By Jonathan Tamari
Inquirer Trenton Bureau
January 17, 2010

Christopher J. Christie was the last to arrive at the lunch, and waiting for him were five men and one woman who once held the job he is about to step into: governor of New Jersey.

There at the Short Hills Hilton were former Govs. Brendan T. Byrne, Thomas P. Kean, James J. Florio, Christine Todd Whitman, Donald DiFrancesco, and James E. McGreevey. With two exceptions – Richard J. Codey wasn’t there, and Gov. Corzine was out of the country – the small group included every living person who has been the top official in New Jersey for any substantial time.

Along with Codey and Corzine, they were the people who have run the state since Christie was 11.

“To realize that you’re a member of that group, it’s pretty amazing,” Christie, 47, said in an interview Friday, hours after the lunch gathering.

It was just one of the many reminders to Christie of how much his life changed when he won the governor’s race Nov. 3. The transition ends today when he is inaugurated in Trenton.

Christie has spent the time since Election Day preparing the mechanics of governance – assembling a staff, interviewing and nominating cabinet members, reviewing policy – but also mentally readying himself for the task ahead.

“It’s good that you have 11 weeks to get used to the idea,” he said. During a campaign, “you want to win, but that’s all theoretical.”

“All of a sudden you win, you’re going to be governor at a finite moment, and I think, somebody like me, that takes some getting used to,” Christie said in the interview at the Wolff & Samson law offices in West Orange.

He leaned back in his chair as he spoke, wearing a blue shirt with his initials, “CJC,” embroidered on the French cuffs.

The two-hour lunch, organized by Ruth Byrne, wife of Brendan Byrne, was cordial and laid-back, according to three of the former governors who attended. A similar gathering was arranged when Corzine was sworn in four years ago.

They traded stories – Christie talked about the campaign, Byrne lobbied for the importance of the Pinelands – and a bit of advice, though the governors agreed to keep the details private.

Days from taking office, Christie was “very self-assured, very confident,” Florio recalled.

Christie, as U.S. attorney, prosecuted a number of McGreevey allies, but he said the former governor was “great.”

“He was Jim McGreevey” – a renowned retail politician before he was felled by ethics and sex scandals. “He couldn’t be more friendly, he couldn’t be nicer,” Christie said.

The final days leading to today’s inauguration were spent with many of the kind of public duties and private preparation that Christie can expect in the next four years. There was Friday’s lunch, and a series of media interviews later that afternoon.

On Saturday, Christie spoke at the Trenton War Memorial – the site of today’s swearing-in – at a ceremony welcoming home National Guard members who recently returned from Iraq.

On Sunday, he hoped to watch some of the Jets game but spent much of the later part of the day in rehearsals.

Along the way, he assured his staff, he was finishing his inaugural speech.

The address will be part of a noon ceremony at the War Memorial. Christie’s day will start with an 8 a.m. Mass in Newark and end back in that city with a 6 p.m. cocktail reception at the Prudential Center.

Among the family and friends expected to join the celebration are 19 former U.S. attorneys, from states such as Alaska, California, Texas, and Alabama, said Christie.

He planned to have dinner with his former colleagues last night, and sounded honored by their presence.

Many of the trappings of the governor’s office already surround Christie. Security follows wherever he goes, even while taking his oldest son to school in the morning. The state police have set up a trailer outside his Mendham home, where he plans to continue living while governor, forgoing for the most part the chief executive’s official residence in Princeton, Drumthwacket.

He now has an hour-and-15-minute commute from his Morris County home to Trenton. He will be driven back and forth by state police, a provision, Christie joked, that will be better for everyone – a reference to his spotty driving record, exposed for political fodder during the campaign.

The commute and the job’s demands means Christie will miss most dinners with his four children. He expects that once a week, they and his wife will travel to Drumthwacket for dinner so they can enjoy a meal together.

After today, Christie plans to sign a number of executive orders, and later in the week he has time blocked out for reviewing the state budget. He hopes at some point to visit Camden with the city’s new mayor, Dana Redd. But in the new reality he is about to embrace, Christie said, he cannot be sure exactly when that will happen.

“My calendar,” he said, “is no longer my own.”