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Swing State Polls Find Christie Weak Against Clinton

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

WASHINGTON — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) fares worse against Democrat Hillary Clinton than other potential 2016 Republican presidential contenders in Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of crucial swing states released Wednesday.

The polls found Christie tailing Clinton by margins of 5 to 10 percentage points, while other potential candidates were in close contention in at least one of the states.

The polls matched Clinton, a Democrat and former secretary of state, against Republicans Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Clinton was tied or virtually tied — meaning her lead was within the poll’s margin of error — with Bush and Paul in Virginia and with Walker and Paul in Colorado.

In all three states, Clinton’s favorability rating was far higher than the Republicans’, assistant poll director Peter A. Brown said, and Christie’s was one of the lowest.

“Several of the GOP contenders can take some solace from this poll,” Brown said. “The one GOPer for whom these numbers are a total drag is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.”

In Colorado, only 26 percent of voters had a favorable view of Christie while 47 percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion. Christie’s favorable/unfavorable rating was upside down by 28 percent to 38 percent in Iowa and 36 percent to 38 percent in Virginia.

Here’s a breakdown of head-to-head matchups for all the states if the election were held today:

In Colorado, Clinton virtually tied Paul, 43 percent to 41 percent, and Walker, 42 percent to 40 percent. She led Christie, 43 percent to 34 percent; Bush, 44 percent to 36 percent; and Huckabee, 44 percent to 39 percent.

In Iowa, Clinton topped Christie, 44 percent to 34 percent; Bush, 45 percent to 35 percent; Huckabee, 45 percent to 38 percent; Paul, 45 percent to 37 percent; and Walker, 45 percent to 35 percent.

In Virginia, Clinton and Bush tied, 42 percent to 42 percent, and virtually tied Paul, 44 percent to 42 percent. She narrowly led Christie, 44 percent to 39 percent; Huckabee, 44 percent to 41 percent; and Walker, 45 percent to 40 percent.

For the poll, live interviewers called land lines and cellphones between the fifth and fifteenth of February. The polls each had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points and surveyed 1,049 Colorado voters, 1,089 Iowa voters, and 1,074 Virginia voters.

Photo: Canada2020 via Flickr

Senator Cory Booker Is Re-Elected To U.S. Senate

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

WASHINGTON — New Jersey voters on Tuesday gave Sen. Cory Booker six years to show what he means about finding bipartisan solutions, re-electing the Democrat easily over Republican Jeff Bell, a staunch conservative who struggled to raise money and get his ideas before voters.

The Associated Press called the race for Booker shortly after polls closed Tuesday.

Booker, 45, led in polls throughout the campaign and, with the approval rating of Congress at just 13 percent, used his significant fundraising advantage to tout bills he co-sponsored with conservative senators.

“Overall, the majority of the country is sick of divisive politics and wants us to come together,” Booker said before Election Day. “And even a lot of my colleagues are beginning to see the rewards they get by not looking like my opponent, who wants to go down there as a rigid ideologue.”

Bell built his campaign around the theory that returning the nation’s monetary system to the gold standard would boost job growth and retiree savings rates. But in a state where unknown candidates must buy television time in the expensive New York and Philadelphia markets, Bell could not afford it, and remained largely unknown. As late as last weekend, a Monmouth University poll found 61 percent of New Jersey voters did not know enough about Bell to say if his views were in step with theirs or not.

Bell, 70, won the 1978 Senate primary after upsetting a four-term moderate Republican. He lost that fall to Democrat Bill Bradley. Bell also ran and lost in the 1982 primary, and spent the past 30 years in the Washington, D.C., area working for advocacy organizations. In a 2012 book, he praised polarizing politics as good for the country, and argued against presidential nominees who take a more moderate approach.

Booker returns to a Congress that remains deeply divided on issues such as health care and the economy.

He has said he plans to push for a focus on areas where agreement can be reached, and will use some of the media celebrity that helped make him a national figure and surrogate speaker for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

Booker voted Tuesday morning in Newark before making stops in Camden, Willingboro and Trenton during the rest of the day.

Booker campaign manager Brendan Gill predicted turnout for the election would likely come in around 40 percent.

“It’s consistent with what you would see in a midterm election,” Gill said.

The recent Monmouth University poll that showed Booker leading Bell by 14 points had no impact on the campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts, he said.

Last year, Booker beat Republican Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, by 11 points.

“None of that really changes our effort,” Gill said. “You don’t go by public polls when you run a campaign.”

The campaign deployed roughly 20,000 supporters to help turn out voters for Booker today, Gill said.

