At U-Delaware, Christie Honed His Governing Style

At U-Delaware, Christie Honed His Governing Style
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NEWARK, Del. -- More than three decades ago, Leighton Lord was an overeager college freshman -- or as he puts it now, “a smart-ass 18-year-old” -- when he crafted a provocative thesis for a term paper in his honors-level American foreign policy class at the University of Delaware.

Military dictatorships in Africa, Lord argued, should be considered acceptable transitional governments, as long as their leaders agreed to transfer to democracy eventually.

At a time when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island and the Reagan administration’s Cold War-style realpolitik set off protests on college campuses, Lord’s position did not sit well with many of his classmates. One young woman in the class chastised him for being a “fascist,” among other things.

Looking Back: Photos from Christie's College Days

As the piling-on picked up steam, a cherubic-faced sophomore with a New Jersey accent rose to Lord’s defense.

Chris Christie, a junior political science major, rebuked the name-calling student for attempting to stifle debate in an academic environment and implored her to let Lord finish making his case.

Episodes such as that one left a lasting impression not only on Christie’s fellow conservative classmates (Lord has remained a friend of the New Jersey governor over the years), but also on left-leaning faculty members, who admired the feisty student’s precociousness and gall, even when they disagreed with him.

And they almost always disagreed with him.

“He was articulate and he knew quite a bit about the subject,” recalled Prof. Mark Miller, who taught the course. “This is when memories of the Vietnam War were still very strong, and probably he viewed my perspective on American foreign policy as excessively critical. But we were able to work together in a satisfactory way.”

Christie’s penchant for asserting himself aggressively on matters of principle has not diminished since his college days. But with the political survival of the once presumed 2016 GOP frontrunner now in question, it is another set of skills that Christie honed here as an undergraduate that may prove essential as he tries to recapture his once vaunted status.

It would be simplistic to use the lively debate in Christie’s foreign policy class to bolster the point that the brash Republican is and always has been a bully. But an analysis of the ample public records from Christie’s time at Delaware, and extensive interviews with former classmates and professors -- some of whom disagree with him politically on almost every issue -- paints a different picture.

The college-age Christie enjoyed a reputation as a well-informed, likeable and hard-working student, who used his position as the head of undergraduate government not to settle scores or wage an ideological battle, but to bridge divides on campus. In the process, he accumulated a rare record of accomplishment in an academic environment steeped in apathy.

“He was an excellent student in my class -- I’m almost 99 percent certain he got an A -- and he always sat up front and was always prepared and engaged,” said Prof. James Magee, who taught Christie in civil liberties class and wrote a letter of recommendation for his admission to Seton Hall Law School. “This idea of his being a domineering force, I never saw that in class. I was the domineering force.”

A Budding Pol

From the moment he arrived at Delaware, it was already obvious to fellow students and professors alike that politics was in Christie’s makeup. And indeed, he had already acquired some campaign trail experience as an adolescent. At Livingston High School, Christie volunteered for the failed 1977 gubernatorial campaign of New Jersey’s future Republican governor, Tom Kean -- an experience that left the political bug engrained in his core.

When he applied to colleges a couple of years later, he was eager to get to Washington, D.C. Georgetown was his first choice, but he was not accepted there. Instead, Christie ventured about 12 miles across the New Jersey border to the University of Delaware -- which offered his family an appealing financial aid package.

Despite his own interest in government, many of Christie’s fellow students’ engagement in it was confined to opposing a state legislative initiative to increase Delaware’s legal drinking age from 20 to 21. Still, the ambitious student found that he liked the place, despite the general disinterest in politics there.

That’s not to say there wasn’t an appreciation for the societal changes going on in the outside world. Some left-leaning undergraduates took part in nuclear weapons protests and participated in a new event called “Gay Students Awareness Week,” in which Delaware students showed their solidarity with the gay community by wearing blue jeans (believe it or not) on a designated day.

Meanwhile, an ambitious U.S. senator named Joe Biden made several trips to the state’s largest university, warning the young crowd that new weapons technology meant that “humanity is literally hanging in the balance.”

Still, Newark, Del., was a far cry from Washington, D.C.

Christie did have other interests and enjoyed the typical life of a fun-loving college kid, attending parties, dating, and developing a sharp sense of humor that his Jersey-heavy group of friends came to love.

But he retained his political ambitions as he considered which position in the Delaware Undergraduate Student Congress (DUSC) he should seek.

