Rolly: Chris Christie could learn from former Utah governor Matheson

By PAUL ROLLY

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: February 24, 2014 07:11AM
Updated: February 24, 2014 09:46AM
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Paul Rolly

The Bridgegate scandal that has unfolded over the past few months in New Jersey has been a classic case of finger pointing, denial and messenger bashing.

Gov. Chris Christie, whose presidential aspirations could hinge on the outcome of multiple investigations into the partial George Washington Bridge closure that shut down traffic in Fort Lee for four days, has denied any prior knowledge of those disastrous plans.

Several Christie confidants have been fired or resigned, including two Port Authority officials involved in the closure that kept people from going to work, children from getting to school and emergency responders from doing their jobs.

The initial description of the closure as a “traffic study” has been debunked and Christie still denies allegations he had the bridge closed to punish the Fort Lee mayor, a Democrat, for refusing to endorse his re-election bid.

But whether or not Christie was behind one of the dumbest policy moves in recent memory, one thing has always bothered me.

When this traffic monstrosity was occurring in his state and it was getting news coverage, wasn’t he even a little curious?

Thousands of New Jersey were suffering. Why didn’t he care?

I compare his complacency in the face of enormous inconvenience affecting thousands of his constituents to the attitude and actions of former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson during his state’s disastrous 1983 floods.

Matheson in early April of that year had had a heart attack and a doctor had ordered bed rest. Medical practitioners strongly advised him not to work while he recovered.

That didn’t stop him from constant telephone communication with his top aides as news reports showed Mother Nature’s assault on the state.

Several years of rainy seasons had compromised the stability of the mountains rimming the various communities in northern and central Utah. Mudslides began toppling expensive mountainside homes. Streambeds flooded, destroying millions of dollars of property.

The mother of all natural catastrophes occurred in mid-April when Billy’s Mountain collapsed into the Spanish Fork River, causing a dam that turned the nearby Utah County town of Thistle into a lake and left dozens of families homeless.

Matheson, arguing with doctors about his forced bed rest and rarely getting off the phone, already had requested through his aides relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help thousands of stricken Utahns.

Against doctors’ orders, he flew to the area where Thistle once stood. He held a press conference in a nearby cafe in the canyon downstream from the newly formed dam and assured Utahns that state officials, along with the feds, would do their best to ease their pain.

Unlike Christie, Matheson and his team did a heck of a job — heart attack or no heart attack.

And unlike Christie, he showed the people of his state that he genuinely cared.

prolly@slrib.com