Photo: BBC World Service via Flickr

FEMA Will Look At Superstorm Sandy Claims Payouts

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from Northeast senators, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Wednesday that an independent government watchdog will examine whether anti-fraud efforts are shortchanging victims of Superstorm Sandy.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate also indicated at a Senate subcommittee hearing that the government may have gone too far in response to complaints of waste and fraud in payments to victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Fugate said that he has asked the agency’s inspector general “to ensure that we have the accurate and adequate controls” and “that we provide rapid payments, appropriate to the losses, without making fraud prevention our only goal.”

He also said the inspector would look into whether insurance industry lawyers defending the claims estimates were making claims appeals last longer than necessary to increase their fees.

Fugate faced brusque questioning from senators from New York and New Jersey, who said they had heard hundreds of complaints from constituents who bought flood insurance and were “low-balled” on Sandy-related claims. Some still have not been able to return to their homes because they cannot afford to rebuild.

“Structurally, the system is stacked against policyholders,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who called the hearing as chairman of the Senate’s housing subcommittee. Examples Menendez cited were in Ocean County, but his office said the problems are systemwide and a legal services lawyer who appeared at the hearing said in an interview the problem is also affecting Sandy victims in North Jersey.

“Some people are being told there was preexisting damage from Hurricane Irene that was paid for already,” said Maryann Flanigan, supervising attorney for the Hurricane Sandy Legal Assistance Project, referring to the tropical storm that hit New Jersey in August 2011.

After Superstorm Sandy hit on Oct. 29, 2012, a third of the 236,000 flood insurance policies in effect in New Jersey at the time had a claim, according to data provided in written testimony by Fugate.

Of 74,000 claims, 1,300 appeals were filed, so Fugate said 98 percent of customers were satisfied. But he said FEMA knows of or expects only 453 lawsuits, and a federal judge told The Record earlier this year that there were about 1,000 cases pending in court and there could be as many as 2,000 by the end of the year.

Fugate’s office did not respond to follow-up questions after the hearing.

The flood-insurance program pays fees to private insurers who sell and service government-backed insurance coverage, and Menendez said the system includes “perverse incentives” because companies face financial penalties if they pay too much — not if they pay too little.

Fugate said the potential penalty is that a company could be thrown out of the program, but he also said he was not aware of that ever happening. He said FEMA does not track how often specific companies’ claims payments are overturned on appeal but does do audits to check for overpayment and underpayment.

An insurance industry lobbyist, Donald Griffin of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said at the hearing that companies have an incentive to pay a fair amount because they also sell other kinds of coverage to the same customers, including homeowners and auto policies.

“Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that the disincentives that the National Flood Insurance program imposes on overpayments outweigh those that are imposed on underpayments?” Menendez asked Griffin.

“It could, sir,” Griffin replied. “It could, but, you know, as I say, we don’t have the data to know.”

Menendez said it was the “ultimate hypocrisy and double standard” that while FEMA was rejecting appeals for late paperwork, at the same time it was failing to meet a congressionally mandated deadline for responding to appeals.

Fugate responded: “I understand, senator. Direction would be appreciated.”

Flanigan, the legal services lawyer, said claims adjusters from around the country were brought in after the storm and probably were not aware of the region’s cost of living.

In one case, an adjuster from the Midwest offered $40,000 for repairs, and details in the offer showed “materials could not be purchased in New Jersey for the unit prices listed,” Flanigan said.

“The flood insurance department denied the claim, stating the damage was caused by wind-driven rain, and the homeowner insurance department denied the claim stating that the damage was caused by flood water,” she said.

“This low-balling of flood insurance claims happens all too often, and results in the insured suffering an unreasonable delay in making needed repairs,” Flanigan said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), asked about reports that some lawyers representing insurers in his state were trying to “draw out legal battles with homeowners in (an) effort to drive up billable hours” charged to FEMA.

Fugate said he was also concerned about the reports and asked the inspector general to look at the issue and refer the case to the Justice Department for criminal charges if fraud is taking place.

Photo: acccarrino via Flickr

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Trump: Christie Viable If He Can Put GWB Scandal Behind Him

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

WASHINGTON — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be a viable presidential candidate in 2016 if he can get the scandal over access-lane closures on the George Washington Bridge behind him, Donald Trump told a luncheon at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

“Chris is a friend of mine and he’s good guy, but he’s got to get his problem cleared up, there’s no question about it,” Trump said in response to a question about Christie and the 2016 presidential field.

“I’ve spoken to him about it and it was a crazy set of events that took place. … Certainly he’s been devastated by it,” Trump continued. “At some point it will come out. And many people are looking. And I made a statement, and I didn’t mean it as a negative statement about him: He’s one email away from having a big problem. That has to disappear. It has to go away. And then certainly, he’d be viable.”

Christie has been working to convince audiences, including one in Washington two weeks ago, that investigations have proven he had no involvement in the lane closures, which caused four days of gridlock, and that Democrats suspect were carried out to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing Christie.