“From my initial discussion with him about his political science classes, he was pretty excited about the political science field and student government,” said classmate Bob Teevan, who remains a friend and informal adviser to this day. “What I saw was his real enthusiasm and his commitment to getting involved.”

Notably, Christie declined to take an active role in any of the College Republicans activities, instead choosing a path in student government, where issues like activity fees and commencement ceremonies took precedence over supply-side economics and national defense policy.

In his sophomore year, Christie became the Lobbying Committee chairman for the DUSC, tasked with presenting the student body’s interests to state and national government. In this role, he began to demonstrate a knack for generating positive press, and was quoted frequently in The Review -- the school’s robustly reported student newspaper.

Rarely a week went by that Christie’s name didn’t appear in The Review, whether in detailing his efforts to convince state legislators in Dover to place two undergraduates on the university’s Board of Trustees or encouraging greater student government participation on campus.

In spearheading the Delaware chapter of “Call Your Congressman Day,” a national effort to express opposition to the Reagan administration’s proposed cuts in financial aid, Christie oozed with earnestness.

“When a congressman gets a phone call, it makes a greater impression. It’s not like a form letter, it’s not anonymous, it’s as personal as you can get,” he told The Review. “Our goal is to tie up the switchboards.”

When a liberal-leaning editorial writer suggested that the group had not gone far enough in their lobbying efforts, Christie pushed back in an op-ed of his own, gently lecturing his fellow student on “the essence of responsible editorializing.”

By his junior year, Christie was still leading the charge at Delaware on opposing federal financial aid cuts. But this time he traveled to Washington with three other DUSC representatives to personally lobby Biden, Delaware’s Democratic Rep. Tom Carper (now the state’s senior senator) and an aide to Republican Sen. Bill Roth. Though The Review did not quote Christie directly on his view of the potential cuts, a front-page story from March 4, 1983, offers a distinct impression of where he stood personally on the matter, despite his Republican leanings.

“Christie said a 1982 poll showed that voting on student issues ran along party lines,” the article’s reporter wrote. “He said that former Republican Rep. Tom Evans voted with students 29 percent of the time, and Sen. Roth 25 percent of the time, while Democratic Biden voted with students 81 percent of the time.”

In a later story, Christie told the student paper that Carper, in particular, was “dead set” against a bill then before Congress that required male students to provide proof of their draft registration in order to receive financial aid.

The college-age Christie’s siding with Democrats on this issue will no doubt be taken by his conservative detractors as further proof of his wishy-washy ideological grounding. After all , Ted Cruz --a potential opponent in the 2016 GOP primary-- was already a well-read and aggressive evangelist for his deeply conservative worldview the day he first set foot on Princeton’s campus.

Rich Abbott -- a fellow DUSC member who accompanied Christie on the lobbying trip to Washington -- summed up his focus at the time. “He was interested in politics but not principle,” said Abbott, now a Delaware-based attorney. “Part of the evidence of that, in my opinion, would be that he, in my two years that overlapped his, was never involved in the College Republicans.”

In Christie’s view, Democrats weren’t the enemy -- apathy was.

When “Call Your Congressman Day” ended up as something of a bust, with only 41 students participating in the event, Christie took to The Review to condemn the turnout as “goddamned terrible.”

President Christie

In the spring of his junior year, with almost two years of student government experience under his belt, Christie decided to run for a one-year term as DUSC president to cap off his collegiate political career.

Before embarking on his campaign, he recruited a docket of friends to run on his self-named “Campus Action Party” ticket, including Mary Pat Foster, a friend who would become his wife. At the time, however, sparks weren’t exactly flying between the class president and the fun-loving finance major, who was a year his junior.

“We were friends for a long time in college before we ever dated,” Christie told biographers of his relationship with Mary Pat. “We were always dating other people. So it wasn’t one of these kind of love-at-first-sight things, at all. It was more really elimination of our previous love interests is what it turned out to be eventually.”

As Christie canvassed the campus, he had several factors working in his favor: He was well-known and perceived as serious and up to the task of heading the student government. (He often wore a tie to events and meetings at which other students were decidedly dressed down.)

The only problem: His opponent, DUSC vice-president Lee Uniacke, was everybody’s best friend.

Christie responded to the challenge in the same way he would in his 2009 gubernatorial run against Jon Corzine -- a race in which he also began as an underdog: He busted his hump.

“Lee was the most popular guy on campus by a factor of 10,” Leighton Lord recalled. “He just outworked him. Lee was a fun guy, but Chris went dorm to dorm.”

