Democrats in New Jersey sharpened their aim at Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Monday, forming special legislative committees to explore the role politics played in traffic jams last fall and announcing that the investigation has grown into an abuse of power probe.
The intensifying investigation, which threatens to undermine Christie’s second term and his chances at a 2016 presidential run, revealed last week that high-ranking Christie aides and appointees were involved in ordering lane closings in September as apparent political payback that led to massive gridlock in the town of Fort Lee.
A new special Assembly committee, given subpoena power and a special counsel, will be charged with finding out how high the plot went up Christie’s chain of command, said a leading state Democrat, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald.
“It is clearly an abuse of power,” he said. “The question is, who abused their power and how high did it go?”
The committee will focus exclusively on the traffic jams in Fort Lee, whose mayor has said he believes the lanes were closed to punish him for not endorsing Christie. The panel will be chaired the head of the Assembly transportation committee who launched the initial investigation into the lane closings, John Wisniewski.
The state Senate announced that it planned to establish its own committee, also with subpoena power.
Christie has apologized over the lane closings but denied involvement. He also fired a top aide and cut ties with a political adviser who’d been widely seen as a potential campaign manager if Christie runs for president. Wisniewski said Monday that both of them could receive subpoenas soon.
Wisniewski also referred contempt charges against another Christie loyalist, David Wildstein, to a county prosecutor. A former Christie appointee to the Port Authority, Wildstein was subpoenaed to testify before lawmakers but invoked his right against self-incrimination.
The scandal widened last week when emails showing that, in addition to the apparent political retribution, the mayor of Fort Lee asked Christie’s top deputy at the agency whether the closings were a punishment for him and why.
The mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, told CNN last week he couldn’t recall “a specific request to endorse” from the campaign, though other events may be seen as an attempt to get his backing.
Sokolich shifted away from that assertion Monday, saying he did consider a request from the Christie campaign but ended up supporting the Democratic candidate. He declined to say why he changed his account.
The scandal has changed the tone of state politics.
Christie must figure out how to address it when he gives his State of the State address on Tuesday. His administration has not revealed what he might say, but certainly it will now have a bigger audience and announcements about tax cut plans will no longer be the most anticipated part. The same could be true at the governor’s inauguration for a second term next week, set to take place on Ellis Island, historically a gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants. The setting is meant to showcase Christie’s inclusiveness and ability to appeal to a broad swath of voters.