The first time Christopher J. Christie proposed to his future wife, he was not seeking her hand in marriage.
Christie was a sophomore at the University of Delaware when he was introduced to Mary Pat Foster, a freshman. They were just friends when, a year later, he decided to run for president of the student body. Needing a candidate to run as secretary on his ticket, Christie thought of Mary Pat. “I knew she was smart and articulate, so I approached her with the suggestion of running with me.”
They won the election, and two years later, Christie proposed again—this time for marriage.
In March, the Christies will celebrate their 23rd anniversary. They also should be knee-deep in Chris Christie’s gubernatorial campaign. Running for the Republican nomination on his record as a corruption-busting U.S. attorney, Christie, 46, is expecting significant competition from a GOP field that includes former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan and Assemblyman Rick Merkt of Morris County.
Don’t expect Mary Pat, 45, to share the ticket with Christie this time around. She’s already engaged as senior vice president of fixed income sales at Cantor Fitzgerald in Summit. Then there’s the matter of raising their four children: Andrew, 15, Sarah, 13, Patrick, 8, and Bridget, 5.
Of course, Mary Pat is one of her husband’s biggest supporters. “I love this state and I know how talented he is,” she says. “It’s a sacrifice for our family without a doubt. Chris has the ability to analyze problems and find solutions, and I really believe he can make a difference. We concur on the way government should operate. I’m thrilled for him to give it a chance.”
Although an early poll showed him running ahead of Governor Jon Corzine—who is expected to seek reelection on the Democratic ticket—Christie is in for a battle as he targets his first statewide office.
But aiming high is nothing new to Christie. Born in Newark, and raised in Livingston, Christie served as president of his class all four years at Livingston High School. In his senior year, with Christie at catcher, the school’s baseball team won the state championship.
After graduating from the University of Delaware in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, he earned his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law.
Christie’s path to the Department of Justice started while he was a partner in the Cranford law firm of Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci. In 1999, his law partner, Bill Palatucci, who had run the senior George Bush’s presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992, arranged a trip to Texas for several New Jersey Republicans, including Christie. It was there that he met then-Texas Governor George W. Bush.
“When I first met Bush in Austin, in January 1999, my impression was that this was somebody who was very comfortable in his own skin and he had a clear idea of who he was,” Christie recalls. “He’s appealing to talk to, natural, relaxed, and he made me feel relaxed being with him.”
After that first meeting, Christie became an integral part of Bush’s presidential push in 2000. The campaign “allowed Chris to show his leadership skills,” Palatucci says. Bush made Christie his New Jersey Campaign Counsel, responsible for observing voting in the state.
Once Bush had secured the White House, he nominated Christie to the position of U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. “I heard my mother’s voice in my head saying, ‘Do what you need to do,’” says Christie. (Sandy Christie passed away in 2004, but her encouragement still lives on. “She was an incredibly strong-willed person and made me believe there was nothing I couldn’t do.”)
Christie received the formal job offer on September 10, 2001. The next day, September 11, the FBI turned its attention away from Christie’s background check and formal nomination to focus on the nation’s tragedy. Several months later, in December, the Senate voted unanimously to approve his appointment.
“The job of Federal law enforcement changed overnight [after 9/11]. Terrorism became the number one priority,” Christie says.
Prior to his swearing-in, however, the leaders of the Federal Bar Association became concerned about Christie’s lack of experience in criminal law. The New Jersey Chapter passed a resolution to ask President Bush to withdraw the nomination. “Early on,” says Christie, “I had a problem. They even sent a press release to the media.” In the end, says Christie, “Bush had faith in his own judgment, so I was ultimately confirmed.”
Next, Christie had to win the confidence of his team at the Department of Justice. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michele Brown, who worked closely with Christie, remembers the conflict. “The assistant U.S. attorneys here were guarded and possessive about the reputation of the office when Chris first started.” Christie adds with a laugh, “Some were less charitable than that.”
