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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By John Reitmeyer and Melissa Hayes, The Record

TRENTON, N.J. — The delegation joining Gov. Chris Christie in Mexico this week includes the head of New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority and executives from major corporations, but also a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil and some of Christie’s closest advisers.

The three-day trip, which is being billed as a trade mission, is receiving financial backing from Choose New Jersey, the non-profit business advocacy group that has supported Christie and also paid for his first international mission, to Israel in 2012.

Christie is scheduled to arrive in Mexico City Wednesday morning and has a packed schedule that includes a meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, according to details released by his office. Meetings with Mexican business leaders are planned for Wednesday, and on Friday the governor is scheduled to travel to the nearby state of Puebla.

Joining Christie on the trip is a 15-member delegation, Christie’s office announced on Monday. The group includes some of his closest aides and advisers, including Robert Grady, a private equity fund manager who also runs New Jersey’s $80 billion public employee pension system, and Richard Bagger, a former Christie chief of staff now senior vice president for corporate affairs at Celgene Corp., a Summit-based pharmaceutical company.

Another Christie confidant, Michele Brown, who serves as chief executive of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, is also in the delegation.

Choose New Jersey, the non-profit organization that aims to improve the state’s business climate, is being represented by board member Laurence Downes, and by Tracye McDaniel, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

The group, founded in 2010, receives support from major corporations, including Bank of America, Prudential and Verizon. Companies that give $150,000 annually for three years get “board member” status, and those contributing $25,000 annually for three years receive “partner” status, according to the organization’s web site.

Federal tax records indicate the group raised $2.88 million in 2012, and spent $3.15 million. A spokeswoman for Choose New Jersey did not return a call seeking comment on Monday.

In 2012, the organization spent $42,000 on Christie’s five-night trip to Israel, including costs of accommodations and meals for Christie staffers. Taxpayers paid about $40,000 in security costs for the trip, which also included time in Jordan.

Before the trip to the Middle East, McDaniel said the group’s involvement was to help demonstrate “New Jersey is out there and we mean business.”

Also in the delegation for the Mexico trip is Ralph Izzo, chairman of Public Service Enterprise Group; Greg Brown, chief executive of Motorola Solutions; and Clifford Sobel, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil who is now managing partner at Valor Capital Group.

The delegation also includes Leo Cervantes, owner of Highland-based Chilangos Restaurant; Pedro Matar, owner of the El Aguila restaurant chain; Al Zapanta, president of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce; Mauricio Doehner, vice president of corporate affairs for Mexican cement producer CEMEX; Fermin Garcia, pastor at Unity Church Group in Tijuana, Mexico; Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey; and Raul Rendon Ponce, founder of Minnesota-based BioPlastic Solutions.

Although the trip is being billed as a trade mission — New Jersey and Mexico share more than $5 billion worth of goods annually — it also comes as Christie is considering whether to run for president in 2016 and as immigration and the U.S. border with Mexico have become major issues.

Bagger, Downes, Grady and Sobel all made contributions to Christie’s campaign for re-election last year. The governor won 51 percent of New Jersey’s Latino vote.

Several staff members are accompanying Christie to Mexico.

Tim Larsen, Christie’s chief of photography and visual communications, arrived in Mexico City early Tuesday morning followed later in the day by Maria Comella, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications, and Lauren Fritts, the director of digital media. Two members of Christie’s security detail arrived in Mexico on Tuesday afternoon.

Photo: Fiscal Summit via Twitter

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.