An investigative report by a New York City law firm hired by the state concluded that an aide to Christie, Bridget Anne Kelly, and one of the governor’s appointees on the Port Authority, David Wildstein, were responsible for the lane closures and the governor knew nothing about the action. An investigation by a special committee of the Legislature continues, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Newark has empaneled a grand jury as well.

After commenting on Christie, Trump also defended his high-profile effort to get President Barack Obama to release his birth certificate, and said he still wants to see other documents, including Obama’s applications to college. He also said he would put in a bid to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, and that NFL owners were impressed with the job he did decades ago in the now-defunct USFL, when Trump owned the New Jersey Generals.

In remarks at the luncheon before he took questions, Trump decried the nation’s failures in economics and foreign policy, saying governments in China and Russia are laughing at the United States.

He said he loves being a developer and bestowing his brand name on luxury projects, and doesn’t want to go into politics, but said he also loves the country more and if no one capable of the leadership needed steps forward, he would consider a 2016 presidential bid himself.

“I love this country and I hate to see what’s happening and if I don’t see the right person, I will do something in ’16, I will do it as sure as you’re sitting there,” Trump said.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Christie Tells D.C. Audience He’s Still Thinking About Running For President

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

WASHINGTON — “Yes.”

With that one word, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told a friendly Washington, D.C., audience Wednesday that he is still thinking about running for president, even as dual crises continue to bedevil his administration.

And with another word he told the high-profile crowd when he’ll make a final decision. “Later.”

Indeed, a confident Christie asserted Wednesday that the George Washington Bridge scandal and an $807 million state budget shortfall will not damage his political future. The lane-closing scandal “will all be a footnote” by the time he makes his decision, he told the crowd during an appearance at the 2014 Fiscal Summit sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

And he blamed the budget gap on state economists, including those on his staff who helped to write the budget last year. With trademark self-assuredness, Christie said he would “do what I have to do” to fill that gap, though he declined to say what. That will have to wait for an announcement next week, he said.

For 30 minutes, Christie answered questions from Bob Schieffer of CBS News in an ornate ballroom two blocks from the White House. The event marked another step in the governor’s attempt to recover from the massive political setback he suffered in January when The Record reported that a former aide sent an email declaring it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Christie had previously mocked the suggestion that his staff was somehow involved in the closure of Fort Lee access lanes to the bridge last September. After the email’s revelation, he immediately fired the aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, and apologized to Fort Lee for four days of gridlock.

A New York law firm hired by the administration investigated and cleared the governor of any involvement, prompting complaints that the firm’s report was a whitewash written by lawyers with political connections to the governor. Investigations continue by a special committee of the Legislature and a federal grand jury overseen by the U.S. attorney in Newark, while the Securities and Exchange Commission has reportedly begun to look at other financial moves by the Port Authority that helped Christie fund road improvements.

When asked by Schieffer, Christie said the scandal would not have any impact on his ability to close the budget gap.

“As far as the impact on my political future, I think it will have none because I didn’t do anything,” Christie said.

“In the end, what the people of New Jersey know about me is I tell them the truth. I told them I had nothing to do with it. And now you’ve had all kinds of people look at this for nearly 4½ months now and there hasn’t been one suggestion that I knew anything about it,” he said.

Christie said he was not the first leader to fire an aide who did things without his knowledge.

“I don’t think that would hurt anybody’s career and it’s not going to hurt mine,” Christie said.

The Peterson foundation is a non-partisan group that focuses on raising public awareness about how reducing long-term debt is vital to economic growth. The group’s founder, Peter G. Peterson, introduced Christie as a “straight talker” who had worked with Democrats to address state pension obligations, and had charisma to spare.

Ironically, his appearance comes as the state continues to grapple with seemingly perennial budget woes as well as job growth that lags the nation overall and other states in the region. On Tuesday, Moody’s Investors Service became the third major Wall Street ratings agency to lower New Jersey’s credit rating, citing the state’s “recurring revenue shortfalls and ongoing reliance on non-recurring resources.”

Christie used statistics to show his actions in the best possible light, and did not hesitate to blame his predecessors, state courts and his own staff for the current problems.

On options for cutting the budget, for example, he said state courts had mandated that he spend $12 billion on education, but the state is legally free to reduce aid to all districts except a few dozen of the poorest, which courts have said must receive state aid.

He said former governors going back to Christie Whitman, a fellow Republican, had not made contributions to the state pension system, failing to mention payments made by Democrat Jon Corzine, his predecessor.
Christie himself did not make a contribution the first year he was in office because of a budget shortfall left by Corzine. He also declined to say, in response to a direct question by Schieffer, if the current shortfall would lead him to reduce a payment of $1.6 billion that is scheduled to be made before June 30.

Asked what happened to cause the current shortfall, Christie pointed to faulty estimates by his own economists, which he said were in sync with projections by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services.

