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What does Trenton Democrats’ move on O’Dowd records mean?

TRENTON - When Democrats went looking for records about possible political shenanigans involving Sandy cleanup contracts, they asked for correspondence from everyone they could: Gov. Christie's "chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff, unit directors, and their secretaries."

TRENTON - When Democrats went looking for records about possible political shenanigans involving Sandy cleanup contracts, they asked for correspondence from everyone they could: Gov. Christie's "chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff, unit directors, and their secretaries."

Democrats hope to chip away at Christie's greatest political strength in his reelection campaign - his handling of Sandy - by questioning whether the Republican governor gave a lucrative cleanup deal to a politically connected company, AshBritt.

The request for e-mails and other correspondence, filed by an attorney for the state Senate Democrats, was to help bolster the Democrats' allegations of pay-to-play in advance of a high-profile hearing with the head of AshBritt.

But four days after the records request was filed in February with the Governor's Office, Democrats withdrew it. A new request was submitted that was identical - except that it omitted Christie's chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd.

Why would Democrats suddenly lose interest in Christie's right hand in the Governor's Office? Why would they appear to pull punches on what is supposed to be a key issue to slam Christie?

It had seemed as though the state's top elected Democrat, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), was gunning for Christie on this issue. He personally had called the hearings to question Florida disaster-recovery firm AshBritt on its lobbying practices and political donations, and he was in the room when the testimony began at the first hearing on March 8.

But it was Sweeney's office that softened the document request.

Sweeney referred questions to a spokesman, Chris Donnelly, who said the "chiefs of staff" line was cut out "to simplify the process in order to get it moving faster."

"We believe this helped result in acquiring more information," which, in turn, assisted legislators in grilling AshBritt officials, he said.

Christie's office noted that the question over the change in the request was moot because there were no records from O'Dowd to be obtained.

Indeed, a request from The Inquirer for correspondence involving O'Dowd was returned by the Governor's Office in nine days, saying no such records exist. O'Dowd, the office contends, neither sent nor received any written communication about storm-cleanup contracts.

O'Dowd is a longtime confidant of the governor, dating to Christie's days as U.S. attorney for New Jersey. He began in the Governor's Office as deputy chief counsel and has been involved in negotiations on key state issues, including the controversial reorganization of the higher-education system last year. His wife, Mary, is the state health commissioner.

Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University and an expert on the inside dealings of state government, called pulling the document request "absolutely bizarre."

"It makes no sense to [request documents from] the entire organization and exclude the individual who has the closest relationship with the governor," she said.

Democrats have sought to know more about how AshBritt got a contract expected to be worth $150 million. They have pointed to donations AshBritt made to the Republican Governors Association days after the storm and a fund-raiser an AshBritt lobbyist held for Christie in February.

On the day his office submitted the revised documents request, Sweeney called on elected officials not to take campaign donations from AshBritt.

But Christie has pushed back on accusations of impropriety, saying AshBritt was hired based on merit and nothing else. He has said the company had gotten only kudos from the areas where it has operated.

Long before Sandy, Christie and Sweeney have shown an ability to disagree in public but to work together behind the scenes. Christie often refers to that bipartisanship in speeches.

Christie has enacted landmark policies with key help from Sweeney, and Sweeney has supported major initiatives such as Christie's takeover of Camden schools. Last week, Christie signed a Sweeney bill to hire "integrity monitors" to oversee Sandy cleanup spending.

But they also fight: Sweeney publicly cursed the governor in 2011 after Christie made deep cuts to social programs, and earlier this year, Sweeney accused Christie of "praying" for a storm like Sandy so rebuilding would spur job growth. (He then apologized.)

Now, Christie is running for reelection against likely nominee State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who has the most to gain from any dent in the governor's Sandy armor.

She has blasted Christie for his connections to AshBritt, and at the legislative hearing, she aggressively questioned AshBritt's chief executive officer about his lobbying practices and communication with Christie and his staff.

Sweeney and Buono may be fellow Democrats, but they have had a strained relationship. In 2011, Sweeney bounced Buono from a legislative leadership position. Sweeney considered making his own run for governor before endorsing Buono.

On the other hand, Sweeney and Christie have had long one-on-one dinners. They regularly text each other. Last week, Sweeney called Christie on his cellphone while Christie was on the 101.5FM radio show Ask the Governor.

"Steve, I'm on Ask the Governor right now," Christie said into his cellphone. "Turn on the radio and listen, would you? 'Cause I said nice things about you. All right, I'll see you later. Bye-bye."

After Christie hung up, he said: "There you go, ladies and gentlemen, your government at work. People who say there's not bipartisanship and cooperation, there's Steve Sweeney calling."

That bipartisanship and cooperation will likely be tested as further legislative hearings on Sandy are held - and possibly more documents requested - in this election year.