By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
A big name has jumped into the race for Alabama attorney general, but he’s not who you might think he is.
Chris Christie announced last week that he will be seeking Alabama’s top law enforcement post as a Democrat.
Christie — a former partner at Alabama’s largest law firm, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP — shares his name with the well-known, boisterous Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But Alabama’s Christie says there should be no confusing the two.
“There are always some negative associations with some other politician who is different from you,” Christie said. “But I think, in some ways, the confusion works to my advantage. When people recognize that there are two Chris Christies, they’re more likely to remember who I am.”
Alabama’s Christie worked at Bradley Arant for nearly 30 years, supervising dozens of attorneys and even more staff while handling high-profile trial cases. If elected as attorney general, it would be his first foray into politics.
“A year ago, people were talking about the fact that we had a governor who had been removed from office, a speaker of the House who had been convicted of a dozen felonies and a chief justice who had been removed from office,” Christie said. “People would ask why we can’t get good people to run. So instead of talking about it, I’m actually doing something.”
Christie qualified earlier this month to run for the post and is promising to tackle what he called rampant public corruption if he is elected later this year.
“With public corruption, if you don’t do something about it you can’t have good government,” Christie told the Alabama Political Reporter. “The technical issues are difficult, like the definition of principal, the fact that you can do campaign donations that aren’t identified through a PAC.”
While there are some improvements to the laws that need to be made, Christie said enforcing the laws that are already on the books should be the attorney general’s focus.
“That’s largely not happening,” Christie said.
In his first campaign ad, Christie said he would go after lobbyists and principals involved in public corruption, like those who were involved with former House Speaker Mike Hubbard. Under existing state ethics laws, those who hire lobbyists and lobbyists themselves are culpable for the same illegal acts as politicians.
“The people who had actually been involved in those crimes with them were not prosecuted,” Christie said in the Democratic Attorneys General Association ad. “Restoring faith in the people’s government in Alabama is going to take a while, but it starts, you’ve got to start, but it’s going to start with having someone who will actually prosecute the people in state government who’ve been putting themselves first and then putting their other buddies, the other Republicans second. And the people of Alabama aren’t even on that list.”
Changes to the ethics laws have been a hot topic in Montgomery since Hubbard’s conviction in 2016. Some lawmakers have pushed changes to clarify the laws while others have pushed changes that would weaken the definitions of principal and some that would even redefine what it means to be a lobbyist.
Hubbard’s case is currently on appeal before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
To become the attorney general, Christie will need to get past the Republican nominee. Attorney General Steve Marshall — who is running for his first full term since former Gov. Robert Bentley appointed him last year — former Deputy Attorney General and U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, former Attorney General Troy King and Birmingham Attorney Chess Bedsole have all announced their intent to seek the position as a Republican.
No other Democrats have announced any plans to run.
Democrats have been emboldened in Alabama following Sen. Doug Jones’ win in the Senate special election in December over Republican Roy Moore. But some structural obstacles remain. No Democrat has won a statewide election in Alabama since 2008 when Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, a household name, was elected as president of the Public Service Commission that year.
Jones’ election in December was the first time Alabama sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in a quarter century.
Christie says he isn’t worried, though, and was hopeful even before Jones’ historic victory.
“I’ve had some people ask me about running as a Republican,” Christie said. “But I’m not going to change who I am just to win an office. I’m going to stay the same Chris Christie I’ve always been.”
In a state with a strong advantage for Republicans, Christie — who’s never been on the ballot — could’ve easily ran on the GOP ticket if he wanted, but he couldn’t because there are a few things that make him a Democrat.
“The easy answer is I think helping people is the most important thing that you do,” Christie said. “Everything I do is based on my faith. When you look at what you’re supposed to do as a Christian, you’re told you’re supposed to love others.”
Christie pointed to what he says are specific instruction in Matthew 25.
“When you are trying to make a decision about if you’re really doing what you’re supposed to be doing as a Christian, you have to look at how you treat the least of these,” Christie said. “Those are identified as four groups of people: the poor, the sick, the stranger and the prisoner. Which party treats the least of these better?”
A Rhodes College alumnus, he went on to receive his law degree and master’s degree in public policy from Duke University before joining the United States Peace Corps in Cameroon. His experiences in the Peace Corps were his most formative, he said.
He taught for two years in the country’s capital at the University of Yaoundé School of Law and his wife worked at the country’s National Center for Rehabilitation.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Christie said. “It’s one of those experiences where you think you’re going to do things for people but it really changes you. You learn so much about yourself and about other people and about the world.”
He said he learned the value of standing up for people in the Peace Corps, in a country where poverty was widespread and systemic and those with disabilities or leprosy were left on the streets to beg for money and food to survive.
“You learned that you cannot help everyone,” Christie said. “The poverty we were exposed to in Cameroon was overwhelming and a lot of Peace Corps volunteers don’t last the two years because they just can’t deal with the overwhelming nature of some of the poverty.”
He and his wife stayed, though, and he helped start a wheelchair basketball league in the city, raising the money to buy the wheelchairs, build the court with government grants and buy basketballs.
“These kids had never had an activity where they could be a success,” Christie said. “You can’t solve all of the problems but you have to take those who need help and take responsibility for those you can help. You do the best you can.”
Christie left Bradley Arant at the end of last year to launch his campaign for AG, but while was there he chaired the law firm’s pro bono committee, represented the healthcare providers in lawsuits where the federal government claimed that the treating physicians’ subjective judgments were fraud because a government paid physician had a different opinion, and was listed as a Top 50 Attorney in Alabama by Super Lawyers.
He said that private experience will be invaluable as attorney general, where he will supervise more than 80 lawyers who represent Alabama in lawsuits and prosecute high-profile state cases.
“Most of the attorney general’s job is actually civil,” Christie said. “Most people don’t realize this but the main role as attorney general is making sure that the lawyers of the state of Alabama do what they’re supposed to do.”