“You have to Make Tough Choices:” An Interview with Michael Duhaime

 /  March 14, 2016, 10:04 a.m.


Chris_Christie_at_the_2015_CPAC_by_Gage_Skidmore

In addition to his work managing Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign, serving as political director for the Republican National Committee, and working as managing director at the national public affairs firm Mercury Public Affairs, LLC, Michael Duhaime has worked closely with Governor Chris Christie. He was Christie’s chief political strategist for years, including during his run for New Jersey governor, and was an influential advisor to Christie’s presidential campaign. Duhaime sat down with the Gate to discuss Christie’s relationship with Donald Trump, New Jersey politics, and whether the Republican Party can heal after 2016.

The Gate: What is the most rewarding experience you’ve had working in politics?

Michael DuHaime: I think you get into politics because you feel like you can make a difference. I started in local politics and helped out local races. Working with them, I got that feeling that you can make a difference. You get somebody elected and you feel like they can make a difference.

Maybe this wasn’t the most rewarding experience, but it showed me that you can have an impact at a young age. I was probably twenty-three when I did my first big racea state senate race in New Jersey. It was a competitive race, and auto insurance rates were through the roof at the time. They still are, but there have been some fixes. Anyway, I was twenty-three on the campaign, and if you’re a male under the age of twenty-five, your rates are through the roof. And I wrote all these fixes [for auto insurance regulations]. I was working for a state assemblyman running for state senate, and he actually thought it was a good idea to introduce my fixes as legislation. A day later, they were talking about it on the radio, on the biggest station in New Jersey. When he got elected to the Senate, a Democratic governor also got elected. My guy was a Republican state senator, and the Democratic governor, Jim McGreevey, in his first bipartisan move, wanted to join with him and adopt his auto insurance reform legislation to be bipartisan. And while that wasn’t the most rewarding experience of my career, it showed me that in politics you can make an impact at a very young age. It helped me realize that it makes a difference when you help somebody win . . . Elections have consequences, and the country is very different depending on who wins those elections.

So whether it’s president of the United States or mayor of Chicago or mayor of some small town of seven thousand people, politics still have consequences, and things will be different because of them. I feel good about making those differences, but more importantly it’s the people that you get to know and the friendships you make. When you help good people get elected and they do good policy, it makes you feel really good.

Gate: How did you get involved with Governor Chris Christie? What originally drew you to him?

DuHaime: When I was twenty-three, I was in the state senate race in Morris County, New Jersey, which is about forty minutes west of the city . . . [Christie] was an elected official in that county. But he was in his early thirties, and I was in my early twenties, and I felt like everyone else was like ninety. That’s how it was in Republican Party politics: it felt like everyone was decades older. [Christie] was a relatively young guy. My guy won, but Christie actually ended up losing that race.

A few years later, in 2000, I was running a US Senate race, and he was working for President Bush’s campaign. Obviously, President Bush won. Later, I went to work for the Republican National Committee on Bush’s reelection campaign, so Christie and I grew close over the years. We became good friends . . . In late 2008 after President Obama won, he asked me to come to his house, and said “I’m going to run for governor. Will you help?” I had already known him for, probably ten or eleven years when he ran for governor, [but] we became closer at that time. We worked together really for the first time on his race for governor.

Gate: Moving on to the big Chris Christie news

DuHaime: [laughing] It took you three questions to get to the big news.

Gate: he recently endorsed Donald Trump. Did you know that was coming?

DuHaime: Yes. I personally knew it was coming . . . I was just commenting that we kept it a good secret. It’s a good secret if you don’t tell anybody. But I knew it was coming. It wasn’t a long time coming. He only decided very, very recently, but I did know it was coming.

Gate: When Governor Christie campaigned, he criticized Trump and his lack of experience. On February 7th, he said, “[Trump] has not the first idea of how to run a government, not the first idea . . . Get off the Trump train before it’s too late.” And also, “Showtime is over. We’re not electing an entertainer-in-chief. Showmanship is fun, but it’s not the kind of leadership that will truly change America.” How do you reconcile those statements with his endorsement?

DuHaime: I think he reconciles it because elections are about choices. You have to make tough choices, and obviously if it was up to Governor Christie, he’d be the one still running and getting Donald Trump’s endorsement . . . But you have to make choices between the candidates our electoral system eventually whittles down to, and there are really three people who have a chance to win now. There’s Donald Trump, Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio. Obviously, Governor Kasich is still in the race, and Governor Christie is very fond of Governor Kasich, as am I. But I don’t think he sees a path to the nomination for Governor Kasich. The way Governor Christie looked at it is that there are three people left, two of whom are first-term US senators. And if you look at what Christie’s said about first-term US senators, they were harsher than what he’s said about Trump.

