By Rich Zeoli
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — To fully understand the politics behind the Chris Christie firestorm, you first must understand more New Jersey psyche.
I often say that I cut my teeth in Trenton and expanded my waistline on East Passyunk. When I talk on the air about the singleness of Trenton and Philly, people are often dismissive, but it can’t be understated: Philadelphia is the default capitol for New Jersey politicos.
My first job after college in the late 90’s was as a Legislative Aide for the NJ Republicans. Then I worked in the communications shop in the Republican Governor’s Office. When the work day ended at the Statehouse, it was dinner and drinks in Philly. Except during the summer when we hit the shore of course.
Philly has always been a retreat city for New Jersey politicos. A neutral territory, where R’s and D’s could socialize in peace and enjoy great food. We didn’t go there to escape the glare of Trenton as much as to find a glare. With the exception of Pete Lorenzo’s iconic steakhouse (now a parking lot), there’s really nowhere to go in Trenton. So you go to Philly.
With the exception of a scandal surrounding a corrupt governor declaring himself to be a “gay American” or a corrupt US Senator asking the profound question “When did we became such an unforgiving people,” the Philly press never seemed to care about what happens in Trenton, or maybe they just didn’t understand how to make it relevant to the Delaware Valley.
So you never really had to worry about bumping into a KYW reporter at dinner or an Inqy reporter listening in over cocktails.
So when the earliest accusations surrounding the lane closures in Fort Lee i.e.: “Bridgegate” surfaced, I was reluctant to talk about it on my WPHT show, because it was primarily thought of as a North Jersey scandal. And herein lies the rub: much of the infamous Jersey political corruption we so often hear about is the direct result of the north/south Jersey divide. It’s really two states. North Jersey identifies with New York and their sports teams. They are Yankees and Giants people, or Mets and Jets folk. But they aren’t rooting for the Birds and cheering on the Phanatic.
The insular nature of Jersey’s political geography, positioned between two major media markets but home to none of its own, plus the lack of statewide identity, serves as a petri dish for a culture of corruption that former United States Attorney Chris Christie seized upon, putting away over 120 corrupt politicians and using that record as a platform to become Governor.
People aren’t from New Jersey as much as they are from “North Jersey” or “South Jersey.” You either go down the Shore or up the shore. You either read the North Jersey papers like the Bergen Record or the Newark Star Ledger, or the South Jersey papers the Inquirer or the Press of Atlantic City. South Jersey papers don’t cover North Jersey scandals and vice versa.
But when a scandal not only involves a gigantic personality with eyes on the White House but is also relevant to anyone who has ever been stuck in traffic, the north/south divide ceases to exist and we are looked at as one. No longer north, or south, or even New for that matter. When scandal sings her siren call, we are all united by the singular term that conveys so much to so many: Jersey. Say it with me.
And as long as Trenton remains a dangerous Capitol city with lousy restaurants, Jersey politicos will continue to flock to Philly for steaks, cigars, and seclusion. Philadelphia, like the rest of the nation, may just shake its head at the latest Jersey drama but take comfort in the fact that “Jersey” will once again be the topic of conversation this week by Jersey politicos in the red gravy places on East Passyunk and the chophouses of Center City.
As a matter of fact, later this week I’ll be enjoying a cigar at the Ashton Cigar Bar in Center City with some old Jersey political friends. I wonder if we’ll have anything to talk about.