Recognizing the problem, Christie took the advice of his friend and mentor, Mike Brey, head coach of the University of Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team, and met individually with each person on his staff, asking the attorneys for their help. “I listened to people and heard their ideas. I came in without a swagger.”
“He was incredibly brave,” confirms Brown. “People appreciated the candor of someone who admitted to strangers that he had a lot to learn.”
Christie had another barrier to overcome. Some were concerned because the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey had a long nonpartisan history; Christie’s appointment came from a Republican president. But after only a few months in his position, in October 2002, Christie announced the indictment of Essex County executive and then-Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, James W. Treffinger, who was charged with extortion, fraud, obstructing a federal investigation, and conspiracy.
Shedding the partisanship rap, Christie soon won the support and admiration of his staff, including the women—in an office with almost 40 percent female assistant U.S. attorneys. Amy Winkleman, former chief of the Criminal Division, and now associate general counsel of Moody’s Corporation, says of Christie: “He’s comfortable working with strong-willed women. He’s an excellent motivator in a positive, inspirational way.”
Christie’s own motivation comes from the time he spends with his family in Mendham, where they have lived since 1992. Like most suburban parents, Christie and Mary Pat stay busy on the weekends with their kids.
“While I was in the Justice Department, I guarded my weekends jealously,” says Christie. “I do the same things everybody else does—run errands, go to the bank, and attend my kids’ sporting events, whether it’s soccer, basketball, football, or baseball.”
His favorite activity each morning is driving all four children to school. During the winter, he can be found in the bleachers at either Andrew’s or Sarah’s basketball games. In the spring, he coaches Patrick’s little league team.
Christie is also a voracious reader. “Right now I’m reading a Christmas gift from my son, Andrew,” he says. The book: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham.
Favorite Christie family haunts in Mendham include the Black Horse Tavern and Sammy’s Ye Old Cider Mill, but the Christies also enjoy Dante’s Ristorante Italian take-out.
The family has had to adjust to people approaching their table when they are out to eat. “People are usually very nice,” he says, “but there are positives and negatives to a high-profile position. I tell my kids it’s all fleeting. It’s what you’re like on the inside that stays constant.”
Christie’s father, Bill, who has remarried and lives in Waretown, is no doubt proud of his son’s ambitions. “My father and mother brought us up to believe that we were privileged to live in a nice house, go to a good school, and grow up as citizens who contribute,” Christie says. “It’s not about rights, it’s about responsibilities.”
This sense of responsibility spills over into Christie’s hometown activism. Starting in 1995, he served as a freeholder and worked as a liaison to the Department of Human Services in Morris County. While there, Christie met Father Joe Hennen at Mendham’s Daytop Village, a residential treatment center for teenagers suffering from alcohol and drug abuse. He served as a board member until he started working in the Department of Justice—which required him to step down.
Christie still attends fundraising events sponsored by Daytop. He shares the poignant story of a “16-year-old heroin-and-cocaine-addict who had been in the Morris County jail and whose life was potentially ruined several years ago.” After the teen’s rehabilitation at Daytop, he successfully went on to finish high school, college, and law school. “That young man wound up working [in the Justice Department] as a summer intern,” says Christie, “and now he’s in private practice. Daytop is a place where miracles happen.”
Good government, on the other hand, should not require miracles.
“I believe that, if government is operated in a fair and accountable way, it can help people,” he says. He combines that philosophy with his work ethic to, as he puts it, “be the best I can be, at whatever I’m doing.”
Christie had an extraordinary record in his years as U.S. attorney, winning 130 cases and losing none. As a candidate he will be under pressure to articulate a vision for New Jersey and a roadmap out of the state’s current financial crisis.
He says he is prepared for the gubernatorial race, whatever the outcome. “Mary Pat and I don’t have any trepidation about it, because we believe we have something to contribute. When all is said and done,” he emphasizes, “We’ll still be who we are.”