I think the other side of his decision is that he’s known Donald Trump for about fifteen years. They’re personal friends. Donald Trump’s sister is a federal judge in New Jersey. Governor Christie knew her through the legal profession when he was an attorney. She’s actually the one who introduced Trump to Christie, probably fifteen or so years ago. They became friends over the years, and so Christie looked at it and said, “This is someone I know personally, who I think can make big decisions and who has made a lot of big decisions in his life.” That was his criticism of Cruz and Rubiothat they haven’t really made a lot of big decisions. Not that they won’t be good if they get elected, but we don’t know. We have no idea.

So Christie looked at Donald Trump as somebody who has had to make big decisions that have tens of thousands of jobs and lots of money riding on them. Business decisions are better training than being a first-term senator. With the Republican Party, we really haven’t gotten much done out of the Senate and so that’s not as good of a training ground. Also, as a senator, your staffs are about thirty people. I think Christie looked at that and thought, “Who has managed a big enterprise? Who has made tough decisions?” Throw on top of that the personal relationship that they have, and I think that’s why he was comfortable [endorsing Trump].

Gate: Many pundits think that Christie did this to get a position in future President Trump’s administration, maybe as the vice president, secretary of state, or attorney general. What do you make of these rumors? How do you defend against the charge of political opportunism?

DuHaime: Well, I think I already explained why he endorsed Trump now. I think Christie would have been considered for some of those positions, regardless of who won on the Republican side. I had a lot of people coming up to me during the campaign, who were not supporting Trump, but who were supporting Rubio, Cruz, or Jeb Bush, who said, “Boy, Christie would make a great attorney general.” So there’s a chance that he would be asked to be in a cabinet no matter who won. That happens a lot with people who ran against each other. Hillary Clinton was picked by President Obama as secretary of state, and they had run against each other. It’s happened with previous presidents, it’ll happen with future presidents. Christie would have been in the mix for that kind of spot no matter who won. These charges [of opportunism] are getting thrown out mostly by people who disagree with Christie’s decision. They have a motive when they are saying that.

Gate: To move away from Mr. Trump, what would you say are some of Christie’s best qualities? What do you think he could offer an administration? And, similarly, what are some of his weaknesses?

DuHaime: He’s a great decision-maker from being a US attorney and then being a governor. When you’re a US attorney—I worked for Rudy Giuliani as well, who was also a US attorney—and you have to make a decision to indict someone or not to indict someone, you better be right. If you indict somebody, you’re going to ruin their life if you’re wrong, and so I think there was a confidence that came with decision-making.  When you make decisions, they have to hold up against public scrutiny, but also legal scrutiny as well, and Christie was right almost all the time. I don’t think he really ever lost a case. So he became, in my view, a very confident decision-maker, and he was unafraid to make tough decisions and unafraid to take criticism. Most people wouldn’t have had the courage to do what he did with the Trump endorsement, whether you agree with the endorsement or not. Most people just would have said, “You know what, I don’t need the press. I don’t need people saying any bad things about me.”

In politics, most people are afraid to make tough decisions; Christie’s not afraid to make tough decisions. That’s my favorite part of working for him. He makes decisions that I would be afraid to make if I were governor. People kind of lose sight of the fact that he worked really well with the other side of the aisle, and I think that’s really important. He worked well with Democrats in New Jersey, and New Jersey is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Our state senate and assembly are all Democrat. Our senators are Democrat, and they work really well together, especially post-Sandy. People saw that he really had an appeal that he worked well with Democrats, and I think that that’s something that’s missing in Washington.

Gate: In terms of Governor Christie’s place in state politics, six New Jersey newspapers have now called for his resignation. Do you think that he’ll be able to govern effectively in coming years?

DuHaime: Just one clarification on that: It’s a chain of newspapers, so it’s one editorial that they all printed. It’s not six independent papers. Just a clarification on that. It’s Gannett, which owns six daily newspapers in the state, which all reprinted the editorial. So it’s one, but that is how most people have covered it.

