By Victoria Cavaliere
TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned to themes of small but compassionate government and bipartisan cooperation in his second inaugural address on Tuesday, making no direct mention of the abuse of power charges facing his administration.
A charismatic and tough-talking fiscal conservative, Christie is widely seen as a Republican contender for the White House in 2016.
Although he cruised to re-election in November, Christie has gone on the defensive in recent weeks amid allegations that his top aides orchestrated massive traffic snarls to exact political revenge and that his administration withheld Superstorm Sandy relief money to pressure a local mayor into approving a development deal.
In his address in the state capital of Trenton after he was sworn into his second term, Christie returned to the themes that have been hallmarks of his political brand and criticized the idea that an “almighty government” can “fix any problem.”
“I do not believe that New Jerseyans want a bigger, more expensive government that penalizes success and then gives the pittance left to a few in the name of income equity,” Christie said.
Christie also returned to a subject common to his speeches: the need for Republicans and Democrats to work together.
“We cannot fall victim to the attitude of Washington, DC … The attitude that puts political victories ahead of policy agreements. The belief that compromise is a dirty word,” said Christie. “As your governor, I will always be willing to listen, as long as that listening ends in decisive action for the people who are counting on us to do our job.”
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a top Democrat, said the speech was “long on rhetoric and short on solutions” and called for Christie’s support for an earned income tax credit and higher taxes for the state’s top earners.
“The governor delivered a nice speech today, but the working families of New Jersey deserve real results,” Sweeney said in a statement.
A POLITICAL TEMPEST
Christie’s second term begins amid a tempest — an area snowstorm forced the cancellation of his inaugural party Tuesday evening on Ellis Island — as well as a political storm that began this month over a traffic-related scandal.
Emails released just weeks ago seemed to show that aides deliberately snarled traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which links New Jersey and New York.
The lane closures appeared to be retribution against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, who declined to endorse Christie for re-election.
Christie has said he did not know of his aides’ plans, and he fired and cut ties with them after their roles were revealed. Federal prosecutors and both chambers of the state legislature are investigating the lane closings, which occurred without notice for four days in September.
In a sign the scandal is taking a toll on Christie’s image, a Quinnipiac University poll found that just 35 percent of registered voters said he would make a good president, compared to almost half who voiced that opinion two months ago.
“New Jersey Governor Christopher Christie’s 2016 presidential drive is stuck in traffic,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Three-quarters of the voters surveyed had heard of the traffic scandal, and half said it would damage Christie’s 2016 White House hopes. The poll of 1,933 registered voters was conducted from January 15 to January 19, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
The scandal broke two months after Christie, who has built a political reputation on his blunt-spoken manner and his success in getting his agenda through a heavily Democratic state, easily won re-election.
Democrats have since raised other accusations. Last week, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat and frequent Christie ally, claimed the governor’s administration had linked the release of Superstorm Sandy relief funds to approval of a Hoboken development project.
Zimmer has said Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno warned her that Christie would withhold recovery funding if Zimmer did not support a bid by the New York-based Rockefeller Group to build on several blocks in the city.
Christie’s spokesman over the weekend dismissed the Hoboken mayor’s claims as false, as did Guadagno.
Federal officials are also reviewing Christie’s use of about $2 million in storm relief funds for a tourism campaign that features him and his family. New Jersey Democratic Representative Frank Pallone requested the probe, saying he was concerned about the bidding process for the marketing campaign.
A spokesman for Christie said there was nothing improper about the campaign and suggested Pallone’s inquiry was politically motivated.
(Writing by Edith Honan; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Amanda Kwan)