U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican running to become the next governor of Louisiana, said he sees New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as “a mentor,” despite any cloud of controversy that might hang over Christie in the wake of a bridge closure scandal in New Jersey.
“He is a strong, no-nonsense leader,” Vitter said, appearing alongside Christie at a campaign event held at a Baton Rouge brewery Tuesday night.
The Vitter campaign event marked one of Christie’s first public appearances since Friday, when two of his political allies were indicted and a third pleaded guilty on charges that they conspired to close lanes of the George Washington Bridge as an act of political retribution against a Christie opponent. Christie appeared earlier Tuesday in Mississippi for a campaign event alongside Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.
Asked in Baton Rouge about the bridge-closing scandal, Christie maintained that his hands are clean in the case and said he would be willing to testify in court.
“I had absolutely nothing to hide and have told the truth,” Christie said. “We have been shown to be telling the truth -— right from the beginning.”
Vitter, who faces two other Republicans and a Democrat in the Oct. 24 election, said he didn’t hesitate to host Christie amid the controversy.
“I’m honored and humbled by his support in my candidacy, and I’m really excited to have him here,” Vitter said.
But some political opponents were naturally critical of the duo’s close ties on Tuesday.
“David Vitter has been in the Senate for 10 years, with nothing to show for it but obstructionism and failure. It’s no surprise that he’s embracing Gov. Christie, whose failures in New Jersey mirror the GOP budget disaster here in Louisiana,” state Democratic Party executive director Stephen Handwerk said in a statement. “For GOP politicians like Vitter, (Louisiana Gov. Bobby) Jindal and Christie, there’s no distinction when it comes to how their broken policies have hurt their constituents and failed their state.”
Vitter faces Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards in the gubernatorial race to replace Jindal, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election. A Nov. 21 runoff will be held between the top two candidates, if none takes more than 50 percent of the vote in October.
Christie, who is considering a run for president in 2016 but has made no formal announcement, vowed to return to Louisiana to campaign for Vitter in the coming months.
Both Christie and Vitter have had reportedly lukewarm-to-icy relationships with Jindal, another Republican who is flirting with a presidential run and who has, so far, declined to endorse anyone in the battle to succeed him here.
That made Vitter’s description of looking to Christie “as a mentor” more striking, coupled with subtle digs at Jindal’s administration, which is in the midst of a budget crisis as the state faces a $1.6 billion funding shortfall in the coming year.
“We all know we have plenty of problems, plenty of challenges,” Vitter told the crowd, as more than 100 supporters sipped local Tin Roof beer and ate boiled crawfish and jambalaya.
Christie and Vitter said they met at a Republican Governors Association event in November. Christie, a former RGA chairman, has been a popular figure on the Republican gubernatorial campaign trail in recent years.
“I immediately knew we were on the same wavelength and had so much in common,” Vitter said. “He leads the way you need to lead — with strong conventions, and I immediately sensed that when we sat down.”
“I’m proud to look to his leadership and example,” Vitter added.