As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tries to divert attention from a blunder that cost the state a $400 million federal education grant, Democrats are hoping to seize upon the most glaring gaffe of the Republican's young term to land a political punch.
Christie has seemed nearly invincible since barreling into office in January by pushing out the incumbent Democrat in a Democrat-leaning state. He's brushed aside political opponents to win national notice, muscled property tax reforms through the Legislature and knocked the powerful teachers' union down a peg or two.
But, last week, in sleepy August, came word that New Jersey had lost out on a federal Race To The Top education grant possibly because of a simple, preventable administrative error. An embarrassing and very public feud followed with Bret Schundler, the lightning rod education chief who Christie fired when the two got their signals crossed over the error.
The Christie administration's first major blunder has Democrats smelling blood and licking their chops.
"We're not letting this go," said Senate President Steve Sweeney. "I think the governor needs to explain to the people of New Jersey how his administration mishandled this. When you try to cover it up and point fingers, this is an enormous hammer."
Democrats may call for an investigation into whether the governor's office considered sending false information to federal education officials to help secure $75 million in leftover grant funding after losing out on the bigger pot.
They could drag their feet in confirming Christie's remaining Cabinet picks, including Schundler's eventual replacement, though both Sweeney and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari say that's not in the playbook. Or they could try to leverage their attack, perhaps by agreeing to tone down the rhetoric in exchange for some favor, such as restoration of the $7.5 million in family planning center money Christie cut from the budget. Sweeney said that's not the endgame either.
The error could gain traction among a so-far-approving public because it's so easy to grasp: the administration lost 5 points on the grant application because of a wrong answer. Ohio edged out New Jersey for funding by 3 points.
A public opinion poll taken before the gaffe found Christie had grown more popular during the summer, with 51 percent describing him as a leader and 43 percent identifying him as a bully. Another poll is expected this month.
Schundler has made matters worse for the administration by publicly sparring with Christie, then asking to be fired â€” rather than agreeing to resign â€” so he could collect unemployment. The long-winded Schundler, a twice-failed, right-wing Republican candidate for governor and fierce charter school proponent, has been by turns defiant and contrite in recent days. He eventually owned the mistake, but then teed off on Christie for making him a scapegoat and accusing him of lying.
Christie says he fired Schundler for misleading him about information he gave to federal reviewers; Schundler maintains he told the governor the truth and Christie distorted the facts.
The ongoing public spat has been like a new bike at Christmas for hitherto coal-holding Democrats.
"This is a wonderful gift to the legislative Democrats and the NJEA (teachers' union) to carry them through November â€” a push back at the governor," said political scientist Peter Woolley of Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Woolley said Christie compounded the error by at first blaming the Obama administration for not allowing Schundler to fix it during the interview in Washington. Criticizing Obama, who remains popular in New Jersey, could help energize Democratic voters for this fall's Congressional races and even for next year's state legislative campaigns, Woolley said.
Legislative leaders insist they'll hold the Christie administration accountable for an error that cost the cash-strapped state almost half a billion precious education dollars. No one believes, however, that Christie's critics â€” namely, political opponents and union members â€” aren't stoking the flames and cheerfully watching them burn.
Assembly Republican Minority Leader Alex DeCroce dismissed the Democrats' so-called search for the truth as a thinly veiled "witch hunt."
"Even if the administration did everything right, the Obama administration was never going to give the governor a nickel," DeCroce said. "There was no chance he was going to get that money from D.C."
Sweeney and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Barbara Buono have called on Christie to apologize to the Obama administration for originally blaming the error on D.C. bureaucrats.
Christie on Thursday refused to answer specific questions about the failed application or his ongoing disagreement with Schundler. On Tuesday, he dismissed the Democrats' rant as "good summer entertainment, but not much more," and has tried, since firing Schundler on Friday, to change the subject. Democrats, however, have sensed the first real opportunity to regain some political footing they lost in November.
"The governor's political capital shrunk a little bit," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "It was not a fatal error on the governor's part. It was a big one, but it didn't sink his standing with the voters."
Buono and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver have called separate hearings beginning Tuesday to dig deeper into the failed grant application, and both have invited Schundler to testify. There's no word on whether the fiery former cabinet member will accommodate the Democrats' request, but he might. Schundler said Wednesday he's done talking about the grant to the press.
"We know we don't have the full story here," said Buono, "and the public has the right to know what happened."