Thursday, January 9, 2014

Stonewall bridge II: No road to the White House



CHRISTOPHER JAMES CHRISTIE, the Republican governor of New Jersey, is in trouble. A traffic jam on the access lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge may have gridlocked his plans to achieve the presidency of the United States. Permanently.

The fallout from the closure of three of four lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest span, was previously thought to be not much more than a cheeky example of passive-aggressive overreach by zealous state functionaries, rogue operators doing what they thought was a favor of political payback for the governor.

But in the last 24 hours, a number of e-mail smoking guns have been obtained by the media, correspondence that lays responsibility for the massive traffic tie-up between Fort Lee, N.J., and New York City inside the governor’s office.

Up until now, Christie, the combative governor considering a run for the White House in 2016, has made light of the situation. “I was the guy working the [traffic] cones,” the governor joked at a news conference on Dec. 2.

Now, it turns out, the cones may be working him.

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Between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13, drivers trying to get into Manhattan by the George Washington Bridge on any of three access lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., had to contend with those lanes being closed with no warning. The lane closure leading onto the bridge backed traffic up onto Fort Lee's local roads, outraging commuters and snarling city services.

The lane closures happened 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 new e-mails in question were obtained by the media by way of David Wildstein, a former director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a Christie high school friend. Wildstein provided them after being subpoenaed by John Wisnieswki, the New Jersey Assemblyman who has subpoenaed all correspondence between state lawmakers on the matter.

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OF ALL the e-mail exchanges between all the officials involved in this widening political disaster, none may be more ultimately damaging to Christie’s current administration and his aspirations for higher office than the first one, an exchange between Wildstein and Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, an e-conversation that tells the tale of an apparently willful act of payback like nothing else could.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote from her Yahoo account at 7:34 a.m. on Aug. 13, three weeks before the lane closures took place.

Wildstein’s reply, one minute later via his Gmail account: “Got it.”


Another e-mail, from Wildstein to Kelly on Sept. 7, two days before the traffic snafu began, is highly suggestive of a plan for disaster. “I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes.”

The full chain of e-mails, many of them heavily redacted, was obtained by the NorthJersey.com Web site, of the Bergen Record. But it’s these two messages that appear to show a deliberate plan to orchestrate a four-day commuter nightmare on the access lanes leading to the busiest bridge in the world.

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WHAT I’VE seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge,” Christie said in a boilerplate-outrage statement released at 4:29 p.m., hours after the e-mails were first disclosed.

It was to be expected. Christie clearly transmits the notion that he’s shocked, shocked to find his subordinates acting so recklessly. But here’s the thing: Gov. Christie ends up sideways on this matter, no matter how it turns out.

At the very least, the GWB affair means that an assertive, hands-on governor with presidential pretensions is leading a staff over which he has no control, which badly tarnishes his reputation as a leader. At the very worst, it means that this governor is all too ready to engage in mendacious, Nixonian tactics as a way of exacting political retribution ... which tarnishes his biography even more, and trashes his hopes for gaining the presidency of the United States.

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The gravity of the situation deepens further with the disclosure that the four days of orchestrated chaos near the George Washington Bridge may have led to tragedy.

The Bergen Record reported on Wednesday that paramedics were delayed in getting to four emergency medical situations on Sept. 9, including one involving a 91-year-old woman who was unconscious, and who later died of cardiac arrest.

Although her death may or may not have been caused by the traffic delays, EMS coordinator Paul Favia told Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, in a letter obtained by the Record that “paramedics were delayed due to heavy traffic on Fort Lee Road and had to meet the ambulance en-route to the hospital instead of on the scene.”

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MSNBC’s CHRIS Hayes had Wednesday’s best interview get when he talked with Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, who offered his reaction to events of last September.

“From the moment this happened we went through an absolute incessant, tireless effort to contact someone at the Port Authority…We called, I think, 20, 30 times, 40 times,” Sokolich told Hayes. “It was maddening, because we had families that were looking for emergency services to respond to 911 calls. ... we had other problems with police, there was somebody who was missing ... we had thousands of kids that were late for the first day of school ... it was maddening.”

Responding to Hayes’ inevitable question — “how far up do you think this goes?” — a classy Sokolich took the high road, refusing to name names. “I’m not here to speculate, nor will I speculate ... But I will tell you the credibility level is getting reduced and reduced and reduced as this story continues to move on.”

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The nagging matter of credibility issue isn’t geographically confined. “This is not a Fort Lee issue, this is a regional issue,” Sokolich told Hayes. Only it’s wider than that, too. This is a national concern.

With Christie all but anointed the presumptive frontrunner for 2016, his current problems have serious repercussions for a political party that’s desperate to rebrand its hideous image and widen its appeal. This won’t help a bit.

Christie, who was never more than a cosmetic Republican moderate to begin with, made the most of an optical coup walking with President Obama amid the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which hammered New Jersey right before the 2012 election.

And he’s parlayed a reputation as a no-nonsense chief executive of the Garden State, and the state’s relatively strong economy, into a position as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association ... and the mainstream Republican Party’s object of presidential desire.

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FOX NEWS Chairman Roger Ailes has been high on Christie for about three years. Once, before the 2012 election, he said flat-out that “I want to elect the next president.” Back then, he all but begged Christie to run for the White House; he probably felt that way last year too. And this year ... right up until yesterday.

Now it’s all different. Now Christie’s like all the others. A scandal has exploded. E-mails reveal a dialogue that’s more than incidental. And the actions of at least some people in his office may have had a role in the death of a woman in New Jersey.

If Roger Ailes wants to elect the next president, he might want to talk to Roger Ailes. At this juncture, almost three years out from the next presidential derby, he’s got a better chance of being president than Chris Christie does.

Image credits: George Washington Bridge aerial: Via MSNBC. Christie: AP/Ralph Freso. NorthJersey.com logo: © 2014 North Jersey Media Group. Sokolich: MSNBC.

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