This story was reported in collaboration with our partners at Patch.com.
Chris Christie was in a rush to get from his son's baseball game in Montvale, N.J. to Princeton -- but his decision on Tuesday to skip the hour-and-a-half car ride in exchange for a state police helicopter may have national political implications.
Christie apparently did not use the helicopter for state business; instead, he wanted to get back to the governor's mansion for a meeting with Iowa donors hoping he'll run for president.
Those donors did not succeed in swaying Christie from his previously stated reluctance to enter the presidential fray. They may have succeeded, however, in creating an anti-Christie talking point: Such trips are often used as political ammo.
In 2002, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey took a public drumming for his use of the state helicopter on more than a dozen unofficial trips.
At the time, New Jersey's Republican chairman, Joseph Kyrillos, Jr., called McGreevey's behavior "outrageous":
Governor McGreevey declared a state budget crisis, cut funding to our schools and raised our property taxes, and then actually spent tens of thousands of tax dollars on personal extravagances like luxury hotel accommodations, a chauffeured Mercedes, private helicopter rides and even a family reunion in Ireland.
In the wake of that contretemps, McGreevey's elected successor, Jon Corzine, "always" paid for private helicopters, according to his chief of staff at brokerage firm MF Global, Joshua Zeitz.
Zeitz told the Wall Street Journal that Christie's recent helicopter use was "entirely inappropriate, and probably illegal," which Christie's spokesman disputed.
"It is hard to see how using state funds for personal reasons and then for political reasons would not be illegal here," added Mary Boyle, the vice president of communications for Common Cause. "At best, on its face it appears highly inappropriate. At worst, we struggle to see how this could be legal."
Patch reported that State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes had defended the flight in a release, saying such a trip would have happened with or without the governor to familiarize pilots with the relatively new helicopter.
"There is no additional cost to taxpayers or the State Police budget, nor is there any interference with our daily mission by adding the state's chief executive to any of these trips. Any flights transporting the Governor would be subordinated to priority needs for our aircraft including rescue and emergent law enforcement missions," Fuentes said.
Regardless of the legality of the helicopter ride, such use of elite, executive-level travel has a long history of besmirching politicians' reputations. Sarah Palin played on anti-elitist sentiments when she defeated then-Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski in the state's Republican gubernatorial primary. Former Acting Governor Jane Swift, a Republican in Massachusetts, was likewise ridiculed for using a state helicopter for personal travel.
Christie himself has taken heat for travel expenses during his tenure as a U.S. attorney in New Jersey. A Justice Department inspector general report said he was one of five attorneys who had engaged in a "pattern of abuse" of staying at expensive hotels on taxpayers' dime. At the time, his spokesman said Christie only used luxury hotels when other rooms were unavailable.
New Jersey Democrats were quick to criticize Christie for his helicopter use.
Just as Republicans mocked McGreevey in 2002, New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski lambasted Christie's trip in a statement and chipped in a dig at his attempt "to to look presidential for his wealthy Iowa contributors."
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) told Patch she had a "real problem" with the chopper cruise.
"I've gone in my lifetime to plenty of school games, dance recitals, you name it, and like any other parent or grandparent, I sat in traffic and I paid for it myself," Weinberg said.
UPDATE (5:15 p.m. EST): A New Jersey state police spokesman told Bloomberg that the flight, which lasted an hour, cost $2,500. But that flight would have occurred anyways as part of training for the new helicopter, the state police superintendent said earlier.
Bergen County Republican Organization Chair Robert Yudin told Patch that the criticism of the flight is "just the Democrats politicizing, showing that they have nothing they can say about the governor."
"There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about the chief executive of the state of New Jersey -- who is on duty 24/7 -- using the helicopter to catch some of his son's baseball game," said Yudin.
Tim Hagle, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, told HuffPost that he believes many Republican voters might agree. Christie used the helicopter to meet with potential campaign supporters from Iowa who would like him to enter the presidential race.
"Going to your son’s baseball game might still not go over very well with some folks, but others will likely cut him more slack," Hagle said in an email. He also noted that "there are often good reasons for special travel arrangements for high elected officials."
"I doubt that one ride in a helicopter will hurt Christie’s standing among Iowa GOP caucus-goers," said Hagle.
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