There is hardly another way to look at it: New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie, the leading contender in the wide field of Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls, is jammed. A political scandal over heavy traffic sparked by lane closures that is rapidly engulfing him and his administration in the state capital Trenton could put an end to his national ambitions.
Want proof? While, not surprisingly, Democrats fired at Christie from all sides, not a single Republican big-wig came to his defense. Nobody. It seemed like in the offices of his many intra-party rivals, strategists were rubbing their hands with glee. “Let him be toast!”
After issuing a written statement and otherwise staying out of the growing public storm on Wednesday, Christie gave a two-hour press conference on Thursday in which he apologized to the people in New Jersey in general and to the people in Fort Lee in particular. “I am embarrassed, humiliated, blindsided and sad”, he said repeatedly, because close aides had lied to him.
What happened? For four days in September 2013, several lanes onto the busy George Washington Bridge that connects Manhattan to Fort Lee, New Jersey, were shut down, officially as part of a “traffic study” scheduled by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency. The “study” created monster traffic jams and basically transformed Fort Lee into a giant parking lot.
But it was more than an inconvenience for local and drive-thru traffic. According to local newspaper reports, emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations. One involved an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest and another, a car accident, in which four people were injured.
What followed were a public uproar and an investigation by a state panel. Democrats alleged that Christie’s appointees at the Port Authority caused the traffic jam as an act of retaliation against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie in the governor’s bid for re-election last November.
At first, Christie downplayed the traffic chaos and scoffed at reporters and legislators who asked questions. Christie has a track record of publicly dressing down unloved journalists and political opponents. But by mid-December, the governor took it more seriously and felt compelled to deny any wrongdoing. However, his two top appointees at the Port Authority resigned that month. On Wednesday, emails from within the Christie administration were made public that sent shockwaves through New Jersey – and whose effects were even felt in Washington, DC.
The emails clearly show that Christie’s people engineered the lane closures that were behind the mayhem in the Fort Lee area. The communications also show a high degree of disrespect and gleeful condescendence for the people in the heavily Democratic Fort Lee area, to put it mildly.
In one email from August 2013, Christie’s deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, responded: “Got it.” Kelly was fired by Christie on Thursday, Wildstein had resigned in December.
Also released was the following email conversation between two unidentified persons, commenting on the traffic chaos:
Person 1: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?”
Person 2: “No.”
Person 1: “I feel badly about the kids … I guess.” (A reference to children who were late at school.)
Person 2: “They are children of Buono voters.” (A reference to Christie’s Democratic opponent in the 2013 gubernatorial race, Barbara Buono.)
What also nurtured the idea that the lane closures could have been politically motivated was an email from Christie’s then-campaign manager Bill Stepien to the aforementioned Wildstein, apparently about Fort Lee’s mayor: “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian.” (The mayor is actually of Croatian descent.)
All of a sudden, Christie’s self-displayed image of a dynamic politician who gets things done, can reach out across the aisle and work with an overwhelming Democratic majority in the state legislature seemed to give way to another persona: Christie as a bully, a small-state petty politician and wheeler-dealer.
When Christie answered a reporter’s question at Thursday’s press conference, saying “I am not a bully”, many in the room felt reminded of Richard Nixon’s now infamous Watergate one-liner “I am not a crook.”
Whether Christie can weather the political storm, remains to be seen. On Thursday he categorically denied any knowledge of and involvement in the lane-closing scheme. In the meantime, the US Attorney for New Jersey is going to open an investigation in addition to the ongoing probe conducted by the New Jersey Transportation Committee. The matter will not go away any time soon, now that the national press and even international media have started digging into it – to the dismay of Christie’s fans and the joy of his Republican rivals.