The editorial boards have been rooting against Christie since he got into office. They can’t believe a Republican got into office [in New Jersey]. They disagree with his agenda. They’ve been rooting for him to get out of office since the day he got in, so I take it for what it’s worth from people who are trying to thwart his agenda at every step in New Jersey. They’re for higher taxes, they’re for more government, and he stands in opposition to everything they stand for. Speaking of opportunism, I think they took the opportunity here when they thought they had a vulnerable moment to call for something. It’s never going to happen. There’s not going to be a recall.

Gate: So then on the campaign more generally, it seems like Trump is certainly winning on the path to the nomination. Mitt Romney spoke out against him earlier today, and the “Stop Trump” movement has gained some momentum. Do you think there’s anything that can stop Trump, and if so, what?

DuHaime: He can only stop himself at this point. I mean really I don’t know what he’s going to say at the debate tomorrow. The thing that frustrates me about the Stop Trump movement is they’re not getting behind anybody. In order to beat somebody, you have to beat them with somebody else. It’s not enough to be against somebody. Trump  campaigned all last year, and I’m sure the frustration that Marco Rubio and John Kasich are having right now is that even Mitt Romney said terrible things about Donald Trump, but did not say that you should go vote for either of them. He said they’d all be good, and so it’s just splitting up the vote. If people really wanted to stop Trump, they’d get behind one person, and you’re not seeing that.

More importantly, I think it’s too late. I think Trump could stop himself still, but as for them ganging up on Trump, I don't think there’s enough time for that. Several months ago probably would have been the time, so that somebody else could have come closer to him in New Hampshire, and then ultimately South Carolina. He won those states by double digits, which really put him on the path [to the nomination]. Had other people gotten behind somebodyI would have rather it had been Christiebut even if it had been Rubio or Kasich or Jeb Bush, there would have been a chance that somebody could have stopped him.

Gate: Does that mean that you would rather see someone like Rubio or Kasich instead of Trump as the nominee?

DuHaime: I like John Kasich a lot. I’m a big John Kasich fan . . . Speaking from frustration, I’m blissfully neutral right now in the race. I worked hard. My guy got out of the race three weeks ago, and I’m licking my wounds from having lost . . . I really like John Kasich a lot. I like Governor Jeb Bush a lot, but obviously Governor Christie was the one that I was closest to, so I was happy to be with him, and now I get to be a pundit. I get to be on TV shows and be an analyst, so less pressure is there to back someone.

Gate: Do you think there’s any way that the Republican Party can heal after this election and come back together?

DuHaime: I think so, but I’ll acknowledge that it’s not a sure thing. Usually, it’s a sure thing. Usually, people say bad things about each other, but they come back together. This campaign has definitely been a few notches higher in the intensity. It’s very rare that you’d see the previous nominee coming out and saying the same stuff that Mitt Romney said today about Donald Trump.I think that the party will come together, but I don’t know for sure. Usually, I know for sure. They’re going further with their criticism of each other on a personal level than we’re used to seeing.

Gate: If it is Trump vs. Hillary, who do you think wins a general election?

DuHaime: I don’t know, and I think for Republicans, Trump is a total x-factor. Our turnout is so much higher in all of the state primaries now. It looks kind of like the Democratic primaries in ’08 where the turnout was really through the roof. Trump is bringing out a lot of energy in people, and I think Democrats would be making a mistake to take him lightly just because of that. I really don’t know. It’s hard to predict. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six elections, so I think the advantage tends to go with the Democrats in a presidential election race. Since 1992, the Democrats have had this advantage. I think the advantage is still there, but by no stretch is it a slam-dunk. I think that Democrats would admit that Trump is a real x-factor that’s hard to predict.

Gate: Who do you think Trump will pick as his vice president, if he secures the nomination?

DuHaime: I have no idea. Somebody suggested John Kasich today. He’d obviously be a great choice. It’s a very personal decision for candidates when they make that. They want it to be someone who they know could do the job, and that’s kind of the first test, so we’ll see.

Gate: If it is Chris Christie, do you think he’ll take the vice presidential nomination?

DuHaime: Yeah, I can’t speak for him. I won’t speak for him on that. It’s a really personal decision as a sitting governor. That’ll be his call. I don’t even know if he’ll ask for advice [from me] on that one.

The image featured in this article was taken by Gage Skidmore. The original image can be found here


Adam Chan

Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals and Economics double major. This summer, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation. Previously he was an intern at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam was a Senior Writer in his first year and the Opinion Editor last year. On campus, Adam is also President of the UChicago Political Union, is Vice President of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.


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