Christie and his fellow Campus Action Party candidates swept the election, capturing all six DUSC positions, with the president-elect winning 62 percent of the ballots cast.

That a mere 26 percent of eligible students bothered to vote confirms the extent to which indifference on campus still reigned. But when Christie took office his senior year, he again sought to foster more student involvement and make a name for himself as an initiative-taker.

Ellen Feldman, who was DUSC treasurer in Christie’s year at the helm, recalled that everyone in his administration was “extremely committed” to doing a good job. “It required a lot of hours because there was a lot of work to be done on behalf of the students, and there was a lot of interaction with the administration,” she said. “It almost became our own little fraternity/sorority because you just spent so much time with these people.”

In the fall semester, Christie set to work on an agenda that included adding a commencement ceremony for winter graduates, setting up a campus-wide raffle with the winner receiving a semester of free tuition, and the publication of faculty evaluations -- a particularly contentious proposal that garnered enormous pushback from professors but eventually was enacted.

Christie’s eagerness to take on what he viewed as self-interested professors would presage his future battles with the teachers union in New Jersey.

“His concept of making sure teachers were held accountable -- that’s something he started 30 years ago,” Teevan said. “I don’t think he’s ever been anti-teacher. He just wanted to make sure good teachers are rewarded.”

Another area in which Christie was particularly active was on the highly charged issue of diversity and race relations on campus. Rich Mroz, who preceded Christie as DUSC president, recalled the problem that the university has had in attracting minority students -- a deficiency that was particularly acute in the early ’80s.

“The minority population at the university was at about 3 or 4 percent, and the student government reflected that,” he said. “It was white, but we had representatives of the Black Student Union, and we would encourage them to try to get their members more involved. I know that Chris very much did focus on that after I left and he became president.”

Indeed, in his first interview with The Review as president, Christie challenged his classmates to be more “acutely aware of what it is like to be a minority student.”

“We have been working with the Student Programming Association [SPA] to get more programs that both blacks and whites will attend, such as musical programs and films,” he said.

His ambitious tenure was largely deemed a success, but it was the manner in which he departed University of Delaware student government that generated some controversy.

A Potent Legacy

As students cast their ballots in April 1984 to elect a new slate of DUSC officers, all but two of the candidates ran unopposed, including Mary Pat, who had begun quietly dating Christie and had no opposition in her bid to succeed him as DUSC president.

Both Christie and his younger brother, Todd, who served as election committee chairman, expressed surprise at the time over the lack of interest in running for elected positions. Mary Pat had a theory of her own. “People might have looked at the success that we accomplished in DUSC this year and felt that the ticket was too strong to beat,” she told The Review.

Not everyone in student government shared this view. Richard Abbott, then the vice-chairman of the College Republicans, penned an op-ed with the provocative title “Christie cronyism?” that questioned the propriety of an election being run by the Christie machine, which effectively served as a coronation of Christie’s “anointed successors.”

Thirty years later, Abbott recalled his reasons for writing the op-ed. “My view was it’s a top-down, close coterie decision-making process, which seemed to render the rest of the people involved in student government as surplus, and that was the frustration I was expressing, and I kind of perceived that other people had the same disappointment,” he explained.

Abbott said that another motivation he had for voicing his opinion publicly was his belief that the Christie regime was too closely aligned with the university administration. He did not, however, suggest that Christie had engaged in any form of direct intimidation against potential opponents who might have considered running against Mary Pat.

It was only after Christie had left Delaware in 1984 that many of his friends realized he and Mary Pat had become an item. No one had seen that coming, including Mary Pat herself.

“I really kind of thought he was a little bit nerdy,” she recalled in an anniversary video that was compiled by Christie’s office -- but never released during the 2013 campaign. “We all were out one night, and Chris and I decided to go get something late-night. I still thought we were just friends, and then he walked me home and he took my hand, and that’s when I kind of realized it was something different.”

Though the budding relationship came as a surprise to all of their friends, Christie’s rapid ascent in politics was anything but unexpected.

A longtime season-ticket holder and regular tailgater at Blue Hens football games, Christie remains close to many of his college friends, several of whom have continued to have active roles in his political career.

When the New Jersey governor spoke at a 2012 fundraiser on behalf of Mitt Romney in South Carolina, it was Leighton Lord, now a Columbia-based attorney, who introduced his old college buddy to the well-heeled donors in the critical GOP primary state.

His political future may now be uncertain, but what is not in doubt is that Christie will continue to call on the formative experiences he had and the enduring relationships he made at the University of Delaware. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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