He said that when he asked his chief economists “how you could be so wrong … they said they just missed it.” The federal tax increases on high-income earners approved on Jan. 1, 2013, led many wealthy people to take capital gains and bonuses in 2012 to avoid the higher tax rate, he said.

That produced a windfall in 2013 for the state budget, but the state guessed wrong how much of that would continue this year, Christie said.

“They just said they underestimated how much high-end taxpayers would have accelerated capital gains, bonuses, everything else,” Christie said. “That’s a cold comfort to me, Bob, because now I have to fix it with 45 days left in my fiscal year.”

The state’s chief economist, Charles Steindel, was not available for comment Wednesday, a spokesman for Christie said, but Steindel took responsibility for the error at a legislative hearing last week.

David Rosen, the revenue expert at the Office of Legislative Services, said he was within $75 million of Christie’s estimate of income-tax revenue for April of this year, but the governor’s estimates for other taxes were more optimistic than Rosen’s.

Photo: Peter Stevens via Flickr

Feds Blame NJ For Delays In Distributing Sandy Aid

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

WASHINGTON — After weeks of hearing Gov. Chris Christie and his administration blame federal red tape for delays encountered by residents seeking grants to repair homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) gave the Obama administration’s top recovery official a chance to fight back Wednesday.

Pressed by Menendez, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said it was the state that gave control of a $950 million housing program to a contractor, Hammerman & Gainer Inc., that was ultimately fired for poor performance.

Donovan said that HUD “identified enough concerns” with HGI and the state’s management of the contract that a $1.4 billion round of grants due to be awarded this spring should include better performance standards and outreach to people who may have been improperly denied grants.

The hearing comes at a time when Christie’s greatest political achievement, the Sandy recovery story, is being put to the test. It also comes as Christie has blamed the federal government for months of delays in getting funds to Sandy victims.

The state Economic Development Authority has issued only about $13 million of $100 million in grants to 270 of 1,540 businesses that have applied. And problems have plagued the main rebuilding effort for homeowners, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, known as RREM, that offers up to $150,000 for the repair, rebuilding and raising of homes.

The Fair Share Housing Center, an organization that defends the housing rights of the state’s poor, says it found that African-Americans and Latinos were rejected at much higher rates than whites applying for the same relief. It also says there were problems with the data being used to award grants, resulting in erroneous denials. Of those who appealed denials, 80 percent were awarded money.

Donovan also said the state could have done controversial environmental and historical reviews of properties — which Christie has blamed for delaying grants and asked to have waived — earlier in the application process without facing a federal penalty. The reviews are intended to make sure that laws aimed at protecting the environment and historical attributes of a property are not violated.

No Republican senator attended the hearing of the housing subcommittee that Menendez heads, and the Christie administration declined an invitation to send a witness. As a result, Menendez and Donovan, both Democrats, and a later panel of witnesses who have already criticized the pace of recovery had an open opportunity to highlight the state’s missteps.

“The problems here have been much larger and lasted much longer than the people of New Jersey should have to accept,” Menendez said early in the hearing.

Menendez later said he was not trying to blame the state for problems, just lay out facts and see where service could be improved. If his questioning had found that the federal government was to blame for the fired contractor, for example, he said, he would have been criticizing Donovan. As it is, he said, he still expects HUD to require better performance with the next round of grants.

While the hearing was happening, the state Department of Community Affairs announced from Trenton it was changing part of RREM, the contested housing program, so homeowners whose applications had already been approved could get money faster.

The change would allow grant awardees to get up to half of their funding in advance if they are using their own contractor. Once invoices or receipts for that money are presented, homeowners can submit up to two more applications for the remainder of the funding.

Previously, homeowners had to pay for repairs and then seek reimbursement.

“We are taking a big step forward and getting rid of a requirement that has stood in the way of progress, and we are grateful to the Obama administration for approving this change,” Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable said in a news release.

Menendez said the change was “welcome but nowhere near the resolution of the core issue I was raising.” He focused on thousands of residents he said had applied for grants and were improperly rejected or are on a waiting list with no idea if they will ever be approved.

He urged the state to publish a waiting list so people know if they have any chance of receiving funding from the RREM program, which was initially funded with $925 million of the $1.83 billion block grant from HUD in February 2013.

Constable and Christie have blamed the environmental and historical reviews for delays in awarding funds, but Donovan told Menendez the reviews take an average of two weeks for most homes and six weeks for more complex cases.

“It’s not the environmental or historical preservation requirements slowing things down, because if was just those, people’s wait time would be two to six weeks, not seven to 10 months and counting,” Menendez said in response.

Menendez said the state chose to make applicants clear all other grant requirements first, including complex scope-of-work estimates, before beginning the reviews. The result is critical as applicants have been told not to pay for any work on their homes while their application is being reviewed because the work will not be reimbursed if it the property later is found to have environmental or historical problems.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons