidential aspirants.
With potentially devastating investigations hanging over their heads, however, the tone changed. Christie tried his best to keep a low profile over the weekend, while Walker may have wished he had.
Christie , the putative frontrunner ever since his impressive gubernatorial reelection victory last November, has fallen from grace since becoming enmeshed in a bridge closing scandal involving two of his former top political aides.
The Washington Post reported that on Saturday, the typically boisterous Christie kept his head down at the National Governors Association forum, “spending much of the morning sitting quietly near the podium, with his black-rimmed glasses hanging on his noses, taking notes as other governors spoke.”
Christie avoided reporters’ questions about last year’s lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that were ordered in apparent retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. who refused to support Christie’s reelection. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, also skipped a planned visit to the White House with the other governors on Sunday and instead returned home to New Jersey.
Walker had the misfortune of appearing with Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-VT) on “Fox News Sunday” today, thinking perhaps that he would be on friendly political ground with Fox and that the discussion would hew closely to state and national political issues and Obamacare.
Halfway through the interview, however, moderator Chris Wallace began grilling Walker – a former county executive -- about the 27,000 pages of e-mails and other documents released by a judge last week strongly indicating that Walker knew his Milwaukee County Executive staff was illegally coordinating efforts with his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
The documents released on Wednesday were gathered as part of a now-concluded investigation that led to conviction of Kelly Rindfleisch, a former Walker deputy chief of staff, on charges that she essentially worked as a campaign staffer for a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor while on the clock in Walker’s office.
Wallace showed a new TV ad criticizing Walker and repeatedly pushed him to respond to the allegations of an alleged “Walkergate.” When Walker dismissed the revelations as “old news” about a case that was closed without implicating him, Wallace shot back. “Because of this dump of 25,000 documents, it’s new news to a lot of the people in the state and it’s been big news in local papers in Wisconsin.”
Walker refused to offer any specific defense, repeating that he was not charged in an investigation that was led by a Democratic district attorney and tried to change the subject.
Wallace was unrelenting: “In one email that was released this week, your then chief of staff Thomas Nardelli . . . writes campaign and county workers that you wanted to hold daily conference calls ‘to review events of the day or of a previous or future day so we can better coordinate sound timely responses;’ and in another e-mail county administrative director Cynthia Archer suggests that colleagues should use a private e-mail account. Question: if county workers were doing nothing wrong, why should they be using a private e-mail account?
Walker responded: “Well, but that’s exactly to my point. You had a Democratic district attorney spend almost three years looking at every single one of those communications, interviewing people, talking to people and closed the case.
Wallace: ‘Did you have your own private e-mail account?’
Walker: ‘It’s one of those where I point out district attorney has reviewed every single one of these issues.
Even if Walker isn’t implicated of any wrongdoing, the documents, as well as other information arising from a pair of criminal cases related to his rise from Milwaukee County Executive to Governor of Wisconsin, raise some troubling questions about his choice of personnel and his awareness -- or lack thereof -- of what was going on in his own office. Similar questions have been raised about Christie.
In hindsight, Walker may wish that he, too, had caught an early flight home today.
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