MIAMI — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie left a political scandal back home to raise money for fellow Republicans in Florida this weekend.
As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie was headlining a series of events to help Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, and the state party.
The events, closed to reporters, give Christie his first chance since the scandal escalated to reassure big financial donors that he remains a viable presidential contender for 2016.
The trip comes as the mayor of a New Jersey city that sustained severe flooding from Hurricane Sandy claims the Christie administration withheld millions of dollars in recovery grants because she refused to sign off on a politically connected development.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer told The Associated Press that Gov. Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno and a top community development official told her in May that recovery funds would flow to her city if the commercial development went forward. MSNBC first reported her comments today.
Christie’s office did not return messages from the AP. Spokesman Michael Drewniak called Zimmer’s claims “outlandishly false” in a statement to MSNBC.
The apparent political payback scheme caused massive traffic jams last fall by closing local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, one of the world’s busiest bridges.
Christie apologized and fired a top aide, and told reporters he had “no knowledge or involvement” in the matter. Still, with investigations moving ahead, the issue could follow him for some time and cause consternation for his financial backers.
Many Republicans have come to Christie’s defense and credited him with taking responsibility for the scandal, although some GOP leaders say his future will depend on whether his account of what happened proves accurate.
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP consultant, said donors he’s spoken with feel Christie’s rising star was tainted by the controversies.
“The jury is definitely now out,” he said. “He’s gone from an A-plus to a B. He’s not going to be the presidential nominee in waiting. We’re in a watch-and-see phase.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to use the bridge scandal to tarnish Christie, who cruised to re-election against an underfunded Democratic opponent.
Backed by local elected officials, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, held a press conference near Christie’s Orlando fundraiser to tie the New Jersey governor to Scott, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.
“Republican governors have been touting themselves as the grown-ups and the ones that have the ability to lead us forward,” she said in an interview. “The guy they chose as their leader is Chris Christie, who has been characterized as a maniacal bully by Republicans and who was willing to take out retribution against not the elected officials who wouldn’t endorse him but ... his own constituents.”
Republicans countered that Democrats were trying to distract from their own party’s leading gubernatorial contender, former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, whose tenure coincided with the Great Recession. “Under Governor Charlie Crist, Florida’s unemployment spiked to record high numbers and jobs disappeared from the state in droves,” said RGA spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. “This weekend, Charlie Crist and Florida Democrats want to talk about anything other than their failures.”
Christie planned to raise money for Scott at a Saturday luncheon in Orlando where the host committee includes John D. Rood, a Jacksonville real estate developer; Orlando attorney Pat Christiansen and businessman Bill Heavener, a co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s Florida fundraising team in 2012.
A second event was planned at the Palm Beach home of Jose Pepe Fanjul Jr., executive vice president of Florida Crystals, one of the nation’s largest sugar producers. Another fundraiser was set to take place at the Fort Lauderdale home of Bill Rubin, the president of a lobbying firm and a longtime friend of Scott’s.
On Sunday, Christie will attend two fundraisers in Palm Beach and meet with major financial supporters at a gathering organized by Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, who urged the governor to consider a late entry into the 2012 presidential race. The event, which was first reported by The Washington Post, will allow some of Christie’s longtime supporters to huddle following the governor’s sweeping re-election in November.
During the private meetings, how Christie addresses the imbroglio could be critical for financial rainmakers who are beginning to take stock of a potentially large Republican field. Two prominent Florida Republicans — former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio — are viewed as potential candidates.
“I like Christie. If he did decide to run, I’m sure he would be a formidable candidate,” said Al Hoffman, a Republican donor who co-chaired President George W. Bush’s campaigns, “but so would Jeb and so would Marco.”