THERE MAY be another toll taken over the George Washington Bridge in the near future, and it’s got nothing to do with any of the 276,000 vehicles that cross that span between New York and New Jersey every day.
Chris Christie, the mercurial New Jersey Republican governor at least contemplating a run for the White House in 2016, is under growing fire for what may or may not be his role in a traffic nightmare that briefly snarled the lives of citizens in a New Jersey town, catching them up in a still-unresolved gridlock mystery possibly motivated as much by political mischief as anything else.
The ensuing fallout has reached Washington; as the matter unravels, the governor may find any planned route from New Jersey to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could be a lot more complicated than he thinks.
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The lane closures happened a few weeks after Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, refused to join the wave of endorsers for Christie’s re-election as governor — a race Christie won handily, as widely expected.
The closures were ordered by David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a former Christie high school friend. Wildstein was paid $150,000 per year.
Wildstein’s supervisor was Bill Baroni, the Port Authority deputy executive director, pulling down a handsome $291,000 a year, according to the Washington Post.
Both have since resigned their positions. Curious.
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Before he resigned, Baroni, a former state senator, said the lane closures were part of a traffic study. This was apparently big news to Patrick Foye, the Port Authority executive director, who said he had no knowledge of any spot study of traffic on the lanes leading to the busiest vehicle bridge on the planet.
In a press conference, Christie said he accepted the explanations of the two officials who quit their jobs on his behalf. Christie said that, while he admitted his two former roadway lieutenants may have exceeded their (port) authority, it didn’t mean there were any malign political motivations behind what they did.
“I can only tell you what Sen. Baroni has said publicly and to everybody in this office, which is they believed the traffic study was necessary and that they ordered it, but the way they did it was mistaken and they didn't follow protocols,” Christie said.
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NONE OF which has satisfied Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Commerce Committee. In a letter to the Port Authority, which runs the GWB, Rockefeller expressed concern “about the larger federal implications of what appears to be political appointees abusing their power to hamper interstate commerce and safety without public notice.”
Rockefeller sent another letter Monday, calling for the U.S. Department of Transportation to expand its role in overseeing the Port Authority. “I ask that you review the events of this incident and examine the Department's authority to ensure oversight of the agency to prevent future disruptions,” the senator wrote to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
“We’re accustomed to port authorities who don’t think that accountability is part of their job, or that they have to report to anybody in the world, even though we have complete oversight over them,” Rockefeller told the New York Daily News on Tuesday. “And this appears to be another one of those examples.”
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Depending, of course, on where Rockefeller’s call for a wider investigation leads, this may not have traction for voters much beyond the east coast.
And that’s the problem for Christie: He may not have traction beyond the east coast, either. Despite the moving images of Christie with President Obama surveying the damage of Hurricane Sandy last year (on the eve of the 2012 election), and his face gracing the cover of Time magazine twice in one year, not that much about Christie as a presidential hopeful — his policy prescriptions, what he brings to the table besides Joisey attitude — has really resonated across the nation.
He’s been optically characterized as a moderate Republican, but that’s only in contrast with those more extreme members of his party, the ones on Capitol Hill howling for red meat every chance they get. Christie’s still something of an unknown quantity. This traffic tie-up won’t help.
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TO THE degree that he is known nationally, there’s a sense that Christie can be something of a bully, wantonly pugnacious, confrontational by default even when he’s in the right. It’s a style of rule that might play when he’s hard by the New Jersey Turnpike. Other places in America? Not so much.
That perception didn’t come out of nowhere. The New York Daily News reported in March 2012 how Christie laid into William Brown, a former Navy SEAL, calling the veteran an “idiot” at a New Jersey town hall meeting. The two had reportedly clashed over Christie’s plans to merge two public universities.
Brown, a law school student at Rutgers-Camden, and someone who opposed the proposed merger of his school with Rowan University, expressed concerns that Christie’s plan would damage the value of his degree. Christie began an explanation and Brown — a little rudely, it must be said — interrupted the governor. Christie went off.
"Let me tell you something, after you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end is going to be thrown in jail, idiot," Christie shouted as Brown left — led away by police. “I had two cops holding my arms,” he said later. “I served my country, I am a combat veteran and they escorted me out like I was a criminal. I couldn’t believe this is America.”
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New Jersey state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said as much Monday to The Washington Post. “Do I think Governor Christie called the Port Authority and said, ‘Close lanes!’? No,” Weinberg said. “But do I think he’s helped to create an atmosphere where his political operatives think they’re free to use the biggest bridge in the world for punitive action against somebody? I have to believe that it has to do with politics, because there is no other rational explanation for it.”
If Wildstein acted on orders from Christie directly or indirectly, the problem for the governor is obvious. But even if Wildstein didn’t, by implication it’s a bad reflection on Christie’s managerial style. It would point to a chief executive in the dark about the actions of his subordinates, maybe even willfully blind to what those subordinates are doing at any given time. Not exactly the captain-at-the-helm persona that a possible presidential contender wants to put before the public.
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HOWEVER IT turns out, the bridge episode tarnishes the Christie narrative. “It undercuts his key argument that he’s a straight shooter,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin, to The Washington Post. “It highlights the worst about his bombast and his condescension.”
Mo Elleithee, the Democratic National Committee communications director, agrees.
“Governor Christie’s condescension and swagger might be amusing to the late night talk show crowd, but now that he’s looking to play on the national stage, he needs to realize that the rest of us don’t find it charming,” Elleithee said in a Dec. 9 statement, as reported by The Record. “These are serious questions about the Christie Administration’s actions and conduct – insulting those asking questions won’t make them go away.”
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Even Christie’s reaction to the Fort Lee incident suggests that he didn’t take it seriously. After it was first revealed, Christie made light of the whole thing. “Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there,” the governor joked at a news conference on Dec. 2. “I was the guy working the cones.”
For anyone trying to get from Fort Lee into Manhattan on any of the four gridlocked days in September — doctors, lawyers, EMTs, students, people with heart conditions, anyone with something important to do — it certainly wasn’t a laughing matter.
It’s not a laugher to John Wisnieswki, either. The New Jersey Assemblyman has subpoenaed all correspondence between Christie, Foye, Wildstein and Baroni — the better, apparently, to get answers to the Watergate-era question of what the principal parties knew and when they knew it. The officials have until Thursday to respond, according to NJ.com, reporting on Monday.
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SOME REPUBLICAN strategists think the whole thing is being deliberately overplayed by Democrats, many of whom consider Christie the strongest likely challenger to a presidential run by Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state.
Those strategists need to look somewhere else. Right now they should be more concerned with the man who would be president. Already regarded as a governor with a reputation for bare-knuckled rhetoric and a short fuse with the press, Christie’s now susceptible to the perception that he’s prone to Nixonian machinations.
Irony dead ahead: The damage they think will be done to Christie by the Democrats is well on the way to being done by Christie himself.
Image credits: Anti-Christie ad: Correct the Record (arm of American Bridge SuperPAC). Baroni: Trentonian/Gregg Slaboda. Rockefeller: public domain. George Washington Bridge: via Wikipedia. Christie Time cover: © 2013 Time Inc. George Washington Bridge lane closure: Jen Brown/The Star-Ledger.