From the suburbs to the statehouse

If the months-long hubbub that saw conservatives frantically pining for New Jersey’s governor to run for president taught us anything, it’s that Republicans are sweet on Chris Christie.

The first-term governor and former U.S. attorney has built a powerful national brand as a quick-witted and curt champion of conservative values, a star on the campaign trail who thrills red-meat Republicans with his penchant for sticking it to Democrats.

Whatever it is, it’s working. Christie’s approval ratings in New Jersey are at record highs and well above 50 percent — no small feat for a Republican in left-leaning New Jersey. Despite enraging unions and regularly insulting constituents at public events, Christie has managed to drive sweeping legislative victories through a Legislature wholly controlled by Democrats. 

But what few Christie fans know is that away from the spotlight of cable news and the persona bestowed on him by pundits, Christie’s story and political identity are much more nuanced, as Bob Ingle and Michael Symons reveal in their new biography, Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power.

Christie’s early campaigns were characterized by several centrist-to-liberal positions he took — particularly on social issues. And unlike the near-unanimous support he enjoys from Garden State Republicans as governor, he was the bane of the state’s GOP establishment for many years. The perpetually confident governor lost his first election and was driven out of office as a county official, placing last in the primary for his reelection bid.

“I pretty much decided I would never run for anything again,” Christie said. “It had been a very tumultuous three years, and I thought to myself, ‘You know, maybe I was not cut out for this.’ ”

Ingle and Symons, both reporters for Gannett’s New Jersey Statehouse bureau, are institutions on press row, having covered state politics for more than a decade in Trenton, where their office sits one floor above Christie’s. The pair was granted copious access to Christie, his family, friends and political allies for the biography.

The two reporters describe how Christie grew up in a modest New Jersey home, the son of a strong-willed Sicilian mother who was a lifelong Democrat. By the second grade, Christie was telling a teacher of his plans for a career in politics, and he volunteered on a gubernatorial campaign by age 14.

“Insiders said Christie takes input from his trusted aides, encourages open debate, but in the end makes decisions himself,” Ingle and Symons write. “What he won’t allow is for that debate to take place in public or the press, just as Christie’s parents wouldn’t permit Chris and [brother] Todd to fight in front of neighbors.”

After marrying his wife, Wall Street bond trader Mary Pat Christie, and attending law school, Christie mounted an unsuccessful challenge to a Republican state senator, saying the issue that motivated him to run was a GOP attempt to roll back an assault-weapon ban.

“In today’s society, no one needs a semiautomatic weapon,” Christie said.

When he ran the next year for freeholder, New Jersey’s equivalent of a county commissioner, Christie opposed restoring funding that had been cut to Planned Parenthood — on fiscal grounds. Not only did he support abortion rights, Christie said, he had donated his own money to the group. (Christie later had a change of heart after a prenatal visit when his wife was pregnant with his daughter Sarah, and now opposes abortion rights.)

Christie’s campaign tactics drew intense criticism during his early political years, and he settled a lawsuit with two incumbents who sued him for slander. He was later sued again by a jail architect who accused him of libel.

“Nobody ever said Christie is a softie,” Ingle and Symons write. “When he has you in his sights, you’d better be prepared for the worst.”

After volunteering as a campaign attorney and bundler for President George W. Bush — who gave Christie the nickname “Big Boy” — Christie was appointed U.S. attorney for New Jersey, where he built a reputation for aggressive prosecution of corruption. He defeated former Garden State Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in 2009 despite major efforts by the Obama team to shore up Corzine’s reelection.

“Some politicians love running for office but don’t find the day-to-day running of government exciting enough,” the authors argue. “Chris Christie relishes governing more than being on the campaign trail. In his administration, even the dull and frustrating things that bore the rest of us held his attention.”

Political junkies hungry for clues about Christie’s higher ambitions and future plans might find themselves disappointed with the biography. The authors take few opportunities to connect the dots between formative events in Christie’s life and the traits he would bring with him to a national campaign or the Oval Office.

The book does include a lengthy section about Christie’s deliberations regarding 2012 — including a secret visit by Mitt and Ann Romney on which the couple got lost looking for the Christie mansion — but the contours of this year’s “will he, won’t he” saga are already familiar to Christie’s diehard fans.

Even if Christie doesn’t pursue the White House four or eight years from now, the new biography offers a thorough, exacting account of how an outspoken son of New Jersey became the hottest ticket in conservative politics.