Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far?

Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie’s likelihood of becoming president one day may have taken a serious dive Wednesday when evidence emerged that a member of his staff gave the order to effectively shut down the busiest bridge in the world, inconveniencing untold thousands of people, as a piece of political payback.

Seriously, the attack ads practically write themselves:

Open on two shadowy figures sitting in the back of a restaurant and talking, in accents straight out of The Sopranos, about taking revenge on a political opponent. “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” one of them says ominously. (That’s an actual quote from a Christie appointee.) Closing shot: Welcome to Chris Christie’s America.

The whole affair began in September, when, without explanation or warning, two out of three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and Manhattan, were shut down for four days in September, creating massive traffic jams in the town of Fort Lee, NJ, that hindered not just commuters, but emergency response vehicles, school buses, and more. 

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Christie, who cancelled his only scheduled public appearance Wednesday, released a statement in the afternoon placing the blame for the scandal squarely on his staff.

"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” the statement said. “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. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."

The issue apparently began during the run-up to the 2013 gubernatorial election, when Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, declined to endorse Christie. The governor and his staff repeatedly denied that the closure was politically motivated, claiming that it was part of a traffic study. But a steady drip-drip of information, including the resignation of both the official in charge of closing the bridge and his boss, a close Christie confidant, kept speculation alive. 

Emails released Wednesday appeared to justify the suspicion. They show Christie’s Deputy Chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, telling David Wildenstein, an executive with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the bridge, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

“Got it,” Wildenstein replied. 

Other emails show Christie loyalists gloating about the havoc the closure was causing in Sokolich’s town. When one expressed sympathy for the children stuck on school buses, another pointed out, “They are the children of Buono voters,” referring to Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono.

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The revelation could further cement Christie’s reputation for being a bully, which he has been trying to shed. But the real damage may be to his future political prospects. Christie clearly has his eye on the presidency. If the apparently vindictive bridge closure order proves to have come from Christie or with his knowledge it will show his willingness to take out his political anger on the citizens of the state he’s supposed to be governing and undoubtedly raise questions about his temperament and judgment - two things people naturally look for in a commander-in-chief.

And that doesn’t even touch the fact that Christie has apparently surrounded himself with staffers and political appointees dumb enough to put evidence of naked abuses of power in writing.

The Christie staff might benefit from the words of famous Boston ward boss Martin Lomasney, a man who knew a thing or two about strong-arm politics: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."

Follow Rob Garver on Twitter @rrgarver 

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